Trip Report: Kennicott/McCarthy in the fall

In Uncategorized by scott

We just returned from a beautiful trip to the Kennicott/McCarthy region in the heart of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.

Planning: This is the last weekend to stay at the Kennicott Glacier Lodge-and it’s sold out. So you can plan now for next season. Or, I’m sure there are some b-n-bs. Ma Johnson Hotel in McCarthy is open through Sept. 15.

We planned for two nights at Kennicott Glacier Lodge. Optional trips are available with St. Elias Alpine Guides, located across the street from the lodge on Main Street in Kennicott…which is five miles up the hill from McCarthy. My favorites are the glacier hike up on the Root Glacier (they have crampons and all the gear). Also, the tour of the old mining buildings is really worth doing. I learn more each time I take the tour.

Getting there: My favorite way to get back to Kennicott is to fly from Chitina with Wrangell Mountain Air. The flight is fabulous–and it crossed the mighty Copper River before flying through some mountain passes and over some incredible glaciers! That didn’t work out this time since there were five of us traveling together and there already were other people on the books. So we drove back–the road is in really good shape. Budget two hours for the 60-mile trip on the McCarthy Road.

The railroad engineers blasted this notch in the mountain in Chitina a 110 years ago…and it’s wide enough just for one lane.

There are many picturesque stops on the road–but I was too busy swerving to avoid a bear (REALLY). The Kuskulana River Bridge (Mile 17.2) will take your breath away. It’s one lane…and you can see why they used to bungee-jump off the lower level of the bridge (don’t do it). Further down the road is the Gilahina Trestle (Mile 29) . This all-wood trestle for the Copper Valley Railway originally required a half-million board feet of lumber. It was 890 feet long and 90 feet high when completed in 1911. It’s showing its age now. Don’t climb on it.

The McCarthy footbridge. There are a couple of carts for your luggage.

On Arrival: Yes, there’s a footbridge. Right at the end of the road, there’s a parking lot (free for lodge guests). Don’t bother with the pay phone at the bridge. It never works. Have the attendant at the parking lot call the lodge for a shuttle. It usually takes about a half an hour to arrive.

The ride up in the van follows an old railbed from McCarthy up to Kennicott, site of what used to be the world’s largest copper mine. You’ll see the glacier off to the left (Root Glacier) and the mountains off to the right .

The view from the deck of Kennicott Glacier Lodge. The Root Glacier is mostly covered with gravel.

Once you get to the lodge, the view really opens up and you can see all the way across the valley to the mountains beyond.

Where we stayed: Kennicott Glacier Lodge. We’ve always stayed in the “Main Lodge”, which included the common dining room and shared baths.

But in 2015, the lodge completed the south addition, where all the rooms had private baths. The rooms are bigger and all of them face the glacier valley. Because of COVID-19 protocols, all guests stayed in the newer rooms this summer.

I got the omelet, but the pancakes and cinnamon rolls were POPULAR!

Dining: Since it was late in the season, there really weren’t any other dining options aside from the lodge. The good news is the food is really good. This year, they had to change it up. Previously, all meals were served family-style and you passed around the plates. Now, all meals are prepared in the kitchen and served individually. And all parties sit within their own “bubble”. There were five of us–so we filled up a table.

Exploring: Again, the building tour by St. Elias Alpine Guides offers exclusive access to many of the refurbished buildings, including the leeching plant and the power plant and the manager’s office.

But you also can just explore on your own.

Then there are several hikes you can do. Our party opted for a hike out toward the Root Glacier. The weather was great and the group was big enough to make noise and scare off the bears. Another popular hike is to go up in back of the lodge–3,800 feet up to Bonanza Mine. One hundred years ago, hundreds of men lived in the mining quarters to get the high-grade copper. You can still find plenty of copper on the ground–but look out to get the million-dollar view!

I recommend getting a guide to explore the glacier itself. Other guided activities include raft trips on the rivers.

The Kennicott area today is quiet and peaceful. It’s nothing like the riotous scene 100 years ago when the mining enterprise was going on 24 hours a day. The train rolled right up to the mine, picked up the ore and took it back down to Cordova along the Copper River.

The McCarthy Kennicott Historical Museum

Visit the Museum in McCarthy for some history of the region. Lots of photos and memorabilia. Afterwards, wander across the street to “The Potato” for a beer and a sandwich!

It’s always sad to leave…but we’ll be back again.

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