Canada & Alaska

Michele & Stephen's trip in 2013

McCarthy Road

Several people told us that we should do "the mines road" north of Valdez. What they meant was the road from Chitina to McCarthy and the Kennecott Mine through the Wrangell - St. Elias National Park & Preserve. We followed their advice and are very glad we did. Highly recommend.

When you start to read up on the McCarthy road you soon realize two things, firstly that the gravel road was originally a railway line and, secondly that you cannot actually drive into McCarthy or Kennecott.

Some guide books claim that the road is very difficult and even dangerous with comments like "Watch out for this narrow, blind, hillside curve with no room to pass. This is no place for an accident." and "In places, remnants of railroad ties may surface, along with the occasional spikes, creating unexpected hazards". When we were there in July 2013 it was a pleasant 95km gravel road suitable for almost any vehicle.

There are a couple of cuttings that remind you that the road started life as a single track railway line. The Kuskulana bridge (originally all wood but now mostly metal) remains spectacular with vertiginous views of the river 70 metres below. The Gilahina trestle is no longer part of the road. Built in 1911 in just eight days, most of its 275 metre length is still standing.

After driving towards McCarthy for 95km you come to the literal end of the road at a river with a narrow, pedestrian-only bridge!

By the river there are several car parks/campgrounds only too willing to charge you USA$20.00 to stay 24 hours.

You have no option.

We stayed at "Base Camp" right by the river with views of the local glacier.

There is in fact a vehicle bridge a little downstream but this bridge is privately owned and apparently only open to residents of McCarthy and Kennecott. The community (or at least the bridge owner?) has decided that no tourist vehicles will enter McCarthy or Kennecott. You have to walk over the pedestrian bridge and either walk to McCarthy and/or take the shuttle bus to Kennecott (USA$5.00). Both are well worth doing.

McCarthy is a fascinating jumble of functioning businesses...

...and decaying buildings and vehicles.

Eight kilometers beyond McCarthy lies Kennecott, a ruin on a different scale! Although often referred to as the Kennecott mine, the main building is actually a concentration mill. The mines were about 8 kilometers away. The ore was carried by a cableway to the top of the mill where the copper was extracted by a combination of grinding, floatation and ammonia leaching. The mine started work in 1900 and was closed in 1938 after producing USA$300,000 worth of copper and silver.

The mill is built almost entirely of wood and has been falling down for 75 years.

What looks like tailings from the mill is actually a glacial moraine that extends many kilometers from the mill.

The notice reads "WARNING - Unstable Explosives - Extreme Danger - KEEP AWAY".

The power plant is partially restored and parts of it can be be viewed.