Entering the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve from either side shows you the grace of being something so small in this immense and intricate world. Giant snow covered peaks sit atop rolling coniferous forests here. The boundless skies that backdrop the landscape showcase the iridescent colors that come with the rising and setting of the sun. This gradient of mysticism only highlights the features of this inexhaustible terrain.
From whichever direction you enter the park the once paved roads soon transition to dirt. Local legends warn of the necessity of extra tires on this travel if by car. Old railroad ties tend to unearth themselves out of the gravel over time and puncture the wheels of unsuspecting travelers. Cell service and gas stations are far from reach on this remote stretch.
After many twist and turns through solitude you may take in the sights of time worn railroad lines stilted above. And soon you will find yourself at signage for the last call for parking and campsites. At the end of this dirt road you will either find yourself at a padlocked gate or the foot bridge into the quaint town of McCarthy.
The History of McCarthy
Stories of this small towns genesis begin with a large outcrop of copper ore being found and sold in 1900 to Stephen Birch, a 28 year old engineer from New York. Birch was the one to buy supplies and travel them in over the extreme terrains of Alaska to start construction of one of the largest copper mines to date. By 1905 the mine was fully operational and supplied work for hundreds of men in the mines of Kennecott. (Visitor Information Center)
Nearby, the small town of Shushuna became known as McCarthy, after the philanthropist James McCarthy who claimed residence in the town for some time (Northern Exposure). The town soon became the social scene for miners and supplied the demands of food, spirits, and various entertainments fitting to a miner at the turn of the century. In 1907 the Copper River and Northwestern railroad started construction.
After four years of dedication to starts and failures through some of Alaska’s most rugged terrain, Michael J. “Big Mike” Heney was recognized for the completion of the 196 mile railroad. In 1907, once the railroad was finished, becoming a connector to the coast, McCarthy became a railroad turnaround point for about 800 people living in the area.
In 1938 the copper ore began to run out. Just as soon as everyone had arrived it was as if they were gone in the blink of an eye. Leaving behind remnants of daily routines and still frames of mining operations. The town looked as if it were put on pause, ready to start up again at any moment.
The 1970’s gave water to McCarthy’s old roots as a social hub again. That is to say that in 1978 Jimmy Carter made the declaration to make McCarthy a national monument. This brought about the resurrection of tourism for the small town and ushered the way for the site to become part of the National Park Service leaving McCarthy to be explored once again.
Following the exodus of the mining population McCarthy has since had a rebirth. Now this area is a hub for outdoor immersion and exploration while being the epicenter of the social scene. Small town charm radiates from the streets of historic buildings and local shops here. While the year round population is low the number of visitors increases each year.
The road entrance to the town is guarded by a gate and padlock. This leaves the footbridge that crosses the river as the main entrance for most. The only individuals to enjoy the luxury of entering the town by personal car are the residents and approved entities. Once over the footbridge there is the choice to take a fee based shuttle into town or to walk the dirt road in by foot.
Once inside, the quaint town greets you with amenities nestled into an antique setting. Upon a personal visit we were able to enjoy multiple meals at a favorite local eatery known for it’s excellence in spud based dishes. This was a perfect way to end our full day adventures with a cold beer and crispy fries. Lodging in the town can vary from famous old-time hotels, dry cabins, or even some luxury settings. The nightlife here can be lush with intimate and unique entertainment at the local saloon ‘downtown’.
Traveling by bike is a personal recommendation for exploring these dirt roads and fixtures of the town. Taking the old wagon trail is a great way to enjoy the forested areas and use as a connector from the town to the mining area. Shuttles also run from the ‘downtown’ area of McCarthy up to Kennecott by dirt road.
The National Park Service has restored many of the buildings and provides interpretive signage and guided tours. You can now walk through restored homesteads and experience what it was like to be a resident in the town of Kennecott during the peak of mining operations.
You can meander through the mining operations to imagine what a day in the frigid temperatures and harsh conditions might have been like. Colossal steam based machinery and blueprints are at your finger tips as you meander through the operations buildings. This experience takes you as close as you can get to what life was once like in ‘The Last Frontier’ by exploring McCarthy
Glaciers and Mountains
From McCarthy you have access to many different features but some of the more popular choices are the exploration of nearby glaciers. These ice giants spill from the mountains and nestle into the valley below and melt into the nearby rivers. The Root Glacier provides routes to careen through ice features and spot giant blue crevasses. Ice climbing and mountaineer route traverse across these ice fields and into the surrounding ranges.
The Kennicott Glacier carves around mountain sides to meet with the Root Glacier. The toe of this glacier is easily accessible by forested trails. While visiting the area we explored the glacial lake that the ice melts into in the summer season. Time passes along easily here as rocks cascade in rhythm from the high peaks of the moraine into the lake. Icebergs bob along through the afternoons and the backdrop showcases the layers of mountains and ice. This is a great place for a short exploration with paramount views.
Nearby the mining sites, farther into the elevation you can hike to old mines such as the Bonanza Mine. After some elevation gain you might spot the remnants of dilapidated buildings. These hikes will take you to some excellent high points to enjoy the majesty of the wilderness.
These are just a few points and first hand accounts of why McCarthy is a great stop weather you are traveling from the seaside or the interior. There is much more to this area than just these lines of words. If you are looking for a little Alaska charm and some more adventure, Exploring McCarthy might be for you.