The McCarthy Road
Traveling 60 miles from Chitina to McCarthy, the McCarthy Road provides vehicle access to the Kennecott/McCarthy area and the heart of the Wrangell St. Elias National Park. For many visitors, traveling "the road" can be just as much a part of the adventure as the activities they have planned when they reach their destination. If you have the time, driving offers beautiful views of the Wrangell and Chugach mountains, the opportunity to see wildlife such as moose and bear, and an enjoyable transition into the pace of life of the bush communities of Kennecott and McCarthy.
A Brief History
In the early 1900’s prospectors discovered a rich deposit of copper ore near what is now the town of Kennecott. Mines, a concentration mill, and a company town were quickly established to support the extraction of the valuable metal. Due to its remote location, figuring out an efficient way to transport the copper ore to the smelter became a key piece of the puzzle. The management of the mine decided that a railroad would provide the much needed transportation and the 196 mile Copper River and Northwestern Railroad was constructed by Big Mike Heney between 1907 and 1911. Heney had earned a reputation of overcoming incredible difficulties on the construction of the Yukon and White Pass Railroad in Skagway. A colorful character, he once boasted “Give me enough snoose and dynamite and I’ll build you a road to hell!” Beginning at the coast in Cordova, the railroad was a monumental feat of engineering as it crossed raging rivers, active glaciers, bogs, and impenetrable forests on its way to Kennecott. However, once completed, the railroad provided the much needed transportation and was vital for the success of the mines in Kennecott. The railroad operated for 27 years until the mines closed in 1938. Eventually, the rails and ties were removed from the road bed and the road was first graded for vehicles in the 1960’s. Since then, the road has been continually upgraded and provides access to this remote area for visitors and locals alike. For more information on the rich history of the area visit our history page.
Under normal conditions, the McCarthy Road takes about 2 1/2 hours to drive one way. However, periods of bad weather can make the road a bit more difficult and drivers are advised to plan accordingly and be prepared with food, water, a full-sized spare tire and jack, and plenty of fuel. Click here for a chart of mileage and driving times from popular destinations.
Although, many guide books say otherwise, many people find the McCarthy Road a relatively easy drive. Conditions have steadily improved over the years and although it is a gravel road, periodic maintainance by the Alaska Department of Transportation keeps the road driveable. That being said, the road passes through some very remote areas and there are no services after Chitina so be prepared. During the summer months the road is passable for most vehicles, however during the winter and periods of rainy weather, the road can become a bit more challenging.
Current conditions can be obtained by contacting the DOT maintenance station in Chitina at 907-823-2218.
Flat tires are a common occurrence on the McCarthy Road. At least one full-sized spare tire and a good jack are mandatory equipment. Mile markers are located along the entire length of the road and it is wise to keep track of where you are. Drivers are cautioned to obey the speed limit and use caution on curves and when passing. Excessive speed not only endangers yourself and other drivers, but greatly increases the potential for a flat tire or damage to your vehicle.
Once you arrive
There is no vehicle access to McCarthy/Kennecott, however, Wrangell Mountain Air operates a shuttle that departs from the footbridge on the half hour. Check in with St. Elias Alpine Guides for parking options and visit our Lodging and Activities pages to help with planning your trip.
Highlights along the way
Copyright 2009, McCarthy-Kennecott Visitor Information Center, All Rights Reserved.