Copper River Highway
There aren’t enough superlatives in the English language to describe adequately the 50-mile ride out on the Copper River Highway from Cordova to the famous Million Dollar Bridge.
The scenery—mountains, glaciers, the river, and the delta—rivals any 50 miles of road on the continent, never mind the state. The wildlife—thousands of shorebirds and ducks, Canada geese, trumpeter swans, bald eagles, moose, bears, and spawning salmon—gives Denali a run for its money.
The history encompasses punching an early-20th-century railroad 200 miles into the Interior and starting a road in the 1960s on its right-of-way, only to be destroyed by the largest earthquake ever recorded in North America.
The crowning glory of the trip, as visible in rain or fog as in bright sunshine, built at great expense and great danger in 1910 between the faces of two moving glaciers and left mostly standing by the earthquake, is the Million Dollar Bridge, the vista from which is unsurpassed in a land of unsurpassed vistas.
Just outside of town, the Copper River Highway passes beautiful Eyak Lake at the base of Eyak Mountain. Notice how the lake is two colors, deep blue and light green, which don’t merge. From around Mile 6 at the bridge over Eyak River to Mile 12 where the pavement ends, keep a sharp eye out for waterfowl and wildlife in the runoff sloughs from nearby Scott Glacier. Take a left at Mile 13 (across from the airport road) and follow a two-mile gravel road up to Cabin Lake, with trout fishing, picnic tables, and trails to three other lakes.
At Mile 14, another left and another four miles of gravel bring you to the Mt. Sheridan trailhead; hike a mile on the 4WD extension spur and scramble up on the ridge to look out over the two-finger Sheridan Glacier flowing down either side of the mountain, and the iceberg-clogged lake at its face. A side road to the right at Mile 17 goes off to Alaganik Slough; the three rough miles are excellent for viewing shorebirds. Picnic tables and an information plaque occupy the end of the road, and you can pitch a tent anywhere along here.
The Haystack Trail at Mile 19 is a little under a mile, mostly uphill over boardwalks and through second-growth forest. It terminates at a wonderful overlook spot, affording sweeping views of the delta, well worth the short trek. This is a good place to find moose and bears. At Mile 21, the Pipeline Lakes Trail leads to the south on a marshy two-mile path. The Forest Service’s McKinley Trail Cabin is just off the highway at Mile 22. From here, it’s an easy two-mile saunter along McKinley Lake Trail to McKinley Lake where you can fish for trout or stay in a second cabin.
Across the River
At Mile 27, you cross the first of nearly a dozen bridges and causeways to the other “side” of the Copper River, more than 10 miles distant—it might remind you of the Florida Keys. Long Island, from Mile 28 to Mile 34, sits smack in the middle of the mighty river delta. Out here you can understand why, out of 196 miles of track from Cordova to Kennicott, 96 miles were built over bridges or trestles.
Finally, at Mile 48, you arrive at Million Dollar Bridge. This bridge, which cost a little over $1 million to build in 1910, was the culmination of Michael Heney’s vision, faith, and employee loyalty—not to mention the uncanny abilities of his civil engineers. It had to be built entirely in winter, when the Childs Glacier was dormant. The working conditions were unbearable at best, and the danger was extreme, especially as the builders raced to finish the final span even as its supports were being washed away by breakup. The north span collapsed in the 1964 earthquake, but the state eventually repaired the structure.
On the Million Dollar Bridge, look to your left at the massive face of the Childs Glacier; look right about three miles across Miles Lake to the Miles Glacier, which has receded more than two miles since 1910. A short side road on the left just before the bridge leads to a viewing pavilion set up on a small bluff over the river.
From here you can safely view the face of Childs Glacier, under cover from the often inclement weather. Informative displays give you something to read while you wait for huge chunks of ice to fall into the river. Plan to spend all afternoon here as the glacier creaks, groans, and cracks, dropping calves into the river.
Be careful of particularly big calves, whose waves can roll across the river in a few seconds and splash high up the embankment. This is the only road-accessible glacier in Alaska where you will see so much calving action. Don’t miss it!
© Don Pitcher from Moon Alaska, 10th Edition