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Experiencing the Alaska Frontier in McCarthy and Kennecott

McCarthy and Kennecott might be the most fascinating places I’ve ever been. 

The best way to learn about them is to experience them, so hang on. It’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

Caution: falling objects

To get to McCarthy by road from Anchorage, head east for 179 miles along the winding Glenn Highway to Glennallen.

From there, turn south onto the Richardson Highway. The snow-capped Wrangell Mountains will soon emerge on your left. They are your ultimate destination: the nation’s largest national park.

Wrangell Mountains beyond the Copper River

After 33 miles on the Richardson Highway, take a left onto the Edgarton Highway. You’ll have smooth sailing past little towns and an awesome yak farm for 33 more miles until you reach Chitina (pronounced “CHIT-na”).

Immediately after leaving Chitina, the road will turn to gravel, and you’ll be squeezed through a one-lane road surrounded by rock walls. Now you’re in for 60 miles of washboard interspersed with paved road in various degrees of awful.

You’ll cross over the Chitina River, which is a great place to fish and camp.

Access to the banks is available from the McCarthy Road

You’ll pass beautiful sights as you dip in and out of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. You’ll also do a bit of bouncing around in your seat.

Potholes, gravel patches, and frost heaves, oh my!

You’ll start to see hints of the area’s copper mining history as you travel along the road.

Probably not stable enough to hold a train these days

You’ll want to make sure you’ve measured the height of your rig before you set out, because there is a low clearance bridge is about 5 miles from your destination.

You don’t really need that air conditioner on top of your rig, do you?

Eventually, the road ends, but you’re not there yet. So your journey will continue on foot.

Well, there is technically an auto bridge into town, but it costs hundreds to cross

You leave your vehicle behind and walk across a foot bridge.

Just wide enough for a snowmobile or ATV

And then another foot bridge.

Dogs with little paws will become hilariously awkward on the bridge’s grated metal

On your right is a decrepit pulley system that used to carry the locals across the river. That, along with historic cars and remnants of long-abandoned buildings will lead you to feel like you’ve gone back in time.

As you pass the community drinking water that you’re welcome to share, you realize there’s no city water out here.

Be respectful and don’t let your dog in it

It’s a mile walk to McCarthy, which has a year-round population of less than 30 people. You find there are lots of seasonal workers here during the summer who fall on a spectrum from outdoorsy folks to hipsters.

The latter is especially out in force tonight, because you happen to have stumbled across a Festivus party. That’s right, it’s The Roadside Potatohead’s (one of the local restaurants) annual birthday celebration.

Super impressive band whose name we didn’t catch

So you grab a drink and mingle with the locals while listening to the music.

Don’t miss the Potatoheads inside the restaurant

Head deeper into McCarthy to rent some crampons ($20 for 24 hours in 2015; prices may have changed) and explore its historic buildings.

Not up to code these days

The town is abuzz, not necessarily with people, but with the hum of generators. There are no power lines this far out, so all of the buildings run on generators or solar power.

Original hardware store

You’ll meet some of the town’s more infamous population: its packs of leashless dogs (all sweet, that we met).

“Excuse me, does the shuttle stop here?”

Visitors are welcome to bring their own dogs into town, so long as they are well-behaved.

They might get a little muddy, though

Hop on the shuttle (a few bucks each way) to travel 4.4 additional miles to Kennecott.

Kennecott as seen from McCarthy

When you arrive, head to the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park ranger station to get oriented.

Kennecott Mine as seen from the power plant

Kennecott is now a ghost town, although it was once a mining hub for some of the richest deposits of copper ever discovered.

The power plant is supposedly haunted, but it’s definitely tourable

Named for Kennicott Glacier, the name of the town was misspelled with an “e” on its official paperwork. Rather than letting the discrepancy confuse you, you’ll see the “Kennecott” spelling used to refer to the mining town and company, while the “Kennicott” spelling is used to refer to the geographic area and natural features.

When you arrive, take a guided tour with a park ranger or private company. Or make your own way, as we did.

You’ll pass by old buildings and “Caution: Unstable Explosives, Do Not Enter” signs as you pass deeper into the town. To see it at warp speed and somewhat blurred by the rain, check out our video:

At the end of the town, you’ll find yourself on Root Glacier Trail.

After two miles, take a turn towards the glacier, itself, descending another half mile or so.

The brown lumpy land on the left? Yep, that’s a glacier too.

You’ll pass a few other hikers, including some who camped out for the night and a faithful dog who walks hikers back and forth while waiting for his master to return from the glacier.

Finally you’ll reach the edge of the ice. Sit down and strap on your rented crampons. You’re heading onto Root Glacier.

These mini strap-on ice picks keep you from slipping

There is no trail on the glacier; it’s just yours to explore.

You’ll find waterfalls, mountains and cliffs.

Getting ready to climb one of the glacier’s natural features

You’ll find crevasses, caves and ponds.

Bring some empty bottles to capture some of the pure water

The colors are unbelievable, and you’ll find the experience of crunching your way across an ancient river of ice almost indescribable.

If you’re wondering what a glacier actually is, it’s years upon years of snow that have fallen in the same place and compressed into ice under their own weight. Under their own mass, they move slowly downhill, sometimes tracking for miles and miles.

Seriously, this isn’t Photoshopped

Eventually, your weary feet will protest all of the activity, and you’ll hike off the glacier, walk the two and a half miles back to Kennecott, head through the town, catch the shuttle to McCarthy, return your crampons, walk the mile to the footbridge, then go home for the evening.

We rented a cabin at Kennicott River Lodge and Hostel; our rig really was too tall to make it to the end of the McCarthy Road

McCarthy and Kennecott are remarkable places to visit. They’re spectacular in their beauty, overwhelming in their remoteness (although the Verizon is actually pretty awesome) and fascinating in the lifestyle of their residents.

The closest equivalent we could draw to our own travels is Marfa, Texas, except the obsession with art is replaced with an obsession with the outdoors, and the heat is replaced with cold. But both are far from civilization, are home to a mix of independent spirits and hipsters, and boast a surprisingly impressive night life.

To get a taste for the Alaska frontier, take a risk, drive a bumpy road, and visit these historic towns. You’ll find yourself wanting to stay a while.

Tell us about a remote place you’ve visited and what it was like.

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