Explore an old mining town and our nation’s largest national park in south-central Alaska.
By Jinny Ravenscroft Danzer

Adventurous travelers who want to experience the backwoods of south-central Alaska may consider visiting the early 20th-century mining town of McCarthy, now located within the boundaries of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Six times the size of Yellowstone, Wrangell-St. Elias is our largest–and perhaps wildest–national park.

Then and now

McCarthy became a central freight and passenger stop after Kennecott Copper built a railroad to transport the ore from its mine to port. McCarthy had restaurants, hotels, pool halls, saloons, two newspapers, a hardware store–even a dress shop–to accommodate the miners and residents.

McCarthy was nearly abandoned from the early 1940s to the early 1970s. Today, the town has 60 to 80 year-round residents. Its six streets remain unpaved, and neighborhood dogs greet each other on corners. Some of the buildings remain relics of the past, but since 2001, McCarthy Ventures has been restoring buildings, including Ma Johnson’s Historic Hotel.

Above: The Wrangell Mountains seen from Richardson Highway near McCarthy. Robin Hood/Alaska Travel Industry Association photo

In Title: The abandoned Kennecott mill and cottages are but a reminder of the busy company town of Kennicott. Jinny Ravenscroft Danzer photo
Ma Johnson’s Hotel started as Pete and Ma Johnson’s boarding house, a false-front building built in 1923. It has small but pleasant rooms with colorful quilts on the beds and real artifacts from McCarthy and Kennicott, the mining company town that flourished from 1911-38.

Wood trim and Victorian-style chairs with red upholstery give the hotel’s small lounge a comfortable, old-time feeling. Bookcases and photos of the early days line the walls. Miners’ accounts and old photos give real insight into what it was like living in Kennicott and working in the mine. Most rooms have a sink but share a bathroom.

Another restored property, Lancaster’s Backpacker Hotel, is located in a historic home, and offers rooms for hikers and others who want simple accommodations: a bunk or double bed, linens and towels.

Rates at Ma Johnson’s range from $109 to $249. Rooms in Lancaster’s range from about $50 to $110. Lodging at either hotel includes transportation to and from the footbridge at the end of the McCarthy Road.

McCarthy Lodge, once a cannery, now serves gourmet meals. The New Golden Saloon serves simpler fare. The place to meet locals, the saloon has live bands and sponsors special events during the season, May 15 to Sept. 15. The bar is from the original Golden Saloon, the remains of which still stand in town.

Other businesses include the Mountain Arts Gifts with locally made arts and crafts; a laundry; and the Nugget Liquors, which also sells fresh pastries.

All about Wrangell-St. Elias

The park has the most glaciers and 16,000-foot peaks on the continent. A number of day and longer hikes with overnight camping lead from McCarthy and Kennicott along the Root and Kennicott glaciers to old mining towns and up into the back country.

Spectacular high mountain scenery is easily accessible while flying, ice hiking or climbing. Other activities include rafting, biking and hiking. Consider taking a guided tour; bears are common in the area.

The visitor center, open year-round, is at mile 106.5 on the Richardson Highway between Copper Center and Glennallen, the largest town near the park. The center offers a movie about the park, exhibits and a short nature trail with views of the Wrangell Mountains on a clear day.

Kennicott: authentic mining town

The town of Kennicott, a historical gem, was vacated almost overnight in 1938 when the copper company closed the mine. Early visitors saw dishes still on the tables in miners’ cottages.

Dominated by the massive concentration mill that seems to climb the mountainside, this self-contained company town also had an ammonia leaching plant, assay office, bunkhouses for miners, general store, hospital, school, dairy, power plant–even a skating rink and tennis courts.

The National Park Service purchased buildings and land around the Kennecott mine in 1998. It is restoring some of the buildings and stabilizing others. A new visitor center is being developed in the old store and post office in Kennicott. Rangers give guided walks and talks, while St. Elias Alpine Guides offers tours of the 14-story Kennecott mill building. Kennicott Glacier Lodge (www.kennicottlodge.com) offers rooms in buildings constructed to fit in with the historic site.

Getting to Mccarthy

Driving the 60-mile gravel McCarthy Road, which leads from the hamlet of Chitina to McCarthy, is an adventure. The road follows a rail bed from the Kennecott mill to the port of Cordova, 196 miles away. Although the road is improved from days gone by, it still has washboard areas and potholes. An occasional rail spike may resurface so a 30-mile-per-hour speed limit is recommended for this three-hour trip. Chitina is the only place to buy fuel and supplies. Restrooms and information panels are located at the Chitina Wayside.

A full-size spare tire is recommended for travel on the McCarthy Road, although there are a couple of tire-repair services. Some rental companies allow their cars on Alaskan gravel roads, but extra towing insurance may be needed.

A few houses and an occasional small plane parked along the roadside give a brief hint of civilization. Otherwise, it feels like wilderness. Cloud-topped mountains are occasionally visible in clear weather. There are good views of the Copper and Chitina rivers from the road. The rivers join together at the Copper River Bridge, making great loops as they flow towards the Gulf of Alaska.

Other sights include the looming wooden remains of the 90-foot high Gilahina Trestle, and a single-lane bridge perched 238 feet above the Kuskulana River. After passing the McCarthy Road Information Station, the road ends at a parking lot by the footbridge into McCarthy.

Access to the park is also provided by shuttle from Glennallen, and several small airlines offer flights into McCarthy.

However you get there, McCarthy and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park are well worth the effort.

Jinny Ravenscroft Danzer is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.
Jan/Feb 2008 Issue

For more information about McCarthy, call (907) 554-4402 or visit www.mccarthylodge.com. National park information is at www.nps.gov/wrst/ or call (907) 822-5234. For information about travel to Alaska, contact the Alaska Travel Industry Association, (800) 862-5275, www.travelalaska.com.

To visit Alaska, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides. Click here for a list of offices.

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