My husband lived in Alaska in the late 1970s and spent a lot of time hiking and backpacking around the state. He always wanted me to see the small, quiet town of McCarthy and the remains of the Kennicott Copper Mine. I made reservations at Tolsina River Lodge on the Richardson Highway so we could make a day trip to these two beautiful places in central Alaska.
Before we arrived at Chitino where the McCarthy Road begins, we stopped at the local airport. We wanted to see how expensive it would be to fly into McCarthy to save hours of driving time. Unfortunately, they had a flight in, but not a flight out.
We continued on for a few miles to Chitina where the McCarthy Road began with a sign warning to drive at your own risk. The dirt and gravel pot-holed road ended 60 miles in and then the only way to get to McCarthy itself and the Kenncott Mine would be a footbridge. The autumn foliage made the slow bumpy ride worth every minute.
The road crossed the Copper River where we could see distant fish traps that the natives use to catch salmon. The autumn-tree-laced road wound in and out of Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Refuge which is the largest national park in the US. This park is home to some of the highest mountain/volcanoes in the North America: Mount Sanford, the sixth highest at 16,237 feet, Mount Drum at 12,011 feet and Mt. Wrangell at 14,163.
One of the highlights on the McCarthy Road is the Tuskaluna Bridge built in 1910 for the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad. It spans 525 feet across the Copper River Canyon and 238 feet above the river.
Another autumn photo op was the remains of a train trestle left from the days when copper was taken from the mine in Kennicott to Cordova 196 miles away.
We parked the truck and crossed the footbridge over the McCarthy River to go to McCarthy. We actually ate our lunch watching some kayakers float the river on their way to Cordova 7-8 days away. Visitors who stay on land take shuttles up the mountain road to the Kennicott Mine National Historic Area. We walked the scant mile to McCarthy to find a shuttle.
McCarthy is a tiny village where moose and bear mingle with humans. There is a museum, coffee shop, a couple of restaurants, an airfield, and signs that remind guests that all water is their source of water so keep pets out of the creeks. Several residents live in McCarthy year round while others are seasonal. We met a couple at Liard Hot Springs who have lived there in the summers for the past 30 years. He works in the museum; she helps at an antique shop. How do they live there with only a footbridge? One of the full-time residents paid to build a private bridge for locals’ use only. Locals who want to use the bridge pay $500 or more for the privilege of using the bridge.
The Kennicott mill town and mines sit five miles above the town of McCarthy. It remains as a reminder of the north and west expansion along with the mill that employed 300 men who braved the harsh elements to live and work in the wilderness mining copper. Many of these men had wives and children making the population of this mountain town about 600. Kennicott was self-contained and included a hospital, general store, meat locker, school, skating rink, recreation hall, and dairy. From 1911 to 1938 nearly $200 million worth of copper was processed in the mine until prices rose and the cost of milling and transporting it became too high. Today, some of the buildings have been refurbished by the National Park Service sparing the beauty of the town from complete disintegration. There is also a restaurant/hotel for guests who want to spend more time in this mountain town, riding mountain bike paths or hiking to the glacier.
The Kennicott Glacier looms behind the remains of the town reminding visitors that once upon a time there were 600 people living high in these Wrangell mountains in the shadow of a living, moving glacier.