To enter Copper River Country means entering the heart of the renowned Copper River watershed, one of the world’s few remaining salmon strongholds and home to our largest national park, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve. From the Richardson Highway, the Tok Cut-off, or the Edgerton Highway, you can see the mighty glacial river churning its way south as it carves a canyon through the Chugach Mountains before draining into the Gulf of Alaska. The expansive Copper River basin lies a few hours north of Anchorage, or you can enter by coming south on the Richardson Highway from Fairbanks or the Tok Cut-off from the Al-Can Highway.
Creating Your Itinerary
Spend three to seven days exploring the rivers, trails, museums, state campgrounds, mud volcanoes, and the historic mining town of Kennicott as you travel by story through this sprawling river system. Eight signs will guide you through the Copper River watershed landscape. See if you can visit all eight signs on your tour through this upper watershed basin formed by the ancient, glacial Lake Atna!
Allow 3.5 hours to reach Glennallen from Anchorage. From Glennallen, you can explore the Copper River basin by white water rafting, scenic drives to view the Wrangell Mountains, and flight seeing for a spectacular view of the Wrangell Mountains and their glaciers.
2 days: Follow the upper Copper River and explore trails off the Nabesna Road in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.
On the Tok Cut-off, you’re in the uppermost reaches of the Copper River watershed, following the river’s headwaters. These are the farthest north streams where the renowned Copper River salmon spawn, producing Alaska’s greatest renewable resource. Allow a day to travel the Tok Cut-off as you follow the upper Copper River. You could explore the hiking trails off the Nabesna Road in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, or go for an afternoon paddle on the Slana River. Listen to Slana homesteaders tell their story of settling the last homestead land in the U.S., and to an account of Ahtna story-telling traditions from the nearby Native villages.
2 Days: Take in spectacular mountain scenery traveling a historic mining trail
What was started as the Valdez to Eagle pack trail worn by destitute prospectors in the Klondike gold rush of 1898 became Alaska’s first road. Even with biting temperatures, travel was easier in the winter with horse and dog-sleds rather than in the summer, when wagons would sink in deep mud and travelers were attacked by mosquitoes. When a telegraph line was added to the trail in 1903, this wilderness path became an important route to the Interior. In 1910, overseen by U.S. Army Captain Wilds P. Richardson, the footpath was upgraded to a wagon road.
Today, along the way you can track the route of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, visit a historic roadhouse, and look for moose (especially to the north, around Delta Junction) and bison among the spectacular mountain scenery of the Wrangell Mountains. Activities available include visiting Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the Ahtna Heritage Center, the Ashby Memorial Museum (mining and area history), whitewater rafting, glacier hiking and viewing, and lake and river fishing.
1 day: Hiking, camping, and taking in the heroic construction effort behind the Copper River & Northwestern Railroad train route to McCarthy and Kennecott.
Descending the Edgerton Highway, you’ll dip from plateau to plateau, tracing the receding shoreline of the ancient Lake Atna that once filled the Copper River valley, 15,000 years ago. The 33 mile Edgerton Highway travels the north side of the Chugach Mountains, and passes through Chitina, where you can view fish wheels that scoop up Copper River salmon, as you make your way along the former train route to the mining towns of McCarthy and Kennecott.
Stop here for a bathroom break and stretch your legs by the creek. Little creeks drain into bigger creeks and create bigger rivers. Learn how the waters in this small creek make their way to the Gulf of Alaska.
This is a privately maintained trail. It is located 14 miles west of Glennallen at the Tolsona Wilderness Campground, at mile 173 on the Glenn Highway. Hikers who are not registered campers are asked to pay a fee of $5 per vehicle.
The town of Glenallen is named after two early explorers. Henry Allen was a lieutenant who travelled through this area in 1885 on his way to the Yukon River, and Capt. Edwin Glenn was part of the U.S. Government survey crew for the Richardson Highway that came through in 1898-99. Glennallen is also a part of the Copper River Watershed. Find the interpretive sign at the visitor's center and orient yourself in the watershed with a map of Ahtna native placenames.
This is a privately maintained trail, located at Mile 187 on the Glenn Highway. In Glennallen, turn north on Co-op Drive, trailhead and parking area are marked with a sign that says “Aspen Interpretive Trail.” Trail is rated “easy,” allow about 1 hour for 1 mile round-trip. The beginning of this trail has been re-routed. At the trailhead, look for signs to the right, indicating the new route. The trail passes through three distinct ecosystems within the boreal forest. It continues along a well marked dirt and gravel path and loops back to the trailhead.
Take in the sweep of the Copper River as it unfolds through the valley bottom, and imagine its changes throughout the seasons from high summer flows to freeze up in the fall. Over winter it is an iced-over travel route for winter mushers and wildlife, and during spring break up the ice pans rumble their way down stream as the sun returns to the Copper Basin.
For thousands of years, under a winter moon, the Ahtna, Copper River’s first people, have begun their story telling season. Trained storytellers share the Sacred Stories, their Stories of Creation. Younger generations listen. Embedded in memory, traditions are restitched and sacred covenants made clear. Teaching stories follow throughout the year, passed on by respected elders: aunts, uncles, and grandparents. These ways of living in the land and with each other continue an ancient weaving of story, family, wisdom and place.
Drive down the 42-mile Nabesna Road for tremendous views to rival any road system in Alaska. The Wrangell, Mentasta and Nutzotin Mountains create a majestic panorama, characterized by some of the highest mountains in North America. Nabesna Road is one of two that allows access to Alaska’s largest national park, the Wrangell-St Elias National Park and Preserve. Services are limited and road conditions vary with the seasons, but there are plenty of hiking and camping opportunities for the prepared traveler.
When the last federal homestead land went public in 1983, radio host Paul Harvey broadcast, “free land in the Last Frontier.” From across America, hundreds hurried to Slana with big dreams and little preparation. Pioneer romance crashed head on into harsh weather, no jobs, nearly impossible regulations, claim jumpers and chaos. Decades later, like husks More...
If you see a salmon here in the river, it swam nearly 300 miles to lay its eggs in a headwaters, freshwater tributary of the Copper River. Alaska’s greatest renewable resource needs respect and care for its spawning streams to continue reproducing and providing high quality food for subsistence, personal use, and commercial harvesters.
Traveling the Richardson Highway south of Glennallen, you will pass Willow Lake with spectacular views of the lake and the Wrangell Mountain volcanoes in the distance. Read about how ancient Lake Atna once filled the area you’re driving through and shaped the Copper River valley.
Historic Copper Center is one of the oldest non-native communities in Alaska's Interior. Founded as a government agricultural experimental station, it later served as a transportation center for gold rush prospectors. Also find the interpretive sign where you'll learn about the local fish species that make their home in different habitat niches of Copper River watershed creeks and rivers.
Kenny Lake (pop.500) Kenny lake was established in 1910 as an Alaska Road Commission Roadhouse for the Valdez-Fairbanks-Chitina Military Road. Today it is a small farming community where residents lead a self-sufficient lifestyle harvesting fish, game, berries and organic produce.
You're now looking at the Chitina River just before it merges with the Copper River and disappears out of view. The braided Chitina below actually carries more water than the Copper River, despite losing the name battle. (It's actually more of a name tie, though, as Chitina is the native word for copper.) Heavy rains, floods, and outbursts from glacially-dammed lakes can fill More...