Adventures in Alaska: Exploring Kennecott & McCarthy in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
Now that we’ve explored all 42-miles of the Nabesna Road in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, the largest National Park in the entire Nation Park Service System, it’s time to head over to the other “established” regions of the park: McCarthy & Kennecott. Of course, there’s quite a decision to be made before getting to these areas. Will you take one of the three daily flights from Chitina, offered by Wrangell Mountain Air or board a flight with a different company? Or will you overlook most rental car company policies against driving rentals down the gravel McCarthy Road? Whichever mode of transportation you decide, you’re truly in for an adventure. There’s also the option to take a shuttle but believe me, I wanted to be the one in control as we drove over Kuskulana Bridge, a single-lane railroad bridge located 238 feet high in the sky, above the raging Kuskulana River. Driving over the bridge is probably the most thrilling part of McCarthy Road but there are plenty of other highlights to see and explore. So, buckle up and let’s start down McCarthy Road…
Similar to my advice for exploring Nabesna Road in the Slana Region of Wrangell-St. Elias, stop at the Ranger Station in the old railroad town of Chitina to inquire about road conditions and pick up the free audio tour CD to play in your car as you travel for two hours down the 60-mile gravel road.
Mile Post 5: Chitina River – A river with a braided channel due to its steep slopes and the nearby glaciers that provide the stream with plenty of sediment ranging from fine sand to large boulders.
Mile Post 17.2: Kuskulana River & Bridge – Believe it or not, this bridge was constructed in the winter of 1910. Personally, I was nearly petrified to just drive across this one-lane bridge (it’s 238 feel high!) let alone think about what it must’ve been like to take a train across many decades ago. There are turnouts on either side of the bridge to pull over, take pictures, and explore a bit more.
Mile Post 29: Gilahina Trestle – There is a fascinating wooden structure here. Originally 890 feet long and 90 feet high, the trestle was built in a mere eight days during the winter of 1911 using more than a half-million board feet of wood. Now that you’ve crossed the Kuskulana Bridge, imagine taking a train over this trestle!
Enjoy the various rock types, animals, ponds, creeks, and streams, as you make your way to the end of McCarthy Road.
Mile Post 60: End of the Road – You’ve made it. Here’s to hoping your windshield and wheels are all intact. Did you expect to see more than a footbridge? Consider yourself lucky as the footbridge was constructed in the 1990s. Historically, people had to use manually propelled ropeways to cross the Kennicott River. Your adventure is still just beginning… It’s time to park your vehicle and walk across the footbridge.
When researching for my trip to Alaska in the summer of 2019, I was under the impression McCarthy and Kennecott were more or less one in the same. However, while McCarthy is just a half-mile from the footbridge, Kennecott is yet another four or five miles. Of course, that wouldn’t be a big deal if you hadn’t just left your vehicle on the other side of the footbridge!
Now that you’ve walked across the footbridge, there are a few options here such as McCarthy-Kennicott Shuttle (https://wrangellmountaintransport.com), your hotel shuttle, or your own two feet! For my Dad and I, we had just spent 3+ days in the Slana region of the park and were in dire need of showers so we took the hotel shuttle past McCarthy and straight to Kennicott Glacier Lodge to check-in and freshen up. We were able to get dropped off in McCarthy when the shuttle went to pick up more guests from the footbridge.
Finally, we made it! Welcome to McCarthy, Alaska, a census-designated place in the Valdez-Cordova Census Area. At the time of the 2010 census, the population was an astonishing 28 people. Copper ore was discovered in 1900 and the town of Kennecott was soon created to house the miners. With the prohibition of alcohol and “ladies of the night” in Kennecott, nearby McCarthy quickly became the “Sin City” of its time and the go-to place to provide these illicit services and more. The Copper River and Northwestern Railway reached McCarthy in 1911 and the area thrived until the copper deposits were gone. Mining in Kennecott was wildly successful until the late 1930s. On November 10th, 1938, the last train left Kennecott in a hurry, ultimately leaving both McCarthy and Kennecott ghost towns. In the 1980s, people started to return to see the old mines and buildings, quickly putting the area back on the map and turning it into a popular tourist destination. On December 2nd, 1980, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve was established.
What to do in McCarthy:
McCarthy-Kennicott Historical Museum – Consider the history mentioned above as just the start of the railroad. There is a lot more to learn and there’s no better place to learn the heritage of these areas than at the McCarthy-Kennicott Historical Museum which is actually located in the former Copper River & Northwestern Railroad depot! There are photos, documents, artifacts, a miniature model of historic McCarthy, and even a diorama of the Bonanza Mine! Admission: Free (donations welcome).
Ma Johnson’s Historical Hotel – Ma Johnson’s is a living museum as it was a former boarding house and now the only authentic historic hotel within the National Park. Even if you don’t book a room at Ma Johnson’s, be sure to stop in and explore the lobby area. As of the time of this writing, Ma Johnson’s is the only hotel in McCarthy. There is a hotel and campground in Kennecott as well as a few options on the other side of the footbridge.
Dining – Be sure to make it a priority to grab something to eat while you’re in McCarthy because while there are a handful of restaurants in McCarthy, there are not a lot of dining options in Kennecott (remember, there’s 4.5 miles between the two). I’d recommend The Roadside Potatohead for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. They have espresso in the morning and beer, wine, and cider in the evening. Although we didn’t dine at McCarthy Lodge Bistro, I sure wanted to! McCarthy Lodge and the Golden Saloon are other establishments to refuel after a long day of adventure.
