Great Alaskan Adventure – Part II
See Part I here.
After leaving the Nabesna Road, we skirted the perimeter of the Wrangell-St. Elias Park heading toward our next destination: the infamous McCarthy Road.
The McCarthy road is about 60 miles of twisting, bumpy, unpaved track in miserable condition through spectacular scenery.
- Adventure Guide to the Alaska Highway, Ed Readicker-Henderson & Lynn Readicker-Henderson
We entered the road on a gorgeous day.
Right from the beginning, the road to McCarthy is bumpy, rough and rocky. It’s heavily washboarded, and there are deep holes ready to swallow your car, as well as huge rocks just waiting to rip your oil pan. Don’t take this road at more than 20 mph, and don’t let your attention wander. The nearest oil pan for whatever car you’re driving is a long way off. Readicker-Henderson.
Staying steady 20 mph, we set out on “the road.”
Just out of Chitina, we crossed the great Copper River. As we crossed, we were astounded to see the dozens upon dozens of fishing platforms (and RVs) lining the river’s edge. (You can just make out the platforms in the lower portion of the above picture.)
From there, our surroundings just got more and more beautiful.
The road is hazardous in part because it was built directly on top of an old railroad track – old spikes have been known to puncture tires. The Copper River and Northwestern Railway (now defunct), was built by the Kennecott Corporation between 1907 and 1911 to take copper ore from Kennecott, Alaska to Cordova, Alaska, a distance of 196 miles. The Copper River and Northwestern Railway reached McCarthy in 1911.
We made it to the end of the road in one piece and with all four tires still fully inflated. (Truthfully, we found the Nabesna road just as bad, if not worse.) At the end of the road we were greeted by panoramic mountain views and a magnificent glacier descending towards us.
Is there a more scenic campsite on earth?
The road ends at the Kennecott River. We parked our car in a little lot and toted our gear across a footbridge.
The McCarthy Road leads to the tiny, quirky town of McCarthy, which sits at the convergence of three of the four Wrangell-St. Elias mountain ranges.
The town’s population was 28 in the 2012 census. In the early 1900s, however, it was a booming little town where miners from the nearby Kennecott came for booze and fun. (Alcoholic beverages and prostitution were forbidden in Kennecott, thus McCarthy became the only place that provided illicit services in the entire area) It grew quickly into a major town with a gymnasium, a hospital, a school, a bar, and a brothel. Many of the original buildings remain today.
True to form, we landed in McCarthy because of food. Just before we moved to Alaska, I read a Sunset Magazine article touting the McCarthy Lodge as one of the top “four star meals worth the schlep.” The Lodge itself looked intriguing, so we decided to treat ourselves to a new nights at “Ma Johnson’s Hotel” while we explored the area.
Well, because of a certain furry traveling companion, we were housed in the “annex,” i.e. the old brothel.
It was charming and I loved all of the old photos and historic relics that still remain in the hotel.
After a breathtaking hike up to the Root Glacier, we were more than eager for our dinner at the McCarthy Lodge’s “fine dining” restaurant. I made our dinner and lodging reservations back in March, which made our stay in McCarthy the focal point of our trip – more or less. Nonetheless, when we arrived, they had no record of our reservation and were “fully booked” both nights of our stay. After a bit of pleading, however, and the prompt attention by the hotel’s charming owner Neil Darish, we were squeezed in for an early dinner on Wednesday night.
After eating gorp and string cheese all week, I was thrilled to see two unique, artfully described salads on the menu. Normally indecisive, I pointed out my salad right away to Will and exclaimed, “Oooh, I know what I’m having!” Consistent with McCarthy’s little quirks we were discovering, the waiter came over to tell me that they were “out of greens. All greens.” A bit upset that this fantastic restaurant had no greens, whatsoever, I soon reminded myself that we were in the middle of absolute nowhere and it was likely occurrence for fresh produce to not arrive regularly. (Will and I found it a bit strange, though, given that the restaurant prides itself on growing much of its own food, even offering tours of its greenhouse.)
Enough complaining. Overall, we had a lovely dinner and laughed at the little oddities throughout our stay.
It doesn’t get more locally sourced than Copper River salmon from just down the road!
One of the highlights of our trip was exploring the town of Kennecott, 4.5 miles up the road from McCarthy.
Copper was discovered between the Kennecott Glacier and McCarthy Creek in 1900, after which Kennecott mines, the Kennecott Mining Company, and the company town of Kennecott were created.
Somewhat ironically, the glacier was named after Robert Kennecott, a naturalist who explored in Alaska in the mid-1800s. Wonder how he’d feel about a massive Copper mine being built on the cusp of the glacier…