We arrived at the ferry terminal at 4:30 under overcast skies. The clouds hung low, obscuring the surrounding peaks. This was a little disappointing, as I had a couple of very scenic hikes planned for the area. Fortunately we had two more full days there. Hopefully the weather would clear off before we left.
We drove from the ferry dock into the town of Cordova. Cordova is a cute little fishing town built around its harbor. Downtown is a few blocks long, and it features a few small stores. Cordova is a working town rather than a tourist destination. Luckily, the port there is too small to accommodate large cruise ships. This suited us just fine, as it was interesting to see what a real town in a remote part of coastal Alaska was like.
We drove directly to the National Forest Service Visitors Center, as it was scheduled to close at 5pm. The ranger there was extremely friendly and helpful. She gave us a bunch of free trail maps and handouts, which covered everything I’d planned to do along with a few other hikes I’d never heard of. It was far more than we’d have time for, but I like collecting that sort of thing. Plus, we’d already decided that we liked Cordova after being there for only 15 minutes. Perhaps we’d make it back there on a future trip.
Before leaving town, we paid a short visit to the harbor. The ranger had mentioned that sea otters were often seen there, and we weren’t disappointed. We walked out along the seawall for a few minutes before spotting 3 of them floating on their backs. We enjoyed watching them lounging in the water, drifting on the current. I took this opportunity to experiment with the telephoto lens on our new camera. The photography was definitely easier than it had been on the cruise ship at the beginning of the trip!
TEAR IT DOWN
We left Cordova, following the only significant road in the area. Beyond town, we passed lovely Eyak Lake below rugged peaks, there tops largely lost in the clouds. A few miles later we passed the Cordova airport and the pavement ended. There we started down the 37 mile dirt road to the Childs Glacier.pe
Most of the road was in excellent condition. It was flat, straight, and smooth, and it provided a gentler ride than a lot of paved highways. Honestly, interstates in Pennsylvania are typically rougher than this road! Before long we were cruising along at 50mph. The drive was quite scenic, too. At times we found ourselves passing through deep, dark tunnels of evergreens. Later we drove by the Copper River Delta, which is one of the largest wetlands in the world. It’s famous for its migratory birds, but those are typically seen in the spring and fall.
The Copper River itself was a sight to behold. It’s a massive river, grey and silty from all of the glaciers upstream. It roils through a broad valley far below rugged peaks. At one point we reached a spot where the river had flooded the road recently. The driving was a little rough here, but fortunately the damaged section of road was brief.
A few miles later we reached the Childs Glacier recreation area and the Million Dollar Bridge. We decided to save the bridge for later, as the glacier beckoned. First though, we decided to set up camp. We had reservations at the campground, which proved to be completely unnecessary. The place was mostly deserted. After a bit of confusion, we found our site in the walk-in section of the campground. We pitched our tent in a small site deep in the rain forest as loud cracks, groans, and booms echoed from the direction of the river. It sounded like thunder, or perhaps all-out war, but we knew that what we were hearing was pieces of ice breaking off the glacier.
We drove over to the picnic area, which is situated on the bank of the Copper River across from the glacier. The Childs Glacier is unusual, in that it is one of the few glaciers in the world that is actually growing, rather than receding. It tumbles down from the mountains above, before ending at the river. As the glacier advances, the river undercuts it. This action causes the glacier to periodically calve, or collapse, into the water. The opportunity to see this spectacle was one of the major reasons we were drawn to this area.
We walked over the picnic area and gazed across the river at the face of the glacier. At its terminus, the Childs Glacier is about 300’ high and probably a mile wide. From our spot under the picnic shelter we had a great view as occasional chunks of ice split and tumbled into the river. I started some charcoal for our dinner, and we walked over to shore for a better look.
The riverbank features some benches and fire pits. As we approached, I took note of a warning sign about rouge waves caused by large icefalls. This area is notorious for these waves, which have injured and even killed spectators over the years. Of course, waves of that magnitude are rare. We certainly didn’t expect to see anything like that during our visit.
There was a family from Cordova huddled around a fire, patiently waiting for the next calving. Each time a piece broke off, the kids applauded. There was also a single fellow from outside of Anchorage. He told us that he comes to Cordova every year just to see the glacier. Otherwise, the place was empty. I was shocked that we were the only tourists there that evening.
I retreated to the picnic area and began cooking burgers for our dinner. I was hard at work when an earsplitting roar caused me to nearly jump out of my shoes. I looked up just in time to see an entire face of the glacier collapse. It looked like a building imploding as the 300’ wall of ice tumbled towards the river. This was nothing like what we’d seen thus far, and I dropped the spatula in awe. The resulting splash was massive – it made Shamu’s best efforts at Sea World look like a pebble dropped in a pond. The family by the fire erupted in cheers and high-fives. I ran forward to get a better look. In hindsight, I probably ran in the wrong direction.
