McCarthy & Wrangell-St. Elias

Driving down The McCarthy Road to the town of McCarthy and Wrangell-St. Elias.

August 11 & 12.

After watching the surfers on the Bore tide it was time to leave the Anchorage area again and head to new adventures. We had two destinations in mind that were roughly in the same direction, Valdez and Mccarthy. To get to either place from Anchorage we would drive northeast on the Glenn Hiway for 180 miles then hang a right on the Richardson Highway. After about 30 miles on the Richardson, we’d have to make choice – continue on the Richardson to Valdez or hang a left on the Edgerton Highway toward McCarthy.

We checked the weather forecast for the next week. Valdez showed clouds and rain. McCarthy showed clouds and rain except for one lone day of full sunshine. We decided to head for the sunshine.

We had 93 miles left to McCarthy after we made our turn onto the Edgerton. About 51% of those miles were paved and the rest were gravel/dirt. It was a long trip so we stopped shorty before the paved road ended in a somewhat developed, seemingly abounded free campground. We were up early the next morning to get to Mccarthy and make the most of our day of sunshine.

The road morphed from The Edgerton Highway into The McCarthy Road when the pavement ended. There were few signs of civilization along the way. A huge black bear crossed our path. Our guidebook, the Milepost, had lots of warnings highlighted in red along this route, “slow for rollercoaster dip,’ “road narrows,” “steep drop off,” etc. We jostled slowly toward our destination.

So you might wonder, what’s so special about McCarthy for us to make this arduous trek? We would soon find out everything is special about McCarthy but our main draw at the time was to be able to hike on a glacier.

McCarthy lies at the edge of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. The park is massive at 13.2 million acres. It includes St. Elias is the second tallest peak in the US (18,029 feet). It also contains the largest collection of glaciers in North America. Yet, as amazing as this park is and even though it is accessible by driving, it seems to consistently make the list of the 10 least visited national parks. People don’t know what they’re missing.

Not only is the park worth the long bumpy drive, but adjacent to the park there is also a National Historic Landmark, the ruins of the Kennecott mine village. And then there is the quirky town of McCarthy.

This small town of around 100 inhabitants sprang into existence around the turn of the century when the neighboring Kennecott mine was active. McCarthy provided the workers a place to do things that were forbidden in Kennecott like gamble, drink, and visit brothels.

Still a town today, long after the mine closed, it is a place where dogs roam free, local musicians jog together before their gigs, LGBTQ friendliness extends beyond waving a flag, and law enforcement doesn’t exist. McCarthy was the subject of a reality series produced by the Discovery Channel in 2014 called Edge of Alaska. We got the scoop on Edge of Alaska and the real life of the characters behind the scenes from our bus driver who brought us back from the Wrangell-St. Elias. She also filled us in on the dog who travels 15 miles a day, oftentimes joining strangers on their hikes through the national park.

At the very end of our bumpy ride down McCarthy Road, we dead-ended at Base Camp and the Kennecott River. A walking bridge takes people across the river and into town. Base Camp is a somewhat expensive campground with no amenities except for potties. We could have stayed at a different campground just a bit further back down the road or tried to find some boondocking in the woods even further back down the road but Base Camp was convenient, it was early, we were only staying one night, and camping right on the river seemed to be part of the experience.

Once we got settled and walked across the river we waited for a shuttle to take us into town. There are two different shuttles that go to the exact same places. One is free and one costs $5. The $5 shuttle came and we decided to not wait for the free one and walked the half mile to town. The walk was lovely and we spotted a new bird species! Once in McCarthy, we caught the free shuttle five miles up to the Kennecott Visitor Center.

When we were dropped off, along with the visitor center we found other businesses that offered food and souvenirs, tours of the mine building, and excursions into the national park. We skipped all that, decided to tour the free parts of the Kennecott Village, and hike to the impetus of this journey Root Glacier.

As far as I remember the two-mile trail to the glacier was mostly easy with a few exhausting ups or down here and there. It was also stunningly beautiful in some places. At the toe of the glacier, we rested up for our hike on the ice. Although I had read that it was recommended to have crampons on your boots for better traction on the ice, we had also heard that this wasn’t necessary. Walking on the ice was easy at first but the farther we went the more I wished I had crampons. We tried to walk in the soft spots, and cracks in the ice, and rest on areas where there was exposed ground. It was beautiful and we are pretty determined. We walked a good long way before we turned and gingerly hiked slowly back.

Back at the visitor center, we caught a ranger talk about wolves and waited for our ride back to McCarthy. There were just a few on the bus ride back and our driver was talkative. She and one of the passengers kept a running conversation going about the town. We enjoyed eavesdropping.

In town, we dropped into a bar for a beer and chatted with more people learning more about the town. Down the street, we found The Potato where we splurged and had dinner.

Returning to Base Camp we chose again to walk. Our beautiful sunny day was coming to an end. Up ahead we saw people gather on a bridge that overlooked the road heading into town. We joined them and saw what had their attention. A moose and its calf! Could our sunny day have ended any better?

Click on pics to enlarge, read captions, and view in a slide show!

8 thoughts on “McCarthy & Wrangell-St. Elias

  1. Yes, crampons are HIGHLY recommended if walking on glaciers/ice.

    Our Riometer building on Arrival Heights, outside of McMurdo Sound, Antarctica, was a mile from town by road, but only 300 yards away by walking down the glacier. So a pair of crampons got us down for lunch/dinner and the hike back wore off some of the calories. I used to have a pair for winter camping in the Sierras, but don’t know what happened to them.

    1. Thanks Thomas. It’s a special place. A friend had previously told us about how much she loved it there. Now we know why!

  2. You definitely had the perfect day for that and made the most of it. It’s so cool to visit one of the least visited parks, and have such great weather while you did it. And I am super jealous you got to hike on a glacier. How cool is that? But yes, I would have grabbed crampons. Not so much for the way up, but for the way back. I have such a fear of slipping on ice like that, I would have had to scoot down on my backside the entire way. I’m such a wuss… Anyway, the moose and calf sighting really just capped off an spectacular day. I’m glad it all worked out!

    1. It was probably the best weather day we had our whole time in Alaska. Crampons would have made the hike so much easier but we went pretty far before it got so hard we had to turn around. I’m glad we made it without having to scoot on our butts. It would have been pretty cold! Seeing a moose always makes my day special!

  3. I’m so glad you had a wonderful sunny day that you managed to make the most of. McCarthy sounds like a place not to be missed! Seeing and walking on that glacier is special. I wish you could have stayed longer than one night. It looks like one of those places to spend some time and let the culture, local experiences, and nature sink in.

    1. Yes, it would have been nice to have spent more than one night. There were more hikes we could have done in the park and I’m sure if we had spent more time in the bar we would have met some interesting characters. But our time in Alaska was short and we had to move on…But if we were to have one sunny day, I’m glad it was there.

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