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McCarthy & Kennicott Alaska–Towns in Wrangell – St. Elias National Park & Preserve

McCarthy and Kennicott – Two Adjoining Towns with Famous History

The famous towns of McCarthy and Kennicott Alaska, at the turn of the 20th century, were flooded with prospectors, miners, and investors. The two towns are interconnected, Kennicott being the old mining town, McCarthy being the vice town. As a result, the gold rush of the Klondike and the shores of Nome was in full swing. The port town of Valdez was a jump-off point for many making their way inland to the interior in search of precious minerals. The Copper River and its drainages were known to be rich copper country. Interactions with local natives, their copper tools, and jewelry told interested parties that the mineral was somewhere upriver.

Kennicott McCarthy Virtual Tour – Enjoy The Stunning Views of These Historic Towns

In the heart of the 13.2 million-acre Wrangell-St. Elias National Park lies Alaska’s most hidden gems, the pioneering towns of Kennicott and McCarthy. Some of the last frontiers host beautiful mountain landscapes, prestigious glaciers, and untouched wilderness. But the most magic within this place is the journey to get there. Take an inside look at how to get to McCarthy and Kennicott Alaska.

Copper Mining History–McCarthy and Kennicott Alaska

During the summer of 1900, a prospecting party made its way into the Wrangell mountains. Two of these prospectors, Clarence Warner and “Tarantula” Jack Smith were making their way along the moraine of the Kennicott Glacier when they spotted a patch of brilliant green high up on the mountainside. Too high up to be a field of grass, the two men ascended the mountains and found a large outcropping of malachite, a copper ore, and made the first of multiple claims along the mountainside.

The Bonanza claim would soon turn out to be the purest copper found anywhere on earth! This led to the creation of the Kennicott Copper Corporation and massive infrastructure investments by the Guggenheim and Morgan families. As a result, they eventually extracted over $200 million (Over $2.5 Billion in current US dollars) in copper from the hillside until the mine’s permanent closure in 1938.

Original Kennecott Mill Building

Original Kennicott Mill Building

Original Kennecott Mill Building with Blooming Flowers

Original Kennicott Mill Building with Blooming Flowers

Kennicott and Kennecott – History Behind These Two Spelling Variations

Why are there two spelling variations for this Alaskan town? Kennicott is the name of the glacier and the valley, named after the naturalist Robert Kennicott. The town took the name from the glacier, however, for a much-debated reason, the town was spelled Kennecott.

No one can agree if it was a clerical error, or a deliberate maneuver by the copper company to discern between the town and the surrounding area. Either way, the two spellings still hold today, Kennicott with an “i'” denoting all the natural features of the valley while Kennecott with an “e” denoting all aspects of the town and mining operation.

A Railroad Was Built, the Town of McCarthy Was Born

While the wheels were turning on creating a Copper Town, 5 miles down the road, John Barret homesteaded 296 acres along McCarthy Creek. Barret theorized that his land was the best location for a locomotive turnaround for the railroad–being constructed to haul Copper to the port town of Cordova. From Cordova, the Copper would be shipped to Guggenheim-owned smelters in Tacoma, Washington. Barret’s theory turned out to be correct and he leased a portion of his land to the railroad for their turnaround.

When gold was found up the country in Chisana, and rumors of other mineral deposits brought squatters onto John’s land, he divided some of the lands into leasable parcels, and the town of McCarthy, Alaska was born. McCarthy, Alaska played the vice town to Kennicott’s strict company policy of no booze, brothels, or gambling. A red light district sprung up on the banks of the creek and, to avoid prohibition-era regulations, the railroad engineers devised a special train whistle to alert the local saloons that a US Marshall was on board.

After the mines of Kennicott closed in 1938, the area quickly became a ghost town.

Overlooking The Town of McCarthy Alaska

Overlooking The Town of McCarthy Alaska

Where Are McCarthy and Kennicott Alaska

Where is the famous mining small town? Just 80 miles from the Canadian border, Kennicott, Alaska is located on the southern edge of the Wrangell Mountain range and in the heart of Wrangell St. Elias National Park. McCarthy, Alaska sits at the toe-end of the Kennicott and Root Glaciers, in the rain shadow of the Chugach mountains.

The coast on the south side of the Chugach receives hundreds of inches of precipitation per year, McCarthy, Alaska averages less than 30-inches. The famous McCarthy Road is a 315-mile drive from Anchorage, Alaska, and a 370-mile drive from Fairbanks, Alaska. Both drives are stunningly beautiful through mountain ranges, along rivers, past glaciers, and alpine lakes.

The famous McCarthy Road from Chitina Alaska and Kennicott Alaska. Getting off the beaten path in Alaska means that the journey is just as important as the destination!

