Visiting Wrangell St. Elias National Park: The Home to McCarthy and Kennecott, Alaska

Wrangell St. Elias National Park

On our first official day on our own in the Alaskan wilderness I, quite ambitiously, planned a huge day. It involved driving the McCarthy Highway, twice, an adventurous activity, and exploring both the cool town of McCarty, and the Kennecott copper mill, all in the heart of Wrangell St. Elias National Park. The road ahead of us that morning wasn’t particularly long, but those sixty miles are pretty rough. There is one road in, and one road out, and once you pass the only town along the way, it’s entirely unpaved.

McCarthy Highway

To enjoy everything we wanted to, we had to leave pretty early. Leaving our campsite, we drove until hunger won out, pulling over to eat cereal overlooking a ravine. I’ll tell ya folks, it doesn’t get much better than that.

As we pressed further into the park, surrounded by mountains, and foliage, and even a moose! The most common animal we saw however were rabbits. If you’re planning on driving the McCarthy Highway, be on serious rabbit patrol. There were never more than fifteen minutes that went by where we didn’t see one, usually darting into the road. Their presence had me singing, “bunnies bunnies bunnies bunnies runnin’ everywhere,” getting the ever relevant “Miss New Booty” stuck in my head for the next week.

McCarthy, Alaska

We finally were getting close to McCarthy, when we came to a bridge. The GPS told us to drive over it, but Josh and I looked at each other both saying, “I don’t think we’ll fit.” And it was true. This bridge was not made for cars. Which explained the large, and almost full, parking lot to the left. Parking is five dollars, and then you’re free to leave your car and head across the bridge. There is a shuttle that stops at the end of the McCarthy side of the bridge. It is free if you’re only headed into McCarthy, but five dollars each way if you’re headed to Kennecott. We opted instead to walk, which would have been more enjoyable if we had waterproof shoes. Beavers dammed the town’s water supply, and flooded the road in the process.

When we made it to our destination, no worse for the wear, I marveled at how tiny this town is. I had read about it, and I had looked at the map, but I wasn’t prepared. It worked to out fine though because our destination was extremely easy to find. Standing in front of McCarthy River Tours, I knew I was going to like these guys. They just have a little garage, a desk where the owner Nik was waiting for us, and there were various pairs of shoes lined up, reminding me of family parties where everyone piled their shoes at the front door. Josh and I would be the only two on the tour that day, which was happening often. Nearly everyone we talked to told us the tourist season was just about over, and we would be their last guests of the year.

McCarthy center store

Main street mccarthy Alaska

Rafting the Kennecott River

Our guide Logan met us at that point, helped us into dry suits, and explained the shoes. They provided sneakers to go over our dry suits, and so we could leave ours on dry land. Shortly after suiting up, we loaded into a van headed to the river. Do not go into this activity expecting to sit back and watch. You are required to do the brunt work. Logan steered us around the lake formed from the Kennecott Glacier. Logan told us about glaciers, the town, his many outdoor adventures, and coaxing us on with the order of “all forward,” which usually meant we were going too slow. We went around the lake, adjusting to rowing, the boat, and the icy cold water. Then it was time for the highlight of the tour: rapids man!

glacier lake raft

The Kennecott River has some class III rapids, although part of that classification is because of water temperature and ease of rescue. So being glacier fed, and really far away from the rest of the world, causes what would normally be a class II more dangerous. Regardless of any rating system, we had a blast racing down the river, Logan steered us headfirst into bumps, rapids, and much more urgent All Forwards. It was a perfect experience, even up to the point where we got out of the river. With so many adventures the fun is over too soon, and all you want is a second turn, but this run was actually an awesome length, and they brought you in right before your feet get so cold you think you’re going to lose them. Timing like that is difficult to master.

raft glacier

Here we loaded up a different van, and got a ride back to headquarters. I finally learned the secret of how to get a car into McCarthy. One family built a bridge on their property, and they maintain it themselves, and as such they sell keys to the gates guarding the bridge. They’re three hundred dollars for personal use, and twelve hundred for commercial use, although I am not sure if that’s a yearly fee or a one time deal. Either way, it seems clear to me that knowing how to build a bridge can be pretty lucrative.

Kennecott, Alaska

We arrived back in town, and walked the main street a couple times. For McCarthy, that is more than enough, so we decided to head to Kennecott. For this trip, I recommend the shuttle. The walk is not too long, but it will take a lot of time. Hidden away at the end of the walks some remarkable history. Copper was found in 1900, and a couple big names, including J.P. Morgan and the Guggenheim family, built a copper mill, mines and a railroad. With the boom of electricity copper was in extremely high demand. Even after rebuilding the mill after a fire, the mill allowed the owners to still take home huge profits. That is until the depression hit the US. Coinciding with that, the copper in the area depleted, leaving the owners to shut down the mill, giving the workers two days notice.

Kennecott Alaska road

Everyone abandoned the town, which created a ghost town for present day. In 1998 the National Parks Service took over, preserving the mill for visitors today. The Kennecott Mill is the best if you like abandoned areas. Unfortunately the tour they offer did not fit in our schedule. I would love to hear if anyone took the tour however, it seems like it would be worth it.

Mountains glaciers kneecap

This is one of the few places where I don’t have enough words to describe, and only pictures can do it justice.

Kennecott Mill Kennecott Mill Kennecott Mill Kennecott Mill Kennecott Mill Kennecott Mill Kennecott Mill Kennecott Mill Kennecott Mill Kennecott Mill Kennecott Mill Kennecott Mill Kennecott Mill

King for a Day

After finishing our explorations, it was time to return back to our home for two nights. We drove out of Wrangell St. Elias, dodging pot holes and bunnies, and eventually made our way back to our campsite. Alaska is very camper friendly, you can pull off nearly anywhere for a night. Ashley is not as camper friendly, I require a shower at least every couple days. King for a Day Campground was awesome for me. With hot (and free) showers, fishing charters, and sites right on the Klutina River, I was a happy camper. We made dinner and fell asleep to the sounds of a rushing river. It was the culmination of a perfect day.Jeep tent and sunset river picnic table alaska


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