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Downtown Chitina, Alaska

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At most national parks, the town that’s just outside the main entrance is a booming place, filled with hotels, gift shops, restaurants, and most of all, tourists. But the rules are different in Alaska.  Right outside the entrance to America’s largest national park, you’ll find a downtown with just three buildings – one of which is abandoned.  It’s not quite the ghost town it was a few decades ago, but Chitina remains a far-flung outpost that’s authentically Alaskan.

Location

The road to Chitina begins south of Glennallen, along the Richardson Highway (Alaska Route 4).  The Edgerton Highway (Alaska 10) heads east, then south for 33 miles, ending at Chitina.  McCarthy Road continues another 60 miles beyond the Copper River crossing to the town of McCarthy, providing access to the Wrangell/St. Elias National Park and Preserve.  McCarthy Road is a rough dirt road, and is not recommended for unprepared drivers, however, the Edgerton Highway is paved from Richardson Highway to Chitina.

My Visit

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Welcome to downtown Chitina, Alaska.  Main Street has buildings on just one side.  Most prominent is the Hotel Chitina, which was abandoned from the 1970’s through the mid-2000’s.  Over the past decade, though, it has been revived, and now features hotel rooms and a restaurant.  The building next-door is an art gallery.

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The third building in the row is the old Chitina Emporium.  It looks like it has been closed for quite some time.

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If you’ve ever dreamed of living life like Christopher McCandless, here’s your chance.  An old, abandoned bus/camper sits in the weeds between the buildings.

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On the other side of the Edgerton Highway, the paved road out of town, there are some other buildings and businesses…

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… and a hillside graveyard for several old vehicles that made the trip out to Chitina, but never made it back.

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Back when Chitina was closer to a ghost town, many of the old buildings had ghosts painted on them.  That tradition continues with Casper the Friendly Ghost greeting you, on the side of this building on the way into town.

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The Edgerton Highway comes to an end, right about here, and the pavement doesn’t last much longer.  The road turns into the McCarthy Road, which continues for another 60 miles to the Kennecott River.  From there, you have to take a foot bridge across the river to McCarthy, and you can catch a shuttle to the old mining operations at Kennecott.   The gravel road follows the old railroad alignment, and I’ve read that it can be a slow, bumpy journey, so plan accordingly.

Even if you don’t have the time, or the proper vehicle, for a drive out to McCarthy, you should drive the first mile or two of the McCarthy Road.  Cross the Copper River to see the fish wheels and spot some bald eagles.  The previous page shows you what to expect.
Chitina boomed in the early 20th century, when it served as a stop on the railroad that led from the Kennecott mines to Cordova.  More than $200 million in copper ore was transported out of the mines to Cordova, where it was loaded onto ships. Chitina’s spot on the railroad, as well as its highway access, turned it into an important crossroads.  The town declined after the railroad pulled out in 1938.

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Aside from McCarthy Road, there’s only one other way out of Chitina — and it’s the way you came.  When you’re done exploring, take Alaska Route 10, the Edgerton Highway, back towards civilization.

The Bottom Line

Ideally, you’d have an entire day (or more) to devote to the drive out to McCarthy and Kennecott.  Even if you don’t, it’s still worth the drive out to Chitina to see a near-ghost town, and check out the Copper River nearby.

Drivelapse Video

Here’s a time-lapse look at the drive on the Edgerton Highway to Chitina and the Copper River:

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