Geography Of The Copper Valley: A Huge Valley Surrounded By Massive Mountain Ranges

Mount Sanford, Mount Drum, and Mt. Wrangell

The Mountains Of The Copper Valley
Mount Blackburn from Willow Lake, south of Glennallen.
(Photo, Neil Hannan)
Four massive mountain chains encircle the Copper River Valley. To the south, the 250 mile Chugach Range runs along the ocean, blocking the warm breezes from the sea. To the east, the Talkeetna Mountains separate the valley from the Matanuska Valley, next door. To the north, the huge Alaska Range (home of Mt. McKinley, which is farther to the west) arches over the top of the valley, keeping it apart from the Tanana and Yukon Rivers of the northland. And to the east, the Wrangell Mountains -- shown here -- which are the most visible to the traveling public, form a massive barrier that butts up against the Canada border. 

The most dominant to the casual viewer are the Wrangells, called "Keltaini" by the Ahtna people, who live in the Copper Valley. The Wrangells are volcanoes. They are in clear view on the eastern horizon, looming up over the valley, on almost every sunny summer day. The Wrangell Mountains that are visible throughout the Copper Valley include Mount Sanford (16,237 ft), Mount Drum (12,010 ft.) , Mount Wrangell (14,163 ft.)  and Mount Blackburn (16,390 ft.) .

Mount Wrangell is an active volcano. It's one of the largest "shield" volcanoes in the world. Wrangell does not look as "volcanic" as the other mountains. It has a long, sloping appearance. But many people have already seen this type of shield volcano elsewhere, on other vacations in another faraway U.S. state. The Hawaiian volcanoes on the islands of Hawaii and Maui have similar slopes and shapes, and are also shield volcanoes, like Wrangell.

Although the Wrangells are far smaller in actual size than Mount McKinley, they don't look small. Their domination of the skyline makes it seem like Mt. McKinley times four, marching across the wilderness.

A Mountain View For Every Little Community
The primary road of the central Copper Valley, the Richardson Highway, arcs in a semi-circle
Mount Sanford
(Photo, Neil Hannan)
around the Wrangell Mountains. This causes a change in viewing point, and the appearance that the mountains switch places -- or change dominance. In Glennallen, the most dominant mountain is Mount Drum -- which is also the smallest, but because it is closest to Glennallen seems just as large as the others. The main mountain on view in Kenny Lake, toward Valdez, is Mount Blackburn. The main mountain you see when you're driving past Chistochina on the north is Mount Sanford.

Every Copper Valley community has its own unique view of the Wrangell Mountains, and experienced residents could be shown photographs of the mountains from different locations, and are able to roughly pinpoint which community the picture was taken from, and approximately where on the road system this particular view is visible.

The Rivers Of The Copper Valley
The muddy Copper River.
(Photo, Neil Hannan)
Just as "all roads lead to Rome," all rivers in the Copper River Valley lead to the great Copper River. The 300-mile long Copper River is like the trunk of a mighty tree, draining the central part of the valley into the Gulf of Alaska.

Tributaries (smaller rivers) come out of the surrounding mountains, off of sinewy glaciers that are remnants of the Ice Age. The glaciers end in large lakes, and the lakes drain into rivers which flow into the Copper. The Copper drains 24,000 square miles, an area equivalent in size to West Virginia. It has 13 major tributaries, and runs at the rate of 7 miles an hour, dropping 12 feet every mile.

Copper River.
(Photo, Neil Hannan)
The Copper is a cold, wild, and very dangerous river, full of muddy silt. Its tributaries lend their names to the Native villages that tend to be located near the confluence of the smaller river with the Copper River. For example, the Village of Chistochina ("Cheesh-na") is on the Chistochina River. The Village of Gulkana ("Kul-kana") is on the Gulkana River. The Village of Copper Center (known by its residents as "Kluti-Kaah") is on the Klutina River.

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