Christy yelled at me to grab the camera, and I doubled-back to get it. By the time I turned back, I knew it was too late. The rumbling continued, but the view was now obscured by an incredible cloud of dust and steam. I rushed forward anyway, to join Christy and the rest of the onlookers on the river bank. When I got there, we noticed that the water below us seemed to be racing away. Meanwhile, a swell on the far side of the river was growing. After a few moments, I realized it was heading our way.
The fellow from Anchorage took one look and said, “I think I’ve seen this movie before”, and began nonchalantly walking away. I pondered that for all of two seconds before realizing that he had the right idea. The rest of us scattered back towards the picnic shelter. A purposeful walk turned into a jog and then a run as we heard a building roar behind us. I allowed myself a glance over my shoulder and regretted it. A massive wave, like what you’d expect from a Tsunami, was bearing down on us.
The wave crashed down on the bank where we’d been standing seconds earlier. We kept running beyond the picnic shelter to the edge of the parking lot, and that provided to be a mistake, too. Moments later, we were being pelted with water and small rocks as a sudden wind buffeted us. I looked back again, in time to see a small river of water running towards us. Fortunately it died out before it reached us.
The excitement was over almost as quickly as it had begun. I cautiously walked back to the picnic shelter, avoiding the many puddles that had suddenly appeared. The burgers were fine, thanks to the roof above. From there, we all anxiously walked out to where we had been standing.
Christy immediately noticed the water line on the trees about 10 feet up. Yikes! Even more startling was 10-12 large rocks scattered around the fire ring. Some of them were as large as basketballs, and that wave had catapulted them up onto shore. Anyone standing there could easily have been killed by one of those projectiles.
A few minutes later, the camp hosts arrived on a golf cart. They were pretty excited, as the wave had caused it to “rain” at their campsite, which was several hundred yards away. Later we found the rental car drenched. Our tent, which was at least a ¼ mile away, even had some sprinkles on it. The campsite hosts surveyed the damage. They told us that they had been working at this campground for the last five years, and this was the largest calving to occur during that time. I was astonished that we had been lucky enough to witness such a dramatic event.
Once the excitement was over, we settled down and enjoyed burgers, potatoes, and salads for dinner. Afterwards, we hung around for a couple of hours, chatting with our new friends from Alaska. On a couple of occasions, we spotted a harbor seal swimming in the river. He was miles upstream from the ocean, but apparently they make that journey on a regular basis. In addition to the unexpected wildlife, glacier watching proved to be an exciting spectator sport. Each time the glacier cracked or groaned, we looked up in excited expectation. However, the glacier was fairly quiet the rest of the evening. It calved occasionally, but none of those events came close to matching what we had seen earlier. Our only regret was not capturing “the big one” on film or video. The photos and videos we took later were pretty disappointing in comparison.
After a few more hours, the growing cold forced us to bed. Our spot on the riverbank across from the glacier was like standing in front of an open freezer door. In fact, it was the coldest we’d get all trip. Once the fire died we retreated reluctantly, fearing that we might miss something dramatic that night. I slept fairly well, despite the occasional cracks and booms echoing in the dark.
We made breakfast the next morning at the picnic shelter, where we could enjoy some additional glacier-watching. The glacier was quite active, but there were no huge events to compare with the prior evening. We contemplated hanging out there for awhile, but there was a lot I wanted to see in the next two days. Instead, we broke camp and drove out of the recreation area to check out the Million Dollar Bridge.
The Million Dollar Bridge was built back in the days before every bridge cost at least a million dollars. It was constructed as part of the Copper River and Northwestern Railway, which was built in the early 1900’s to connect the copper mines at Kennecott with the port in Cordova. The original line was almost 200 miles long. The railroad was abandoned in 1938. 48 miles of the original railroad grade were rebuilt as a dirt road, which we had driven from Cordova. Another section of the grade is now the dirt road leading to McCarthy. We would drive that one a little later in the trip.
The bridge was certainly impressive, and it provided fine views of the Copper River, the Childs Glacier (just downstream), and the Miles Glacier (just upstream). We drove across the bridge and continued another couple of miles to a washout at the effective end of the road. Technically the railroad bed continues all the way to Kennecott, in Wrangell St. Elias National Park. However, numerous washouts, landslides, and missing bridges make the route impassable. Over the years, there have occasionally been proposals to reopen the railroad bed as a road. These proposals are quite controversial, and not terribly popular with some of the people that live in Cordova. Obviously a road connecting Cordova to the rest of the state would completely change the area. Many would argue that it wouldn’t be for the better. Personally, I think rebuilding the rail bed as a hiking and biking trail would be a fantastic idea. The route passes through some incredible scenery that is currently virtually inaccessible. No doubt people from all over the world would travel to the area for that recreational opportunity. Unfortunately, such a trail is unlikely, due to the high cost of construction and maintenance.
