Kennicott Ghost Town & Wrangell-St. Elias National Park — Alaska
At the precipice of an industrial boom born from copper mining, the young town of Kennicott, Alaska suddenly plummeted to picturesque ghost town status. Why?
Today’s Kennicott is home to nobody, but there are about 40 standing structures including a massive mill, a power plant, several industrial structures, and a handful of homes. There’s a dairy barn where Kennicott’s few cows were kept, a rec center that miraculously still holds events, a schoolhouse slash church, and a tiny hospital that employed only one doctor and three nurses. (Fun fact: this hospital was the home of Alaska’s first x-ray machine.)
Prospectors first spotted rich copper veins in the mountains near Kennicott Glacier in 1900 and the city sprung up from there. So rich were these veins that Kennicott quickly became a great Alaskan hub for mining and related business ventures. It even had its own train connection! Kennicott was a fully functioning city and mine for 27 years, generating over a hundred million dollars — billions by today’s calculations.
Then the trains bypassed the station. The mine was boarded up. Homes were abandoned and businesses were shuttered. Deliveries were halted and even the post office closed. By 1938, only a family of three remained in Kennicott.
Any guesses why the town collapsed? Go on, guess.
Kennicott was a dry city and forbade vices like alcohol, promiscuity, gambling, and other fun things. Nearby McCarthy, however, was a bit more progressive. With its saloons, pool halls, and brothels, it quickly overtook Kennicott in popularity. A lesson, perhaps?
Okay, to be fair, the Great Depression wasn’t such a great time either. The ores had been depleted, the mountainous terrain was hard to access… But the thing with McCarthy was surely the nail in Kennicott’s coffin.
And so it sat.
There was a proposal to raze the town in the 1960s and revive the Kennecott copper mine, but the project was too expensive and the land too inaccessible, so it remained abandoned.
Side note: While googling Kennicott as your future vacation destination, you may notice an alternate spelling. Kennecott Copper Corporation is the name of the mining company, which was named after the nearby Kennicott Glacier. The spelling is just an unfortunate and confusing error. Moral of the story: always double check your spelling otherwise people like me will have to write explanatory paragraphs about your clerical mistake a hundred years later.
If you’d like to visit Kennicott (or Kennecott) for a history lesson and some outstanding photography, you’ll really have to commit. First, go to McCarthy (haha) then cross a bridge over the Kennicott River. You can’t drive on this bridge, so wear sturdy shoes. There’s still another 4.5 miles to go after the bridge, so again, shoe choice matters. Thankfully, a McCarthy-Kennicott shuttle makes this a little easier. But not much.
McCarthy’s not so exciting these days, but it still ticks most of the boxes for a self-sufficient town. More importantly, McCarthy serves as the tourism hub for the town it turned ghost. Oh, how the tables turn.
Tourism flourishes in Kennicott. There are walking tours, informative guides, and even a dedicated museum. It’s arguably more popular today than it has been for the last 75 years.
The mines are situated inside the Wrangell-St.Elias National Park and Preserve, which has the impressive title of the largest national park in the country.
Yes, that includes Yellowstone. Six times over, in fact.
The park is over 13 million acres in size and contains nine of the 16 highest peaks in the United States and a near-infinite amount of natural beauty to enjoy. Outdoorspeople can hike, admire snow-capped mountains, do a little whitewater rafting, try flightseeing, or even drive right up to a glacier.
You can even see an active volcano! But don’t worry — the last eruption of Mount Wrangell was in 1900, which was about the same time Kennicott was founded. Another lesson? Probably not.
The untouched park is teeming with wildlife. Wrangell-St. Elias is home to all three North American bear species: grizzly/brown bears, black bears, and polar bears. It’s bursting with sheep, caribou, moose, mountain goats, and lynx on the mountainsides. Whales and sea lions bellow from the frigid water while eagles soar overhead.
It is awesome in the most literal way.
Is this adventure well out of the way? Yes. Is it a challenge to visit and offers practically nothing by way of nightlife (aside from owls)? Also yes.
But the sobering ghost town of Kennicott paired with the utter breathtaking majesty of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is a heart-ripping, heart-soaring experience that is not to be missed. This trip belongs at the top of every list.
This is the second stop on our tour of America’s best-kept travel secrets. Some will be big, some will be tiny, but all of them will be out of the way. Learn more about the project here.