Adventures/Activities – There are a variety of adventures to experience as you’re in a National Park after all! I’d first recommend just walking around and taking in the town of McCarthy. Think about what it might have been like 80 years ago. Remember there is an airstrip in McCarthy; consider a flightseeing tour to get an aerial view of some of the 13 million acres that comprise the National Park. There are a handful of adventure companies headquartered in McCarthy with packrafting tours, river tours, rafting, backpacking trips, glacier hikes, and ice climbs.
Time to hop on the McCarthy-Kennicott Shuttle and make your way to Kennecott. Are you wondering why it’s written as KennEcott in some areas and KennIcott in other areas? The Kennecott Mines that put this area on the map back in the 1900s was named after Kennicott Glacier located in the valley below which was named after Robert Kennicott. However, a “clerical error” is the reason for the substitution of an “e” for the “i.” There were once five prosperous copper ore mines owned by Kennecott Copper Corporation: Bonanza, Jumbo, Mother Lode, Erie, and Glacier that produced over 4.6 million tons of ore that contained 1.183 billion pounds of copper. A true ghost town for decades, the area was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986. In 1998, much of the land within Kennecott Mill Town was acquired by the National Park Service. One of the first things you’ll notice upon reaching Kennecott is the 14-story concentration mill (Kennecott Mill) quickly followed by the stunning Kennicott Glacier.
What to do in Kennecott:
Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark – Five miles from the footbridge you’ll come to a large sign signifying the historic landmark, the once booming mill town. The mines were where the ore was extracted from the mountains and the mill town was where the ore was processed. While the National Park Service is in the process of stabilizing and rehabilitating many of the old buildings, several are open for visitors and many exhibits are worth visiting. One of my favorites was the General Store and Post Office building as we were able to picture what life was like back in the 1920s and ‘30s in addition to watching a few films about the area and park as a whole. Being a School Psychologist when I’m not out exploring National Parks, I enjoyed exploring Blackburn School and seeing what life was like for the children of the miners and mill workers. The Recreation Hall is open and available for private events. The Power Plant, Refrigeration and Flotation Plants, and Residential Cottages were all equally fascinating.
Kennecott Visitor Center – Part of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, the Kennecott Visitor Center is a must visit and the perfect place to talk to a Park Ranger, pick up a map of Kennecott to know where the exhibits mentioned above are located, attend a Ranger Program, and even become a Junior Ranger.
Kennecott Mill Town Tour – Touring the historic Kennecott Mill with St. Elias Alpine Guides was one of my favorite experiences of the trip. I booked this tour using a coupon from the Alaska TourSaver book (buy one, get one free!) but looking back on it, I would have happily paid full price! We were able to spend two hours exploring the inside of the 14-story concentration mill and other historic buildings. I loved being able to see inside these building while trying to imagine what it might have been like to live and work in this remote wilderness area. In addition to going inside the concentration mill, you’ll learn the history of one of the richest copper strikes and stories from people that resided in Kennecott from one of the fantastic St. Elias Alpine Guides. Highly recommend!
Hike on Root Glacier – Another trip highlight was doing a half day glacier hike on Root Glacier with McCarthy River Tours & Outfitters/Raft the Wrangells. We signed up for a group tour using a coupon from the Alaska TourSaver book but it ended up just being my Dad, me, and our knowledgeable guide Johnny. We hiked from Kennecott to the foot of Root Glacier, strapped on our crampons, and started walking ON the glacier. We saw the most incredible blue pools, moulins, and crevasses as Johnny shared how glaciers are formed and their behavior. I even filled up my water bottle with pure glacier water. This was an unforgettable, once in a lifetime experience and I’ll never forget when my Dad exclaimed, “I’m on a big ice cube!”
Kennicott Glacier Lodge – Originally, I was planning to stay at the National Park Service campground but after several nights in the Slana region of the park, I realized there was a coupon in the Alaska TourSaver book for buy one night, get one night free at the Kennicott Glacier Lodge and made the decision to “treat yo’self.” While it was an added expense, it was certainly a worthy one as the lodge is family owned, in a great location, has a shuttle service, and dining options! OH, and showers!!! I loved the décor and the fact NPS Rangers hosted Ranger Programs in the second-floor lounge after dinner!
Jumbo Creek Campground – If you’re looking for a more primitive (or cheaper) experience, there is a National Park Service campground about a mile and a half from Kennecott. There are no amenities other than bear boxes and a nearby stream for water. While free and located at the foot of the glacier, keep in mind the campground is only accessible by foot.
Once you visit, you'll be wondering how did anyone even know there was copper here in the first place? Two prospectors saw a green patch of hillside that they thought would be good for their horses to graze on. Little did those two prospectors know, this green hillside would be home to one of the richest known copper deposits in the entire world.
I haven’t watched it myself but apparently the Discovery Channel released a reality TV show called “Edge of Alaska” all about McCarthy, Alaska that ran from 2014 to 2017. I might just have to check it out! In the meantime, enjoy your adventure down McCarthy Road to the historic areas of McCarthy and Kennecott.