Sometimes, the concept of unplugging dovetails quite nicely with the notion of disappearing. One of the best ways to do this is by retreating to a remote location that barely registers a blip on the radar, where the reach of electronic devices and the workaday world are rendered ineffective. The tiny Alaskan town of Chitina fits this bill rather nicely. However, its lack of size is more than made up by its status as a gatekeeper to Alaska's unfettered natural beauty.
A Brief History of Chitina
Chitina is the very definition of a tiny town. According to the 2010 census, this southeastern Alaska village was home to just 126 residents. If you look back at its history, however, you’ll quickly realize it wasn’t always this small.
Founded in 1910, Chitina was once an important rail stop for the Copper River & Northwestern Railroad, a designation driven by the area’s reputation for mining opportunities. Because it was a key transportation hub, its community swelled to more than 3,000 residents at its peak. It also had all marks of a thriving community, including five hotels, bars, a movie theater, and a dance hall.
Chitina’s hub status dried up quickly after mining activity ceased in the area in the late 1930s. However, the town was transformed into another hub of sorts in 1980, when it became the gateway to the newly established Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Today, Chitina serves as home base for those looking to unplug and explore the rugged delights of Alaskan nature.
A Drive Through History and Nature
The old rail line that used to run through Chitina is long gone – its ties were pulled up in the 1960s. In its place is McCarthy Road, a 60-mile gravel road that runs through the heart of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Those that traverse the road should be prepared to be wholly immersed in Alaskan brilliance.
The way to travel McCarthy road is to put your phone down, hop in your car, and drive very carefully. Because the road was originally built to accommodate trains, it’s filled with the unique twists and turns common in a railroad bed. As such, it’s important to take the road slowly – you should prepare for two to three hours each way.
You'll have no problem traveling the road at a slower pace, however. McCarthy Road puts you right in the middle of not only the largest national park in the United States, but also in a hotbed for wildlife hanging out in their natural habitat. You'll have an excellent chance of seeing moose, bears, eagles, owls, lynx, and even swans.
There are plenty of opportunities for you to pull your car over to take a bunch of photos, and you’ll want to. From pristine lakes to unbridled fields of wildflowers, there are plenty of breathtaking photo opportunities for you to enjoy. You may even spot the occasional railroad spike or tie along the way – remnants of the road’s past life.
Because McCarthy Road is a former railroad bed – not to mention that it’s a gravel road – the drive can be tough. This is especially the case with your tires, as one roll over something jagged could cause an issue. Granted, Alaska has made vast improvements to the road over the last several years, but it’s still important to make sure you have a spare tire and jack at the ready just in case the unthinkable happens.
The road itself isn’t the only thing to be mindful of when making this breathtaking trip. Company-operated tour buses and passenger vans take this road as well; given the tight twists and turns on the road, they may be lurking right around the bend. Again, it’s important that you take your time and drive cautiously here, although you’ll probably be busy marveling at the splendor to drive too quickly.
Highlights of McCarthy Road
In addition to the wildlife you may encounter, the 60-mile journey down McCarthy Road is lined with plenty of sights to see and activities to enjoy. Some of these key stops include:
Copper River Bridge
Located at the entrance to McCarthy Road, this bridge at the confluence of the Copper and Chitina Rivers provides stunning views of the snow-capped, volcanic Mount Drum.
Strelna Lake Trail
A small yet nicely marked pullout grants access to a half-mile hiking trail that leads to Strelna Lake, a body of water that’s routinely stocked with rainbow trout.
Originally measuring 890 feet long and 90 feet high, this beautiful wooden structure is arguably the most spectacular man-made sight to be found on the trail.
Located toward the end of the trail, this pullout provides breathtaking panoramic views of the town of McCarthy, the edge of the Kennicott Glacier, and the Kennicott River.
Other Things to do in Chitina
McCarthy Road is far from the only thing to do in Chitina. Because of its presence near the Copper River, the town has become a haven for salmon fishing. People from all over the state congregate here during the summer, with the goal of nabbing the king of local salmon, the Copper River red salmon.
While the locals try their hand at subsistence dipnetting, you can get in on the act via chartered boat services. Keep in mind that the fishing season here is brief and can be made even briefer by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game if they deem the number of salmon too low. However, other fishing opportunities are available off McCarthy Road if fishing in the Copper River is unavailable.
While Chitina’s status as a railroad hub is long gone, there are still a few places in town that serve as reminders of its past. The Spirit Mountain Artworks Building is an art gallery housed in what was the “Chitina Tin Shop,” the town’s original tinsmith building. Built in the early 1900s, it’s on the National Register of Historic Places.
If you go further into Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, you’ll come across Ed S. Orr Cabin. Built in 1910, the log cabin was originally designed for the manager of the area’s local stage company. Today, it’s home to photographs and artifacts documenting Chitina’s transportation hub past, where it was known as the place in Alaska “where the rails meet the trails.”
If you want to see an even more dramatic visual representation of Chitina’s former life, a five-mile hike at the end of McCarthy Road gets you to Kennicott, a virtual ghost town that was once home to the area’s thriving copper mine. While there are a handful of people that still live here, the town is more or less abandoned. However, plenty of buildings from the mining era still stand, several of which are found on the National Register of Historic Places.
Just about ten miles up the road from Chitina, you’ll find the Liberty Falls Scenic State Recreation Area. This breathtaking spot is ideal for adventurous types whose idea of unplugging involves camping. The campgrounds themselves offer a great deal of privacy as well as convenient road access.
The Cost of Chitina
Once you get to Chitina, you can expect a relatively cost-effective trip. For instance, entrance to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve – the park that McCarthy Road bisects – does not charge an entrance fee. You can drive the gravelly road to your heart’s content without having to break out your wallet.
If you’d prefer to let someone else do the driving, there are tour buses that you can take so you can concentrate on seeing the sights. Be forewarned: they can be pricey, with some charging over $100 a pop. One other thing to note is that they run on a rigid schedule, so you won’t have as much freedom to linger around particularly breathtaking portions of the road.
If you plan on fishing in Chitina, you need to obtain a fishing license - Alaska requires residents 18 years and older and non-residents 16 years and older to have one. If you’re planning on fishing for king salmon, you will also need to pay extra to receive king salmon “stamps.” Nonresidents looking to catch a king salmon can expect to pay at least $40 to have the opportunity to reel in something.
Unplug, Relax, Enjoy
Whether you’re on the river or a lake trying to catch a fish or carefully cruising down McCarthy Road taking in the natural splendor, a trip to Chitina can be a magical choice to get away from the perils of modern technology.
The remoteness and size of the tiny town, coupled with the surrounding beauty, easily evokes thoughts of simpler times, when getting away from it all meant nobody could track you down and disrupt your getaway. These are the times that we desperately need, and it’s good to know that there are still places like Chitina that can provide this special kind of solace.