I’ve often said that the drive south from Anchorage along the Seward Highway is one of the most scenic drives I have ever experienced. This fall, we discovered that the Alaska Route 1 northbound is equally as beautiful as its southbound leg.
This past Labor Day weekend, we set off from Anchorage at 7am on Saturday morning to visit two of Alaska’s famed ghost towns, McCarthy and Kennecott, in Wrangell St-Elias National Park. For non-natives of the 49th state, a 7 hr drive is nothing to be sneezed at – we would take Alaska Route 1 north (Glenn Highway) towards Glennallen, followed by the Richardson and Edgerton Highways to Chitina, before negotiating the last 60 miles along infamous McCarthy Road, an un-paved road we were warned could take 2 hours in itself, to our destination. The drive, while long, was not as grueling as we had anticipated, and rather delivered paramount views of the Matanuska-Susitna Valley and Copper River that are second to none.
The route to Glennallen is initially winding and hilly, following the course of the Matanuska River towards its source point at the Matanuska Glacier. With long stretches running above the river and along open crests, there are plenty of opportunities to take in unobstructed views of the wide valley and flanking mountains. This would be a great spot for day-tripping, either to one of the many, quiet lakes accessible from the Glenn or to the Matanuska Glacier itself, which is visible from the road but much better explored by guided tours onto the ice, or even from the top of famous Lion’s Head.
Beyond Matanuska, the topography transitions to vast, open terrain, this time of year a blanket of red and gold punctuated by needle-like, black spruces. Judging from the number of trucks with trailers parked at the trail heads, this is ATV territory. In the distance, the vast mass of the Wrangells is a constant, growing ever more prominent as we approach Glennallen.
Glennallen is surprisingly bare-bones for what we had imagined to be a bigger hub. Other than a quick stop for gas, we pass straight through, taking a right at the Glenn Highway junction, onwards to Chitina. For Canada, turn left instead.
Chitina is tiny town nested in a valley at the junction of the Edgerton Highway and McCarthy Rd. A station on the Copper River and Northwestern (CRNW, otherwise known as “Can’t Run, Never Will”) railway servicing the Kennecott copper mines, it became a ghost town after operations shut down but now forms the entryway to Wrangell-St Elias National Park via McCarthy Rd and, every summer, draws in a multitude of dip-netters in search of the Copper River’s biggest bounty – Copper River red salmon. You’ll know you are nearing the town when you pass Three Mile Lake, the first of three similarly named water bodies situated, I’m supposing, three miles, two miles and one mile out from the town center. It takes the best part of two minutes to drive through the town, before we find ourselves officially on McCarthy Rd, but not before glancing over the “enter at your own risk” sign.
The first few miles of the road are paved and provide dramatic perspectives of the Copper River. The water levels are low this time of year, exposing a wide, gravel-strewn basin with a tangle of meandering channels and rivulets running through it.
The Kuskulana River Bridge marks the beginning of the dirt road. This single lane bridge cuts a striking profile over the deep Kuskulana River canyon. Take advantage of the turn-off conveniently located right before it for photo opps.
Remnants of the old railway system can be found scattered through the park. From the road, a visible example is the Gilahina Trestle, of which only a fragment of its original 890ft length remains. It’s mind-boggling to imagine how difficult these intricate wooden structures would have been to build in the early 1900s and the effort required to maintain them given the remote location and extreme weather conditions.
Wrangell St-Elias also encompasses numerous non-federal tracts, so don’t be surprised to see local traffic along the road, along with the odd B&B, cafe or store. I’m all for the occasional coffee or ice cream whilst exploring the wilderness (as always, just remember to pack all your trash out with you). There are many trails and camping spots that can be accessed via McCarthy Rd for exploring the park with its endless forests and mountainous vistas.
The stories about McCarthy Rd seem to be a bit overblown. I’m not saying you don’t need to be prepared (there are some mighty potholes along the way, and, as with most roads in Alaska during the holiday season, plenty of slow-moving, road-rage-inciting RVs) but it’s not as hair-raising as some of the write-ups make it out to be; drive at a speed appropriate for the conditions, be courteous, and, as always, make sure to have emergency provisions.
McCarthy Rd ends at a footbridge over the Kennecott River, which provides the only publicly accessible route to McCarthy. Shuttles run from the footbridge to both McCarthy and Kennecott. If you’re wondering how they got the buses and vans over the river, there is a privately owned vehicle bridge that users pay a fee to access. After a rather bumpy couple of hours, we are more than happy for an opportunity to stretch the legs and eschew the shuttle for a short half-mile stroll to McCarthy.
In coming posts, we explore quaint McCarthy and make our way to the historic Kennecott Mill Town.
References (and more information on things to do along the way):