Alaska’s Copper River Where Wilderness and History Abound

Scenic vistas too broad to describe with words, the largest concentration of glaciers on the continent and more than 10 of the tallest peaks in North America are all part of the Copper River Watershed.  And it formed the backdrop for a colorful railroad and mining history during Alaska’s mining era from the 1880’s through the 1930’s.  A  raft trip on the Copper River allows us insight into the history and scenic grandeur of this great river.

Alaska’s Copper River is a place of scenic grandeur and premier wilderness. Yet it has a remarkable history of miners and fortune seekers who once used the Copper River’s immense valley as a travel corridor.  The Copper River got its name from the rich copper deposits discovered within the Copper River Watershed.  This watershed encompasses 26,500 square miles, five mountain ranges and hundreds of glaciers.  It is an incredibly active area geologically as it is on a plate boundary of the North American and Pacific Plates.  As  these plates collide with one another they have created some of the tallest peaks on the North American continent, including the 18,000 foot Mt. St. Elias, and numerous others over 16,000 feet.  And these same geologic forces caused the formation of some very rich mineral deposits to occur.  Today, most of the Copper River watershed is contained within the Wrangell St.-Elias National Park and Preserve and the Chugach National Forest, and is protected for future generations to enjoy.

The Copper River with its wild and rugged terrain had would-be miners staking claims all over the upper reaches of the Copper River and its tributaries by the late 1800’s.  A wealthy conglomerate of investors, realizing the value of the ore, bought up all of the miner’s claims by the turn of the century. They constructed a railroad to bring ore from the mountains of Kennecott to the port town of Cordova along the Copper River corridor.  However the Copper River and North Western Railroad that once joined the remote communities of Kennecott and Cordova is now defunct.  The area is quickly reverting back to its natural state as the wilderness continues to engulf the remains of railroad tracks, bridge trestles, and railroad shacks along the way.

As the Copper River cuts through these mountain peaks, it creates scenic vistas too broad to be described with words.   Perhaps the best way to experience this incredible river valley today is by floating the river in a raft. You’ll observe the raw power of geologic forces at work as you float past glaciers carving out deep mountain valleys. You’ll see waterfalls plunging from the mountainsides into the river, wildlife chasing salmon upriver and mountain peaks that rise over 8000 feet straight up from the river’s edge.  You’ll also see remnants of the railroad days gone by.

Floating into this wilderness valley today one has to wonder what it must have been like to steam up the river in locomotive a hundred or so years ago.  How has the river changed?  Surely it was wilder, more untamed than it is today!  We know that today, no two river trips are exactly the same. Water levels change frequently, and the shear volume and power of the river are constantly changing the shape of its banks. This was a problem for the railroad builders who were continuously building and rebuilding bridges over stream crossings. However, these changes offer a kind of uniqueness to guides on the river today. Though you can’t count on campsites being in the same place, there are always new areas to set up camp and explore.

This is a trip for experienced boaters. Albeit there are few if any rapids on most stretches of the Copper River. But its cold temperature, wilderness character and irregular hydraulics make it a challenging river and not to be undertaken by inexperienced boaters.  Put ins and take outs offer challenges too because of the remote nature and distance from major thoroughfares. Several guide companies like Alaska River Expeditions ( based in Cordova, offer trips of various lengths for people of any skill level. They are intimately familiar with travel and logistics in remote areas of Alaska, and make it almost seamless to the traveler. Their expert guides make this incredible journey a possibility not only for the experienced boaters, but novices as well.  Guides with Alaska River Expeditions ( are also very knowledgeable about natural and cultural history and are very willing to share information along the way. The Copper River is Alaska’s premier wilderness river where wilderness and history abound. It is a trip not to be missed.

Robin Irving is a naturalist, environmental educator and co-owner of Alaska River Expeditions which has specialized in 1 to 10-day multi-sport eco-adventures, and wilderness voyages. They are based in Cordova, Alaska, located only 3 hours south of Anchorage by scenic ferry ride. She enjoys sharing information about great eco-tour destinations especially in Alaska. For free Alaska Nature Adventures newsletter with tips and Alaska travel specials, go to: []. Alaska River Expeditions also specializes in Alaska  Vacation, Lodging and Vacation Packages [] in Cordova Alaska.

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