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Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

Not as well known as Denali National Park, but really big. And quite unlike Denali.

In Denali, travel is highly regulated. Here, access is by car or van along two dirt roads – the Nabesna Road in the north, and the McCarthy Road to the south.

You can also get here by small plane. The park borders are the Copper River, Canada, and the Gulf of Alaska. The Kennecott copper mines are the high point of any visit.

(Photo, Robert Gaucher)


Friends in Low Places

There was nothing hard-scrabble about the Kennecott mines. Everything was perfectly up-to-date. The workers had hospital facilities. There was a laundry. Fresh fruits and vegetables were railed in. The managers lived in fancy housing and had small children who went ice skating and had tea parties

But when it came time to let off steam, raucous McCarthy was just down the road – full of booze and good times.


McCarthy

McCarthy began as a homestead in 1906, when John Barrett speculated the building of the railroad would need an outfitting town. McCarthy, Kennecott and Chitina all wasted away with the closing of the mines. Steel from the old rails was hauled to Valdez to be shipped “Outside.”

But ironically, many of the rails slid into Valdez Harbor during the Great Alaska Earthquake in the spring of 1964.


Bringing Back the Old Town

It’s a hard job resurrecting a place as isolated as McCarthy. But local people are doing it.

Here’s Ma Johnson's Hotel, a famous McCarthy landmark.

(Photo, Ma Johnson's Hotel)


Hop A Shuttle Between McCarthy and Kennicott

The footbridge at the end of the McCarthy Road isn’t wide enough to accommodate your car. So you’ll park your car near the bridge and walk across to the McCarthy & Kennecott side of the river.

Once you’re on the other side, you’ll find that there are local shuttle services, for a reasonable fee. They travel in a loop between the footbridge, McCarthy, and Kennecott all day long. The van will drop you off and pick you up.

Or, you can ride your bike – or walk the half mile to McCarthy or 5 miles to Kennecott.


Mt. Wrangell Is Alaska's Largest Active Volcano

Of the 15 highest peaks in Alaska, 12 are in Wrangell-St. Elias Park. Mt. Wrangell is the largest active volcano in Alaska. On cloudless days, a small puff of steam can often be seen rising from the north crater near Wrangell’s summit.

Before the Great Alaska Earthquake in 1964 (which did great damage to Anchorage, Valdez, and Portage) the west crater on top of Mt. Wrangell was the most active. But after the earthquake, the north crater became more active.

There is a kilometer of ice on top of Mt. Wrangell. Its mean annual temperature at the summit is 21 degrees below zero. In spite of the extreme cold, over 100 million cubic meters of ice have melted on the north crater since 1964.

One meter below the crater’s surface lies boiling sulfuric acid.

During the days of the gold rush, early miners (who chronicled every day of their exasperating adventures with early Kodak cameras) took photos of Mt. Wrangell billowing big clouds of dark steam.

Scientists are now probing to see what happened inside the mountain after the 2002 Alaska earthquake – and the big tsunami-generating earthquake in Asia.


Bearfooting in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

About the Rivers
All of the rivers in this part of Alaska are very cold. The National Park Service advises you to cross the rivers at their widest, slowest moving channels. Keep your boots on. And tie in if you can before entering the water. Some rivers are “floatable.” Contact the visitor centers for advice about guides and outfitters.

Camping & Lodging
The park's only official campground is Kendesnii Campground on the Nabesna Road, at Mile 27.8. And you don’t need a permit for camping – or for backpacking. On the road to the park you’ll pass by cabins, hotels, cottages, and some camping facilities. There’s camping at the end of the McCarthy Road at the Kennicott River.

Park Cabins
Some public use cabins are reservation only: Viking Lodge Cabin (free), Caribou Creek Cabin (free), & Esker Stream Cabin (which charges a fee). All other public use cabins are first come, first serve. For reservations visitors can call: 907-822-7253.

Water
There are outhouses in the Kennecott-McCarthy area, but drinking water can be a problem. Bring some with you.

Getting Around Kennecott
The road to McCarthy ends at the bridge, half a mile from town. Kennecott is 4 miles up the road. There is a shuttle service, or you can walk or bike to the mines.

Walking Around
The Kennecott Visitor Center has daily ranger programs (in summer only) and local businesses give glacier and history tours. If you’re not on a tour, you have to stay out of the mine buildings. There is a self-guided walking tour of both McCarthy and Kennecott. Ask for a brochure.

Flightseeing
The mountains are often visible here. You’ll find the aerial views of the Kennecott Mines and buildings just as spectacular as the mountains and vast ice fields.


Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Hotspots

Copper Center

The main park visitor center is in Copper Center at Mile 106.8 Richardson Highway. Stop here for historical and natural history displays, including the park film. There are interpretive programs in the summer.

Nabesna

A beautiful log cabin visitor center at Mile .02 Nabesna Road. They have advice on Nabesna travel, maps and interpretive programs. The facility here is known as the Slana Ranger Station.

Chitina

In downtown Chitina at Mile 33 Edgerton Highway. This station is expected to be open on an irregular basis this summer.

McCarthy Kiosk

A small, semi-enclosed booth about a mile before the bridge at the Kennicott River. This has outdoor bulletin boards and information.

Kennecott Visitor Center

The Kennecott Visitor Center is in the historic store downtown, and provides trip planning, bear canister checkouts, interpretive programs, and a film on the history of Kennecott -- in the summer only.


