Bonanza Mine Trail

by Mike Still
Bonanza Mine Trail

The Bonanza Mine Trail reaches the mountaintops above historic Kennecott in Wrangell St. Elias National Park.  Abandoned mining structures can be seen along this route as you ascend nearly 4,000 feet on a strenuous hike.  Elizabeth and I won two nights at one of Kennicott River Lodge’s cabins in neighboring McCarthy, Alaska, and eagerly embarked on the hike to Bonanza Mine for our last of 3 days in McCarthy.

McCarthy is 5 miles from Kennecott along a gravel road.  Private vehicles are prohibited but visitors can take a $5 shuttle or bike in, as we did.  The Bonanza mine trail starts just above the mill building but it’s advised to follow the Root Glacier Trail until the sign and start of the switchback road. We biked this lower trail and managed to go about a mile in before it got too steep, so we locked our bikes to a nearby tree.

A Bonanza Mine Trail Map can be found in the
Kennecott Hiking Trail Maps and descriptions on the National Park website – NPS.gov

Our guide Mads, from McCarthy River Tours, informed us that both Kennicott and Kennecott are correct spellings.  Kennecott with a second “e” refers to man-made structures related to the mine, while Kennicott with an “i” refers to natural features like the glacier and river.

This photo shows the moraine of both Kennicott Glacier & Root Glacier meeting in the valley below the Bonanza Mine hike.

The trail follows an old gravel road that switchbacks through the forest passing a few private residences before coming out of the treeline.  Along the way, there are a few glimpses of abandoned mining structures and the nearby landscape but the real view begins once you get above the trees and the entire Kennicott glacier valley presents itself. 

Elizabeth poses with Blackburn Mountain in the background along the Bonanza Mine Trail

Elizabeth powered onward while I struggled along the steep slopes.  I pondered whether I was out of shape from having recently fought Covid-19 or if my wife was just that much stronger than me before quickly deciding both were true.  I lamented leaving my trekking poles at home as she found me a suitable walking stick.  We gasped at the views below us as soon as we reached the tree line.  

 

We saw numerous piles of bear scat and decided to make lots of noise rather than risk an encounter in this remote stretch of the Alaskan wilderness.  Elizabeth was just under a month out from getting attacked by a moose and we weren’t here to see wildlife, especially up close!  Moose scat was even more prevalent on the trail but the only large wildlife that we saw was a distant moose munching on trees well beneath us. 

We loudly commiserated about our early summer’s misfortune and played word games to keep the critters away.  We thought we had the whole mountain to ourselves until running into a pair of older hikers who had stopped when they saw snow covering the road ahead.  Sun melts the southern side of most mountains first and topography can create pockets of snow all year.  Practically speaking it meant we would have to cross a few snowy sections but there should still be plenty of clear trail in between.

A dilapidated tramway truss marked the end of the road giving way to a narrow footpath as snowfields appeared every few hundred yards.  We tried skirting the snow looking for a more favorable trail among the scree, but ultimately, Elizabeth led the way stomping footholes into the snowpack, my legs complaining with every step.

A waterfall appeared ahead with rusty mining equipment visible nearby.  It was undecipherable at our current distance but the collapsed entrance to Bonanza was clearly above us, another thousand feet and a mile away on a trail with more snow than anything else.  I questioned silently whether I would make it all the way before asking Elizabeth if we should have a “reality check.”  We discussed my endurance, both of mind and body, along with my comfort on the scree/snow before agreeing to reassess at the waterfall when we had a better view of the trail.  

Thankfully the snowy trails were easier to navigate than I expected with a sturdier snowpack resulting in fewer post holes. We quickly approached a collapsed cabin where a rusted bed frame along with two wagon wheels on an auburn axle among other unrecognizable relics.  A snowmelt stream trickled across the trail reminding us that we picked this waterfall to reassess.  Thankfully the water was barely above our boots and could easily be avoided!

I glanced down at the soggy trail and noticed greens and blues shining between the rocks.  Every few steps another piece of ore glittered up at me and I was easily convinced to take a break from hiking and look for cool rocks.  Copper’s turquoise oxidated state popped out of veins in small rocks with blue azurite shimmering occasionally as well.  These precious metals were the whole reason the mine was built and there was a trail here in the first place.  

Elizabeth joined looking for bits of copper ore before we found a grassy knoll to eat lunch and ponder the rest of our day.  We could see the entire Bonanza bowl from this vantage point and a trail switched back through the snow to the mine. There were lots of rocky outcroppings and it didn’t look too steep. 

After taking a pack break and having a bite to eat I felt reenergized.  Perhaps it was just a YOLO feeling when we both agreed we didn’t want to come “this far” and not at least attempt to get to the mine.  We outlined some paths between the rocks that would minimize our time in the snowfields and got back on the trail to Bonanza Mine!  

