When people plan their Alaskan vacations, many come with a list of must-see and must-do destinations and activities. Unfortunately for most of them, they miss out on one of Alaska’s most spectacular destinations – Wrangell St. Elias National Park.
The park itself is the largest park in the National Park Service system, and is the home to numerous glaciers and powerful rivers, and nine of the 16 tallest peaks in the United States.
Mount Wrangell, seen from the Richardson Highway near Copper Center. Note steam plume in the background from the summit.
But like anywhere in Alaska, the scenery and landscape only tells part of the story. If you venture into the center of the park, you’ll experience one of the most interesting and beautiful places in Alaska – the towns of McCarthy and Kennicott.
Kennecott (sometimes spelled Kennicott) was born of the search for minerals and metals. Unlike many of the locations in Alaska, the draw here was copper, not gold. The Kennecott Copper Company built a mine and a company town to extract the rich copper ore. Along with the buildings and machinery for the mine, a railroad to the sea was built to haul supplies and copper back and forth.
The town of McCarthy sprung up next to Kennecott – and while the mine closed in 1938 and was abandoned, McCarthy continued on as the small, remote outpost in the middle of the Wrangell Mountains.
Visitors to McCarthy and Kennecott come for the exceptional beauty of the land. Kennicott Glacier flows past Kennecott and right to the edge of McCarthy. A short walk from town takes you to the toe of the glacier, where you can walk across the moraine, and sit at the edge of the lake as ice and rocks fall off the face of the glacier. From Kennecott, daily guided hikes head off up the valley and guides take you out onto Root Glacier (a tributary glacier of the Kennicott Glacier).
Hikers on Root Glacier, Wrangell St. Elias National Park
Hikers of all ages head out onto the ice with guides, and the more adventurous can head out for extended glacier hikes and ice climbing seminars. If you’re both adventurous and a history buff, you can take a guided hike to the mine entrance, over 3000 feet above the valley floor. If you’re a history buff but prefer to stay in the valley, you can take guided tours of the mill building, or just walk around and explore on your own.
Photographers will love McCarthy and Kennecott, because there are so many varied subjects. Whether you want to photograph the ghost town, or prefer landscapes and scenery, you could literally spend weeks there choosing interesting things to shoot.
When it comes to finding a place to stay in McCarthy and Kennecott, there are a number of great choices. The two main spots are Ma Johnson’s Hotel and Kennecott Glacier Lodge.
Ma Johnson's Hotel in McCarthy
Ma Johnson’s Hotel is in McCarthy. The building itself was a rooming house in the early 1900′s. It has been converted to a hotel. The rooms are rather small, but are decorated with period-authentic furniture. When one walks into Ma Johnson’s, you can’t help but feel that you’ve been transported back to 1920.
Kennecott Glacier Lodge is located among the old abandoned mine and mill buildings in Kennecott. The architecture is striking, as the building itself hugs the mountains, and overlooks the glacier.
McCarthy is what I call an “end of the road” town. What that means is that it is a place where people are drawn who prefer to avoid some of the trappings of modern life. As a result, the town is full of colorful and eclectic people – all of whom have interesting stories about how they ended up there at the end of the road.
Getting to McCarthy and Kennecott can be a bit of an adventure. The McCarthy Road is a 60 mile gravel road between Chitina (pronounced ‘Chit-na’) and McCarthy.
Kuskulana Bridge on the McCarthy Road
The road itself was built on the old railbed that ran to Cordova. The road is narrow, and drivers should take their time. But you’ll be rewarded with spectacular scenery and some thrills along the way. If the road seems a little too adventurous for you, there are companies that will either fly you in to McCarthy or take you by van. You could even combine theÂ two, and see the road, and also experience the park from the air.
We include McCarthy in many of our packages. It is a great destination for visitors that are looking for some adventure, some history, a great photo safari or just an amazing authentic Alaskan experience.