Hiking in the National Park

Don’t underestimate Wrangell-St. Elias. Take advantage of the expertise of local backpacking and mountaineering guides, air taxis, and river rafters.

You can get brochures from the park on trips – like the Kennecott and McCarthy walking tours, the 4-to-8 mile Root Glacier Trail, and the difficult 8-mile Bonanza Mine hike.

Never head into the wilderness unprepared. And let people know where you are going

(Photo, Robert Gaucher)


The Park Service is Fixing Kennecott's Buildings

The National Park Service is working on an ambitious effort to stabilize and renovate many of the buildings at Kennecott. You’ll see workers fixing foundations, walls and roofs and removing debris.

Get information about local tours of the buildings and town from the park service visitor center.



Seeing Double: The Copper Rail Depot Kennecott Models

Ron Simpson, who is a direct descendant of Ahtna Chief Nicolai, has re-created Kennecott and its mine buildings at the Copper Rail Depot in Copper Center. (Look for the Depot near the Copper Center Museum.)

Ron has painstakingly made a large number of 1:24 scale model displays. There are also plenty of historic photographs on display.

If you’re headed to Kennecott, stop here. And if you’re not, stop anyway!


Please Respect Private Property

Once you arrive, please note that you are in an actual town, and respect local privacy and property. It is especially important that you protect fresh water sources.

And don’t enter buildings without a guide.


+ Activities + Things to Get
+ Where to Stay + Where to Eat

mccarthy alaska main street

wrangell mt air

MCCARTHY & KENNICOTT BUSINESSES

ACTIVITIES
Copper Ore Jewelry Store
Kennicott Shuttle
Kennicott Wilderness Guides
Wrangell Mountain Air

WHERE TO STAY
Kennicott Glacier Lodge
Kennicott River Lodge & Hostel
Ma Johnson's Hotel

WHERE TO EAT
Kennicott Glacier Lodge
McCarthy Lodge



McCARTHY & KENNICOTT MAPS AND FEATURES
+ Map: Road to McCarthy & Kennicott
+ Map: Park Crossing, McCarthy/Kennicott
+ Map: Overview of Wrangell-St. Elias Nat. Park
+ Map: Fishing in the Copper River Region

RELATED MAPS AND FEATURES
+ Campground Map for Eastern Alaska
+ Northern Wrangell-St. Elias Park Map


Getting There is Half The Fun

The McCarthy Road is 60 miles long. Rail spikes can surface through the washboard (dramatically but infrequently), and rain can make the road slippery.

It’s 125 miles from Glennallen to McCarthy. The park service recommends driving 20 mph. This means a 3-hour one way trip from Chitina. Take a spare tire.

The park service publishes a McCarthy Road guide and a roadside geology guide for the McCarthy Road.



ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS

Mile 10 McCarthy Road (Strelna Lake) Access to half-mile hiking trail and stocked rainbows and silvers.

Mile 10.7 (Silver Lake) Stocked rainbow trout. Private campground.

Mile 17 (Kuskulana Bridge) 525 feet long, 238 feet above the river. Built in winter of 1910. Mile 29 (Gilahina Trestle) A dramatic abandoned railway trestle left behind by the great Copper River & Northwestern. Snap a photo! It's great!

Mile 59 (National Park Service Kiosk)
Information on trails, maps, day-use only parking. No camping.

Mile 60 (Kennicott River) You must park here. Or turn around. There is a fee for camping and parking on private land. Pit toilets, but no water... welcome to Real Alaska. Cross the footbridge & walk half a mile to McCarthy, or wait for one of several shuttles.

How far is Kennicott from Chitina anyway? And how is it spelled?

60 miles from Chitina

So which is it - “Kennicott” or “Kennecott”? The national park service says the glacier and river are “Kennicott” with an “i”. And the mill and town are “Kennecott” with an “e.” A minor difference in spelling? Hardly. Wars have been fought over less. In other news, the Kennecott company now runs a huge Utah open-pit copper mine.

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

Size: 13.2 million acres

The Alaska, Wrangell, Chugach & St. Elias mountain ranges converge here. Six times bigger than Yellowstone, the park includes 18,008 foot Mt. St. Elias, the U.S.’s 2nd highest peak. Canada’s Kluane National Park is next door. Home of Kennicott & McCarthy.

 


EASY McCARTHY TRAIL

There is an easy half-mile trail which follows a small section of the original Valdez-Fairbanks Trail at the National Park Headquarters in Copper Center.

TRAILS IN THE PARK
If you want to hike in the park itself, you should ask at any of the park visitor centers. You should be aware that there is no system for monitoring individual trips. The best advice is:

1) Ask before setting out.

2) Get good maps.

3) Write out a detailed hiking plan including when you will return, and leave it with a responsible person.

MINING HISTORY: LEAVING THE DINNER TABLE

The Kennecott Copper Corporation started these copper mines deep in the Alaska wilderness in 1911. The mine was producing at a good rate right before the beginning of World War II, when it was abruptly closed and the workers were shipped out.

Some say that the closure was so sudden that tables were left still set for dinner. The mine was never reopened.

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park remains almost completely wild and is a major attraction for experienced hikers and outdoors enthusiasts. Its main entrance is the McCarthy road. Read all about it at the NPS website.

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