Before finishing our lunch I noticed my phone had reception and decided to try an Instagram Live post, only to have people I didn’t recognize join in.  So we tried Facebook live and got to say hello to Aunt Lynn giving her a sneak peek of our view and this post!  Afterward, I decided to smash a few rocks looking for copper veins and heart-shaped rocks for Elizabeth.  We may or may not have added about 10 lbs to my pack for the way down.

Copper ore on the Bonanza Mine Hike

Elizabeth took the lead again as we worked our way towards the Bonanza mine.  We zig-zagged along the rocky patches looking for a narrow crossing to the next snow patch.  All the while, glancing between the majestic mountains around us and scanning the ground for greens and blues.

I paused numerous times, as much for the rocks and photos as to catch my breath.  At one point I sat down, inching across a steep slope to reach some exceptionally glittery blues and greens.  While reaching forward I plunged a foot or two as the mud and rocks shifted dramatically!  Thankfully I was already sitting and didn’t slide any further, but I decided that falling off a mountain wasn’t worth a few shiny rocks and got back to the trail to find Elizabeth nearing the end of our route.

We quickly found ourselves at the doorstep of Bonanza mine!  The abandoned mine had artifacts strewn about with everything from rusted cables and cans to a pair of knickers.  Many studs of the actual structure were still intact along with significant stretches of the roof, yet it was totally unstable and much of the bonanza mine buildings had collapsed since it was abandoned in 1938.  

A blanket of snow still covered huge sections of the mine but Elizabeth managed to navigate a path above the building.  I left my backpack and just brought my camera for the final stretch as our “trail” grew steeper through muddy scree that moved with every step.  My hands dug into the snow and mud for stability before I found a small stick that I used to help me stabilize.  

I was reminded of how uncomfortable I felt climbing up Pennyroyal glacier on Hatcher Pass’ Bomber Traverse last summer, but happy to realize that more experience made me feel more secure on today’s steep terrain.  Plus I was packless right now and we quickly made it to the top of the ridge!  We were rewarded with an impressive view of Kennicott glacier, the valley below and Mount Blackburn.   

The eastern face of Mount Blackburn appeared through the clouds, partially hidden by a ridge above Jumbo mine.  Nearby mountaintops had what looked like hoodoos on rocky flanks, while other unnamed peaks dazzled our view.  What we think is Porphyry Mountain captured my attention numerous times along the trail.

Blackburn Mountain from the Bonanza Mine Trail

Despite the sun being high in the sky, it was getting late.  Alaskan summers can be deceptive with long day-light hours and it was already 5pm when we began or descent even though it looked like high noon.  The hardest stretch was getting back to my pack at the mine entrance, from there we were able to retrace most of our steps.  I stopped looking for shiny rocks and we tried to decide what to do for dinner before we started the long drive back to Anchorage.

Porphyry Mountain from the Bonanza Mine

Today was our last day in McCarthy and we were planning to camp somewhere along the 8-hour drive.   If we made good time we would salivate as our Meatza wagon orders were prepared in Kennecott, otherwise, The Potato was our go-to spot in McCarthy.  But first, we had to make it back down the mountain and get to our bikes!

Looking down we could see Kennicott Lake where we kayaked the day before.  Through my zoom lens appeared a tiny speck that was Kennicott River Lodge, our host for the last two nights.  The snowy paths and steep sidehills were less anxiety-inducing on the way down.

We only stopped at a few choice lookouts where Blackburn, Donoho, and the whole glacial valley created a panoramic view.  The scene was breathtaking beyond words with Root glacier’s icy toe budding into the rocky precipices of the Kennicott Glacier moraine.  Kennicott is mostly covered in brown rocks and sediment and provides a contrast to the white Root Glacier with a green Fireweed Mountain behind it. 

After snapping my last photos we eventually got back to the gravel road spying fresh bear scat and beginning a new “hey bear” duet.  Before long the switchbacks led us past a few houses and to our bikes.  I questioned our decision this morning to bike 6-miles uphill to the Bonanza mine trailhead, but now I was beyond grateful that I could coast the home stretch!

We just missed Meatza wagon’s closing time at 7:30 but enjoyed a hearty meal at The Potato before dusting ourselves off at the lodge.  A quick shower and change of clothes prepared us for a few hours of driving after a gorgeous day hiking to Bonanza Mine!

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Mike Still
Mike is a travel enthusiast, photographer and teacher. He loves adventure travel, meeting the locals and exploring new culture. As an outdoor enthusiast you can often find him hiking mountains or exploring forests trying to capture the beauty of mother nature. In 2013 he founded www.LiveTravelTeach.com as he left his home in America and has been teaching or traveling around the world ever since!

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