The Kennecott & McCarthy Area
This historic copper area is the only part of the park most visitors see, as it's the most accessible and has the most services, interesting sites, and paths to explore. It's still not easy to get to, however -- that's why it's still so appealing -- and there's little point in going without adequate time. You can hit the highlights at Kennecott and McCarthy in a full day, but just getting there takes time.
The main event is the ghost town of Kennecott, whose red buildings gaze from a mountainside across the Kennicott Glacier in the valley below. Now owned by the Park Service, the buildings made up an isolated company town until 1938, when it abruptly shut down. Tourists coming here as late as the 1960s saw it as if frozen in time, with breakfast dishes still on the tables from the day the last train left. Most of that was looted and destroyed in the 1970s, but when I toured the company store a few years ago, old documents still remained, and the powerhouse and 14-story mill buildings still had their heavy iron and wood equipment. Besides the buildings, there are excellent hiking trails, including one that traverses the glacier. The town now has only a few year-round residents, but in summer is busy with a lodge, a couple of bed-and-breakfasts, guide services, and park rangers.
Five miles down the road, Kennecott's twin town of McCarthy served the miners as a place to drink, gamble, and hire prostitutes on rare days off -- the company didn't allow any frivolity in Kennecott or in the bunkhouses high up on the mountain. McCarthy retains the relaxed atmosphere of its past, with businesses and residents living in false-front buildings not much changed from Wild West days. More of a year-round community, McCarthy has a restaurant, lodging, flight services, and other businesses.
Yet even this most populous part of the park is isolated and sparsely inhabited, with few services. Only about 50 people live in the greater area year-round. You will find no banking services, general stores, gas stations, clinics, police, or anything else you're used to relying on. Phones came to McCarthy and Kennecott only in the late 1990s and still are few. Cellular and Internet services exist, but not always reliably. Bring what you need.
Getting There -- By Car -- The paved Edgerton Highway starts 17 miles south of Copper Center on the Richardson Highway, then runs east for 33 miles to the tiny, dried-up former railroad town of Chitina (chit-na), the last reliable stop for groceries, gas, and other necessities until you return here. Do fill your tank; prudence also demands a full-size spare tire. Heading east, into the park, the McCarthy Road continues along the roadbed of the Copper River and Northwestern Railway. This is 60 miles of narrow dirt road, muddy in wet weather and clouded with dust when it's dry. Each year it has been improved a little, and two-wheel-drive cars can normally make it. The drive is a fun adventure, passing through tunnels of alders and crossing rivers on some of the original wooden railroad trestles; one wood-decked bridge spans a canyon more than 200 feet deep. There are virtually no services, very few buildings, and little traffic on the 3-hour drive. If you are driving a rented car, consider using the van or air options mentioned below, leaving the car in Chitina. I have listed companies that rent cars that can be driven on this unpaved road in Fairbanks and Anchorage.
The road ends at a parking lot and collection of seasonal businesses on the banks of the Kennicott River. You can drive no further; several businesses offer overnight parking for $5 to $10 per night. Next, you walk across two footbridges. Late in the summer, the Kennicott Glacier releases a flood from a glacier-dammed lake, but at other times the second channel is a dry wash. Handcarts are available to move your luggage across, and on the other side you can catch a van. The place where you are staying will send one, or you can ride the van operated by McCarthy-Kennicott Shuttle (tel. 907/554-4411), $2 to McCarthy or $5 per person, one-way, to Kennecott. It runs every half-hour. A public telephone is near the bridge that you can use to call your lodgings.
By Van -- Backcountry Connection (tel. 907/822-5292; www.kennicottshuttle.com) runs vans from Glennallen, Copper Center, Kenny Lake, and Chitina to the Kennicott River footbridge daily in summer. The van leaves Glennallen at 7am, Copper Center 7:30am, Kenny Lake 8am, and Chitina at 8:30am, arriving at the footbridge at 11am. The return trip departs from the footbridge at 4:30pm, getting back to Chitina around 6:30pm, Kenny Lake 7:30pm, Copper Center 8pm, and Glennallen 8:30pm. The same-day round-trip fare is $99, or $139 if you return on a different day; they also offer the option of flying one-way.
By Air -- A simple way to Kennecott and McCarthy is to drive to Chitina -- as far as you can go on pavement -- and fly the rest of the way on one of the air taxis. Once there, get around in the vans that shuttle back and forth over 5 miles of dirt road. Wrangell Mountain Air (tel. 800/478-1160 or 907/554-4411; www.wrangellmountainair.com) offers three flights daily from Chitina to McCarthy for $247 round-trip, with a little flightseeing around the glaciers and peaks, and including ground transportation once there. You can add on lunch and activities, such as a half-day glacier hike or ghost town walking tour. This day trip option gives you enough time at Kennecott without having to spend the night there. A reputable service operating between Chitina and McCarthy on an on-demand basis is McCarthy Air (tel. 907/554-4440; www.mccarthyair.com).
Wednesday or Friday, it's possible to fly in a prop plane all the way from Anchorage. A couple of flight services team up to do this: You fly on one from Anchorage to Gulkana and then on the mail plane from Gulkana to McCarthy. Check prices ahead of time. Contact Copper Valley Air Service (tel. 866/570-4200 or 907/822-4200; www.coppervalleyair.com), which handles all the booking and flies the Gulkana-to-McCarthy leg.
Visitor Information -- The main park visitor center is on the Richardson Highway near Copper Center (tel. 907/822-5234; www.nps.gov/wrst). Stop in to buy maps and publications, watch a movie, or get advice from a ranger on outdoor treks. Hours are Memorial Day to Labor Day daily from 9am to 6pm; in winter, Monday through Friday from 8am to 4:30pm. You can write for information to P.O. Box 439, Copper Center, AK 99573. The Park Service is restoring buildings and offers visitor services in Kennecott itself. A former general store has become a visitor center, a good place to stop with questions for rangers, plan a backcountry trip, or join one of the daily guided activities. A ranger station for the less-visited northern area of the park lies on the Nabesna Road near its intersection with the Tok Cutoff Highway, about 80 miles north of Glennallen. That's an area for solitary roadside camping among broad views.