McCarthy/Kennicott/Kennecott – Alaska

If you ever fly into Alaska and rent a car or motor-home, there will be a clause on your contract that forbids you from driving on certain roads. The first is the Dalton Road to Prudhoe Bay, the second is the road to Chicken, and the most notorious is the McCarthy Road, and it’s infamous for a good reason. The builders never meant it to be a road.

Kennecott Ore Processing
The massive multi-story building processed ore from the mines and loaded it on train cars.

In 1900, two independent prospectors discovered a large copper deposit on the mountain above the Kennicott glacier, later tagged as the Bonanza Hills. Much political wrangling went on over the next ten years, and investors formed a publicly-traded company, except the person filing the papers misspelled the glacier’s name. Today, if you’re talking about the glacier below the mine, it’s spelled, Kennicott. Otherwise, anything to do with the mine is Kennecott. I’m glad to find out that I’m not the only one who flunked spelling classes.

Kennecott Power Plant
This building supplied the power needed to process the ore.

Getting back to the road, the company needed a way to get ore down to the Cordova port. Like any good corporation, they started another corporation to build a railroad and named it the Copper River & Northwest Railroad (CR&NW). Detractors used the initials to call the investment “Can’t Run & Never Will Railroad.” However, the scheme worked and ran successfully for twenty years before copper prices plummeted, and in the thirties, the company closed the mines.

Kennecott Shift Manager's House
Although small, most of the wood detail in the house is exceptional. I wonder how the manager would have reacted to the building leaning in his window.

Years pass, and someone salvaged the rails from the track, but there’s still a historic old mining site upriver from Chitina that could draw tourists. So, some brilliant entrepreneur dumps gravel over the ties, and that becomes the McCarthy Road. During its early years, the discarded spikes tore up a lot of tires. Since those are collector’s items now, they’re not as big of a problem. The road covers sixty miles and, on a good day, takes two to three hours to travel.

Kennecott Processing and Bonanza Hill
The processing plant towers over the town with its complex architecture. The mountain that supported this ingenuity is in the background.

The problem now is that engineers never built the road for automotive traffic. The road is not maintained well, so it is full of ruts and potholes; there is a frequent blockage due to rocks and mudslides, there are no shoulders, and the road runs through bogs. The road is essentially one lane wide, so cars passing need to give way. This year alone, there have been two incidents where a motor-home has pulled over to the ‘should have been a’ shoulder and needed rescue. Last week, one just flopped over on its side, and on my trip, we called a hook for one listing thirty degrees.

McCarthy Hotel
Whereas Kennecott was a company town, McCarthy was the place to let loose. There is still a functioning hotel there—good luck in getting a reservation.

OK, I cheated. I hitched a ride on the scheduled shuttle bus. It cost a lot less than calling a tow truck and the wear and tear on Fritz. Even though I thought the Chicken Road was worse in hindsight, I still felt it was the better choice. I only had enough time to work before the return bus and couldn’t hang around for the perfect light. Unless you want to pay $250.00 for the private bridge across the Kennicott river, you have to walk or take the shuttle up the four and a half miles to Kennecott anyway.

McCarthy Groceries Meats and Hardware
If you couldn’t buy it here, it was probably up on Silk Stocking Road.

If I were to make the trip again, I would consider paying another hundred dollars to McCarthy Air and flying from Glennallen to McCarthy. Then I wouldn’t even need to walk over the footbridge the park service built. To land at the McCarthy’s gravel field, you have to circle a couple of the mountains and come in over the glacier. That would be cool.


Glennallen – Alaska

At the intersection in Glennallen, you have two choices. To the right the road leads south to Valdez. A left turn will take you north back to the Alaska Highway. Other than that, there isn’t a reason to come to Glennallen which is an unincorporated community consisted of an overpriced gas station, an RV park and a Laundromat. So why did we spend five days here?

Mount Sergent Robinson
The Chugach Range is south of the highway and can easily be seen across the river as you drive.

Let’s back up and start with the Glenn Highway, the road we took to get here. Mile for mile, it was the most scenic road we’ve traveled in Alaska. Starting in Palmer it’s an easy three-hour drive, climbing from near sea level to a pass almost four thousand feet before descending into the Copper River Valley.

Gypsum Mountain
The colors in Gypsum Mountain are the result of volcanic cooking. Normally gypsum is white, but iron deposits have rusted the gypsum.

The climb out of Palmer follows the Matanuska River as it cuts a path between the Talkeena Range to the north and the Chugach Range on the south side. It’s hard to see much of the Talkeenas, but the wide river basin really makes it perfect to see the mountains and glaciers lining the south side of the road; each more photogenic than the last.

Then at the head of the climb is the Matanuska Glacier, the river’s source. It’s bright white ice flows north from the mountain for miles before curving west at its moraine. The massive ice structure is easily visible from the highway and if you take the time, you can get access to the glacier from the side roads.

Matanuska Glacier
The Matanuska Glacier flows north for miles before turning west at its moraine.

Anne and I got an early start, thinking we’d stop for breakfast at the first café we found. There wasn’t one open until we reached the Eureka Lodge on the high pass. When we stopped we had to put jackets on to ward off the chilly wind. After enjoying ham and eggs the way God intended, It shocked me to find that the price of my coffee was only a quarter, and  our meals were equally reasonable.

Sheep Mountain
When you stop at a place called sheep mountain, make sure to keep your eyes peeled, you may spot Dall Sheep. In this case, my long lens was able to turn the white dots into white dots with legs.

That brings us back to the choices at the Glennallen intersection. While you make a decision, you may want to look straight ahead.  In front of you are three snow-capped mountains. The apparent tallest is Mt. Drum, but it’s only 12,011 feet tall. To it’s left is Mt. Sanford (16,237), and a bit south is the much broader active volcano, Mt. Wrangell (14,163). It’s then you’ll know that you’re at the western border of the Wrangell – Saint Elias National Park. It starts on the other side of the Copper River below you. It is the largest National Park in the US. At over thirteen million acres, it’s the same size as Yellowstone National Park . . . and Switzerland combined. It’s elevation ranges from the sea-shore on its south side to Mount Saint Elias which is over eighteen thousand feet. It is the largest concentration of plus fourteen thousand foot mountains in North America.

Enough statistics for now. Let me sit here for five days and see how much of it I can shoot. There are only two roads that cross the park’s boundary. Both of them are bad, but one I plan to take this week.