Top Ten Things To Do in McCarthy and Kennicott Alaska

  1. Jump Off an Iceberg

    • Suit up in a drysuit and join a rafting, kayaking, or paddleboard trip. Giant icebergs float around the “melt pond” of the receding Kennicott Glacier. Taking the plunge from one of these icebergs is a uniquely McCarthy experience. It isn’t every day that you can safely jump into 35-degree water and go home to tell your friends about it!
  2. Raft Class III Whitewater

    • Tumbling out of the “melt pond” lake that has formed at the toe of the Kennicott Glacier, the Kennicott River is a fast, fun Class III raft, expect to get splashed! With only 6 miles of the river to the raft before you have to hire an airplane for pick-up, A Half Day Lake & River Raft combines a brief tour of the glacier lake, an iceberg plunge, and an action-packed stretch of the river.
  3. Walk on a Glacier

    • The Root Glacier is one of the most accessible valley glaciers in Alaska.  A short 2 mile walk from Kennicott along the glacier trail to the white ice. Hire a guide and get a day’s worth of checking out Blue Pools, Moulins, and other phenomenal glacier features. You can combine a glacier hike with a rafting trip on the water that originated as glacier ice, we call it the total glacier experience!
  4. Visit the Phenomenal Local Museum

    • The Kennicott McCarthy Historical Museum, located in the old McCarthy Railroad Depot is a must-see for any visitor. Operated by a group of dedicated locals, the museum contains photos and artifacts from the glory days of copper mining. The photo timeline of Kennicott’s construction and operation from 1900 to 1938 is very impressive. With the old railroad turntable across the street, along with a reading room that contains great local historical material, it is easy to spend a few hours checking out the great items on display.
  5. Take a FlightSeeing Tour

    •  Surrounded by 13 million-acres, Wrangell St. Elias National Park–there is a lot to see out of McCarthy. Taking a 30, 60, 90, or 120-minute FlightSeeing with a local flight service allows you to get up and see a majority of this country, which is otherwise inaccessible. For a truly awesome day, take an early morning FlightSeeing, then jump on our 2 PM Lake & River Raft for an adventure-filled day!
  6. Relax in the Middle of Nowhere

    • This is what McCarthy and Kennicott are known for–with miles of space for you to relax, listen to the sounds of nature, read a book, or take in the birds. One of the best parts of traveling somewhere so unique and small is the absence of mass amounts of people. Hike along the westside of the Kennicott Glacier from the Park’s westside visitors center and enjoy stunning views towards Kennicott and the Kennicott Glacier with hardly a soul around.
  7. Enjoy a Meal at The Potato and/or the Meatza Wagon.

    • Local chefs show off their culinary expertise at two of the best local eateries. In McCarthy, The Potato has been a staple for over 2 decades! Starting as a food truck, they now have the finest restaurant in town. Simple, good food, they also have a fine selection of beer, wine, and cider. In Kennicott, make sure to grab a meal pre or post glacier hike at The Meatza Wagon, a food truck with the best glacier side views in Alaska.
  8. Take a Free NPS-led Tour of the Kennicott Mill Site

    • The National Park Service offers free daily walking tours of Mill Town. A ranger-led walk can bring the history, struggle, and triumph of the mining operation to life as rangers describe the buildings and significance of the Copper Mine within Alaska’s history. Want to go at your own pace? Download the National Park Walking Tour Map and enjoy the picturesque town at your own pace.
  9. Hike to the Bonanza and Jumbo Mines

    • At 4,000-feet elevation, above the mill town of Kennicott are the mines where the town extracted the copper. These hikes are not for the faint of heart–4,000-feet of elevation gain over, a 4-mile hike means every step is UP. The rewards are sweeping views of the Kennicott Valley and exploring the remnants of the mining days.
  10. Fly in With the Mail!

    • The mail plane is a lifeline to McCarthy, Alaska. All of the town’s mail is delivered to a P.O. box in Glennallen that the entire town shares. Twice a week,  Mondays and Thursdays, the mail is loaded into a bush plane and flown out to McCarthy for distribution in our mail shack year-round. The Mail Plane also offers reasonable seats for folks looking for a bit of a different adventure.  A Mail Plane flight from Anchorage will stop in Gulkana for a plane change and continuation onto McCarthy–in total the trip takes a little over 2 hours. That’s quite the difference from an 8-hour drive

How to Get to McCarthy Alaska from Anchorage or the Copper Basin

The Famous McCarthy Road

The Famous McCarthy Road

From Anchorage:

  • Reeve Air & Copper Valley Air team up to offer a twice-weekly flight (Mondays and Thursdays) from Anchorage to McCarthy on The Mail Plane.
  • Soaring Eagle Transit offers shuttle service between Anchorage, Glennallen, and Valdez on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.
  • Interior Alaska Bus Line offers shuttle service between Anchorage and Glennallen on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

From the Copper Basin:

  • The Kennicott Shuttle offers a daily shuttle from Glennallen to McCarthy with stops in Copper Center, Kenny Lake, and Chitina along the way.
  • Wrangell Mountain Air has a daily flight schedule between Chitina and McCarthy.
  • Copper Valley Air flies from the Gulkana Airport to McCarthy.