The above picture is of the Denali Park Road at the Pretty Rocks formation last August. That was the last time any gravel had been dumped in this section of road that is dropping due to melting ice under the roadbed.
This spring, maintenance crews discovered that the road had dropped as much as 40 feet at the troublesome section near Pretty Rocks. It had already been decided that the park road would be closed for the 2022 season due to the roadbed situation, but the drop was more impressive than forecast.
A new bridge will be installed over the section with the melting ice formation, and will be secured into solid rock on either side of the great melt. I expect that the road into the heart of Denali Park to remain closed through the 2023 season.
As much as I love Denali and Wrangell-St Elias National Parks, I think Gates of the Arctic is Alaska’s crown jewel within the national park system. It is the second largest of our national parks, and its entirety is located north of the Arctic Circle.
Due to the lack of any roads, and its remote location, Gates of the Arctic is the least visited of our national parks. All of that only adds to the appeal for me. In 2016, Gates of the Arctic received 10,047 visitors. In the same year, the Grand Canyon saw over 6 million.
The Park has six Wild and Scenic rivers: the Kobuk, John, Alatna, north fork of the Koyukuk, Tinayguk, and part of the famed Noatak. The Noatak is at the top of my list of rivers to float.
I have only been to the Gates of the Arctic once. A fly in camping trip. One evening, we watched a herd of caribou that probably numbered over 10,000. The entire valley below us was filled with these tundra travelers. It was one of the most incredible sights I have ever seen. The next morning, when we peaked over the ridge line, we were surprised to see that there was not one animal left in the valley. The entire herd had moved off, on their endless migration.
Within Wrangell-St Elias National Park is the old mill town of Kennecott. In 1900, two prospectors, “Tarantula” Jack Smith and Clarence Warner, spotted a green patch in the hills, but thought it was an odd location for a meadow. It turned out to be malachite mixed with chalcocite (copper glance). It was the beginning of the Bonanza Claim.
A group called the Alaska Syndicate, which included Daniel Guggenhiem and J.P. Morgan, was formed. Kennecott had five mines: Bonanza, Jumbo, Mother Lode, Erie, and Glacier. Between 1909 and 1938 over 4.6 million tons of ore was processed, which produced 1.183 billion pounds of copper.
To haul the ore out of the remote location of Kennecott, operations needed a railroad. Michael Heney received the right of way up to the Copper River, and started to build the Copper Line in 1906. Meanwhile, Myron Rogers received a four year contract from Guggenheim to build the Northwestern Line, which he started in 1907. That same year, Heney sold the Copper Line to the Alaska Syndicate.
The Miles Glacier Bridge, more commonly known as the Million Dollar Bridge, was one of many obstacles that the Kennecott Corporation faced in building the railroad. The bridge, completed in 1910, came with a whopping $1.4 million dollar price tag. A small nugget when compared with the $100 million profits the mine provided investors.
The last spike, a copper spike, was driven on 29 March 1911, and the first load of copper ore soon traveled down the tracks. The Copper River and Northwestern Railroad, also known locally & affectionately, as the Can’t Run & Never Will, was in operation.
Today, the road to McCarthy and Kennecott is the old CR&NW railroad bed. For years, the drive out to Kennecott was an adventure in avoiding railroad spikes. Many a tire was punctured by an old leftover spike from the Copper River & Northwestern.
I have been out to Kennecott many times. Currently, the mine ruins are undergoing a stabilization. Some buildings, like the post office, are being restored, but for the most part, the National Park Service is just trying to keep them from complete collapse. The new roofs on the buildings are obviously a great start.
The image was taken in 1913, when Walter Harper, Hudson Stuck, Harry Karstens, and Robert Tatum trekked their way to Denali’s summit. It was Harper who became the first known individual to stand on the summit of North America’s highest peak.
The Ukak River Valley was dramatically altered on 6 June 1912, when Novarupta erupted for over 60 hours. The volcanic blast was the largest of the 20th Century. Pyroclastic flows filled the Ukak Valley, which was followed by a dumping of volcanic ash. The intense heat, trapped by the ash, took decades to cool. Water, also trapped by the ash, became superheated steam, and escaped through a series of fumaroles, which inspired the renaming of the valley.
The Denali Park Road has a slump in it. The road was cut into the rocks 90 years ago, and a section at Mile 45 in Polychrome Pass, in an area that is known as Pretty Rocks, is built over an underground rock glacier. The existence of the glacier was unknown at that time, but it has been melting at an accelerating rate the past three years.
In 2018 the road was dropping an inch a month, by 2019 that had grown to an inch a day. This August, the road has been dropping over a half inch an hour. More than 100 dump truck loads of gravel were dropped over this span every week this summer, but even that proved pointless, and the Park Road was closed to traffic at Mile 43 in August. The landslide has moved far enough down the hillside to expose the ice below the roadway.
Winter should put the freeze into the ground once again, so that the road can be used early next spring, but the plans are for the road to be closed for all of the summer of 2022. There is solid rock on either side of the glacier, so a bridge will be anchored into those to span the slump zone.