Wood Canyon Adventure

Want to feel like you’ve stumbled into an old Indiana Jones movie? A rugged cliff-top trail reaches south from Chitina along the Copper River into the gorge of Wood Canyon—offering access to three creeks, the ruins of an old trestle, a historic train tunnel and, finally, a sandy beach suitable for camping. The 7.5-mile route mostly follows the historic right-of-way for the Copper River & Northwestern Railway, which operated from 1911 to 1938 between Cordova and the copper mines at Kennecott.

Along the way, you’ll find dozens of harrowing paths leading from pullouts and cliff-edge campsites to fishing holes used by dipnetters trying to harvest Copper River salmon. For those driving ATVs, this narrow, one-lane route—no longer maintained by the state—can be challenging, with landslides and stray boulders on the roadway, plus overgrown brush and steep approaches at O’Brien, Eskalida and Haley creeks. As a hiking or mountain biking route, though, it’s relatively easy, even exhilarating, with tremendous views. You’ll feel like a pioneer.

Note: The route is centered on a public right-of-way. But most land outside of the right-of-way is owned by Ahtna Native Corp or Chitina Native Corp. User fees may be required for access.

Best viewing spots & details

  • Take the O’Brien Creek Road south from Chitina about 2.8 miles to a parking area on the gravel fan where the creek empties into the Copper River. Over the last quarter mile or so, portions of the one-lane road hug a cliff. The final descent to the creek is harrowing and very steep and probably requires AWD or high-clearance vehicles. (Consider parking any regular car in a turnaround somewhere after Mile 2 or so, and walk the rest of the way.)
  • The clear O’Brien Creek serves as a staging area for both independent dipnetters and local charter boat operators. Foot access to the river and parking above mean high water require a $15 fee for each vehicle (a party of four) paid to the private Chitina Native Corp. Very limited free parking exists. People camp here and explore the gravel bars, but it can be busy during dipnetting season from June through early August.
  • An ATV bridge too narrow for regular vehicles leads south across the creek, with the trail climbing steeply up to the former railroad route. From here, the trail continues another five miles to Haley Creek. Except for the steep approaches at Eskalida Creek and the last descent to Haley, the route follows the former railroad grade.
  • Highlights: Watch for overlooks of Wood Canyon and views of Spirit Mountain to the southeast. Part of an old trestle for the bridge over Eskalida still stands—the trail winds beneath it as it fords the creek. Descending to the river in the canyon can be hazardous and require down-climbing boulders or using chute-like paths. The hissing, silt-saturated river is cold and dangerous in a primeval way, roiling with whirlpools and hay-stacking bulges. An old train tunnel penetrates bedrock about four miles south.
  • A lot people might be around during dipnetting season, especially on sunny weekends in June and July. But if you go outside of fishing season, you might have the whole route to yourself. So be self-sufficient and prepared for a backcountry trip. Be alert for brown bears munching on salmon carcasses discarded at the creeks.

For more information

Getting There

Coordinates
Latitude: 61.5026643
Longitude: -144.4876205

Chitina is located at the end of the Edgerton Highway on the west bank of the Copper River near the confluence with the Chitina River, just across from the western highway entrance to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Set aside about five hours if driving from Anchorage. Go northeast on the Glenn Highway about 180 miles to Glennallen, then south on the Richardson Highway about 32 miles to the junction with the Edgerton Highway. (About 82 miles north of Valdez.) The village is about 33 miles further, at the junction with the McCarthy Road into the park and the O’Brien Creek Road leading south toward Wood Canyon of the Copper River.