Located deep in the heart of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Kennicott and McCarthy offer visitors a taste of Alaska’s historic mining era and outstanding recreational opportunities.
About Kennicott and McCarthy
Kennicott and McCarthy sit five miles apart at the end of the McCarthy Road, about 90 miles from the turnoff from the Richardson Highway. Today, Kennicott is a fascinating ghost town and McCarthy is a little town with a lot of charm, with a year-round population of just a couple of dozen people.
Things to do
Getting to McCarthy
Getting to McCarthy is all part of the experience of this quirky town. There are two ways to reach McCarthy: by air or by road. Daily scheduled flights and air taxi service is available from Chitina, which is a 5 hour drive from Anchorage and 6 hour drive from Fairbanks. The 30 minute flight features spectacular scenery of the Kennicott Valley and a taste of what’s to come in the nearby Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Flying is a great option for many visitors as most rental car companies don’t allow rental cars on the 60-mile McCarthy Road.
From the town of Chitina, the McCarthy Road winds 60 miles through a river valley flanked by mountains. The road served as the route of the Copper River & Northwestern Railway from 1909 – 1938. Today, this partially paved/partially graveled road provides the only road access to McCarthy. Drivers should be adequately prepared for the 2 hour drive, which has no services, no cell service, and narrow, winding, and often rough road conditions. Large RVs are not recommended and it’s a good idea to bring a spare tire. If you’re prepared, the adventurous road rewards with stunning views, access to remote wilderness, and signs of mining history.
The one-lane, 525-foot-long Kuskulana River Bridge is reached at Mile 17 of McCarthy Road. Built in 1910, this historic railroad bridge spans 238 feet above the gorge. It was once called "the biggest thrill on the road to McCarthy" before the state of Alaska added guard rails. The view of the steep-sided canyon and rushing river below is still as thrilling as ever.
Once you reach the end of the McCarthy Road, the unique adventure continues. The road ends at the Kennicott River, where a pedestrian-only footbridge takes you across the river to McCarthy, which is another ½ mile away. Visitors can walk, bike, or take a scheduled shuttle to town.
In McCarthy, visitors will find a few lodging options including a historic hotel, guest house, B&Bs, and cabins, plus a couple of restaurants, a lively saloon, basic services, shuttles to Kennecott Mine, and outfitters that will take them on a range of activities, from glacier trekking and whitewater rafting to flightseeing trips into the alpine heart of Wrangell St.-Elias National Park. The town’s rustic charm and unpaved roads will make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. The interesting McCarthy-Kennicott Historical Museum is housed in the town's former railroad depot and features historical photographs, mining artifacts, and a model of McCarthy in its heyday.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
McCarthy is one of the gateways to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, the largest national park in the U.S. at 13.2 million acres. Within the park, the Wrangell, Chugach, and St. Elias Mountain Ranges merge to create an alpine paradise that includes 9 of the 16 highest peaks in the country. From McCarthy, visitors have access to endless adventures in the park, including hiking, flightseeing, rafting, glacier trekking, backpacking, and the fascinating Kennecott Mines.
Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark
A shuttle van transports visitors five miles up a dirt road to the historic mining ruins at Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark. In recent years, the National Park Service has restored most of the mine buildings, and tours of the huge mill building, bunkhouses, a train depot, worker's cottages, and the power plant are available. The white-trimmed red buildings stand out against the dramatic mountain-and-glacier backdrop at the mine site. The entire area is a photographer’s dream and is a must-see destination for anyone visiting McCarthy. A lodge and restaurant are located in this historic area, featuring breathtaking views of the Root Glacier and mountains.
Hiking and Glacier Trekking
Several hiking trails depart from the Kennecott Mine area, including the Root Glacier Trail, which leads directly to the surface of the Root Glacier. The Root Glacier Trail is a 3-mile round-trip route to the sparkling white-and-blue ice. In less than a mile, visitors arrive at campsites overlooking the end of Root Glacier and then can follow the trail up the lateral moraine for excellent views of the ice. Root Glacier is also a popular destination for glacier trekking. Outfitters in McCarthy offer half-day hikes to and on the glacier and provide glacier trekking equipment including crampons, ice axes, and helmets.
Two other hikes climb the steep mountainous terrain above Kennecott Mine for fantastic mountain and glacier views and access to fascinating mining relics. The Jumbo Mine Trail leads 5 miles up 3,400 feet to the remnants of the buildings and cable terminals of Jumbo Mine in a craggy alpine bowl. The equally impressive Bonanza Mine Trail climbs 4.5 miles up 3,800 feet to the Bonanza Mine building, perched precariously on the rocky slope.
McCarthy's air strip is the starting point for spectacular flightseeing tours of the surrounding mountains and glaciers in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Air charter services offer a wide range of scenic flights that often last from for 30 to 90 minutes.
The Kennicott, Nizina, and Chitina Rivers make for popular float trips in the McCarthy area. Outfitters in McCarthy offer day trips, which include floating through the vertical-walled Nizina Canyon, and multi-day adventures in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park or from McCarthy to Chitina.
Mountain bikes can be rented in McCarthy and are a great way to get around and explore the area. Bikers can ride the 5 mile dirt road between McCarthy and Kennicott or take the Wagon Road Trail that runs parallel to the road through the forest. For a longer outing, mountain bikers head 12 miles south of town to the Nizina River, a scenic spot to spend an afternoon.
After copper was discovered in the area in 1900, a group of wealthy investors formed the Kennecott Copper Corporation (named when a clerical worker misspelled Kennicott) to mine the incredibly rich veins in the jagged mountains above Root Glacier. The corporation built the Copper River & Northwest Railroad to get the copper ore from Kennicott to the nearest port, in Cordova, and established the company town of Kennicott. From 1911-1938, when the mine was in full operation, the company made more than $100 million.
Since no gambling or drinking were allowed in the company town, nearby McCarthy quickly sprang up as a place where miners could enjoy “wine, women, and song” in its saloons, restaurants, hotels, pool halls, stores, and, yes, a red light district. A number of the buildings from that era are still in use and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.