We turned around at the end of the road, but pulled off before returning to the bridge. The fellow from Anchorage we had spoken with the previous evening had given us a tip on a short but scenic hike. We found the old gated road, which climbs a minor hill overlooking the Copper River, the bridge, and both glaciers. Christy was still in recovery mode at this point, so I tackled this one solo.
The hike featured a steady climb as the road contoured around the hillside. The only real challenge was negotiating the many fallen trees blocking the route. The hike was less than a mile, and the view was definitely worth the effort. On the way I enjoyed lots of wildflowers while dodging copious amounts of bear scat. Near the summit I had a brief wildlife sighting, as something brown dashed into the vegetation ahead of me. It was pretty small, so I’m guessing it was a marmot. From the top of the hill, I had a more elevated perspective on the massive Childs Glacier. Across the river, the Miles Glacier spit massive icebergs into the turbulent water. Directly below, the Million Dollar Bridge spanned the milky water squeezed between the two glaciers.
I headed back down quickly, and Christy and I began the long drive back towards Cordova. We were about half way back when I pulled over at the McKinley Lakes Trailhead. I had a surprise waiting for Christy here, and it wasn’t a dayhike to the lakes.
We followed the path into the rain forest for a hundred yards or so and reached a cabin. I had reserved the cabin for our last two nights in the area. I did so knowing that rain was frequent in the Cordova area. Oddly, the cabin only cost a few dollars more than the campsite back at Childs Glacier. Christy was thrilled that we would have a roof over our heads and something other than the ground under us for the next two nights.
We unloaded the car and had lunch at our new home. After eating, we drove back up the road a couple of miles for our main hike of the day. I had promised Christy a flat, easy walk to the Saddlebag Glacier. Since this hike is 6 miles, she elected to join me rather than stay at the car.
The hike to the glacier featured a lovely walk through mossy rain forest. The trail was as easy as expected, although the mosquitoes were certainly fierce. Eventually the forest opened up, and we were treated to some fine wildflowers. The final stretch of trail led us to a small lake at the base of the Saddlebag Glacier. The lake was nice, but unfortunately the glacier was a bit disappointing. The lower part of the glacier was covered with dirt and scree, and the upper part was lost in the perpetual clouds. In this case, the destination wasn’t very exciting, but at least the walk there was enjoyable.
We hiked back quickly and drove back down the road towards Cordova. For the days last adventure, I wanted to see if we could get a good look at the Sheridan and Sherman Glaciers. I hadn’t found anything online about these glaciers, and they weren’t mentioned in my guidebook. However, from the map it appeared that we could drive most of the way there. After a bit of searching, we found the correct dirt road and headed that way.
At the end of the road we found a pair of trailheads marked with new signs. In between was a dirt road that looked like it might lead to the foot of the glacier. The first trail is rather new, and leads up a ridge that likely offers fine views of the glaciers. Unfortunately we didn’t have time for that hike.
I decided to try the unmarked dirt road. Christy elected to stay behind, as our earlier hike had been enough for her for one day. I followed the road for a few minutes before I began to encounter washouts. Shortly thereafter the vegetation began to close in. The road didn’t seem to be heading in the right direction anyway. I doubled-back to the parking lot, but decided to try the other road at the far end. I had no idea where this one led, but figured in couldn’t hurt to give it a try.
After a short distance, the road forked. I chose the left branch, and after a short distance I spotted a porcupine in a small tree. Just beyond, I got my first view of the Sherman Glacier. Unfortunately, the trail ended at a cliff. I doubled-back, and tried the other route. I followed this road a good bit farther in hopes of a better view. My efforts were ultimately rewarded when I reached a series of small ponds at the base of the glacier. In fact, I could see two glaciers from here. Although their upper reaches were hidden by the clouds, this spot was really cool. Large icebergs floated in the ponds, with the long tongues of jagged ice promising more to come.
hung out for a few minutes before hurrying back. Once back at the car, Christy and I headed
back into town. That evening, we dined
at Baja Taco, where I had fish tacos that were ok if not particularly memorable. Afterwards, we picked up some groceries
before we drove back out to the cabin.
The cabin was cozy that evening, even though we were periodically raided
by mice. I guess if there is one
constant with trail shelters and cabins, it’s that they are always infested
with rodents. The next morning, we were
relieved to find the damage confined to a potato and an apple that had been
Back to Alaska
Back to Hiking and Backpacking Trip Reports
Please remember to Leave No Trace!