Dramatic terrain and lots of artifacts are lures to old Kennecott mines

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WRANGELL-ST. ELIAS NATIONAL PARK, Alaska — Tires flung mud in our eyes and rain soaked every layer of clothing. The descent made our brake rotors too hot to touch, the metal sizzling in the wet conditions.

Rapidly descending 4,000 feet through a rainstorm capped off a weekend of mountain biking inside remote Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, America’s largest national park, which at 13.2 million acres could fit Switzerland and Yellowstone and Yosemite national parks within its borders (nps.gov/wrst).

My friend, Christine Simko, and I biked both the Jumbo and Bonanza Mine trails on day trips in August, starting at our campsite near the Kennecott River.

Depending on whom you ask, the 9-mile round trip from Kennecott Mill Town to Bonanza Mine is either “an easy one” or “unrelenting.” Similar sentiments could be applied to the nearby Jumbo Mine trip, which is one mile longer and rises 3,400 feet.

Two-wheel transport

We wanted to bike inside the park since running a half marathon in the area in 2012, when it quickly became apparent mountain bikes would be a fast and fun way to explore much more. Friends of mine have visited the two mines, and I knew skinny dirt roads led most of the way to both.

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is a long way from everything. From Fairbanks, it took a solid 10-hour drive to reach the campsite outside the town of McCarthy.

Biking is a good way to get around the McCarthy area. The public isn’t allowed to drive cars across the Kennecott River into McCarthy and the gravel roads beyond. While shuttles can be taken to the mill, biking dramatically reduces long walk times on paths past the mill.

For two days we pedaled and pushed our bikes up the mountain’s two trails — early hopes of visiting both mines in one day were quickly abandoned.

The mine trips are spectacular, but not for the fainthearted. It took almost five hours to reach each mine. Along the way, we marveled at early-20th century architecture and delighted in finding old tools scattered among talus.

Biking saved joint pounding and significant time; descents to the campground took around an hour.

But mountain biking has its own hazards. The downhills required serious braking — easing off instantly resulted in extreme acceleration. Large rocks can throw you off course or off the bike, and skinny scree slopes must be traversed.

Disc brakes and suspension are highly recommended. My front suspension served me well, and Christine had full suspension. Both had 29-inch tires. On the last day, my old front tire must have hit a rock, cutting through the tread and exposing the nylon belts used for strength.

The only tumble came when my back tire slipped while transferring from one track to another. A few bruises for me and a broken rack on my bike. Luckily, I didn’t fall much farther and into a patch of devil’s club, a spiny plant that can cause nasty rashes and dangerous infections.

Perhaps the biggest hazard was an old tram cable hung around head height. The cable crosses the trail to Jumbo Mine in two spots.

Similar but different trails

Christine and I reached a consensus — with more varied terrain and superior views and artifacts, Jumbo Mine would warrant a second visit before Bonanza.

The trails differ little before breaking tree line. Around both halfway marks, travelers start passing infrastructure. Tram towers, buildings and cables pop up first.

A tall tower, looking unstable and likely partially buried by a landslide, dominates the trail to Jumbo.

Off trail near the tower is an enormous, half-buried bulldozer, also likely caught in a landslide — one of many moments we wondered what other secrets are forever hidden.

Of the two mines, Jumbo hosts more personal artifacts: shovels, glass bottles, leather boots and thousands of rusted food cans.

The trail to Jumbo requires minimal route finding through a talus field at the very end; just follow food cans to the mine. An established path leads all the way to Bonanza.

Bonanza looms large on a hill, visible far longer than Jumbo. Unlike Jumbo, Bonanza’s main structure still stands, and it’s not hidden in a bowl.

In the cold and wet conditions, we dropped our bikes on the way up to Bonanza, about a mile from the mine, to move faster and stay warm. A skilled and confident mountain biker could descend directly from Bonanza mine.

By far, the best part about biking to either mine is the return trip being 100 percent downhill. Sit back, hold on and enjoy the ride.