Alaska Day 15 - A journey to the heart of Wrangell-St.Elias NP via McCarthy road

Kennicott Travel Blog

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The Edgerton Highway, going down

Although today's journey was certainly not the longest in distance, it still turned out one of the longest journeys in time! Today's total distance 181 km (113 miles), of which the first 86 km (54 miles) were driven in about 1.75 hours. The delay was in the last 103 kilometers (64 miles). It took us about 7 hours to move that last leg. Today's destination was the hamlet of Kennicott, in the heart of Wrangell - St. Elias National Park.

The weather was once more in our favor. Nice blue skies and sunny, and, the stormy wind had subsided. We continued south over the Richardson Highway for 11 more miles and then took the Edgerton Highway to the village of Chitina.

Chitina
Chitina is just a hamlet, with only a few houses, a gas station, and a hotel. In the past it used to be a very important railroad village for the Copper River and Northwestern Railway, (the CRNW). CRNW was also called "Can't Run and Never Will". This is because of the ambitious nature of the CRNW tracks, which ran for 315 km (196 miles) from the city of Cordova to the Kennecott Copper Mines in the heart of the Wrangell-St. Elias. CRNW was constructed form 1907 - 1911 and was in use for only 27 years. The last train ran on the 11th of September 1938 almost exactly 70 years ago, when the mines finally closed.

The CRNW donated its lands and bridges to the territory of Alaska who decided to convert it into a state road.

Along McCarthy Road
The first 48 miles north of Cordova were completed but were stopped after the big earthquake of 1964. The 96-km (60-mile) long leg from Chitina to Kennicott got converted in 1971 and was named the McCarthy Road. The rails had almost completely been salvages for scrap iron and the road was constructed by backfilling over the remaining railroad ties of the rail bed. That was all, no asphalt or concrete, just a dirt road. In the first years the remaining metal railroad spikes often peeked out of the road's surface causing a lot of tire damage. In the past years, however, the road has been heavily improved. Yet, it is still a dirt road. Due to its former railroad life the road is conveniently leveled. The only place cars have to work harder is at sites where wooden railroad trestles were used to bridge a valley or a river.
Along McCarthy Road

As said above, the first part of the journey went smoothly. We stopped a few times to gaze at beautiful views and soon we arrived in Chitina. It looked deserted, again evidence that we were at the end of the tourist season. We strolled around for some time and then made our way to the McCarthy Road. It started immediately very impressive by taking us through a narrow path carved through a hill and then onto the newly built bridge over the Chitina River. So far the road was still paved, although not very well....

At he other side of the river we made our first stop to visit some operating fish wheels. While we walked towards the river banks a friendly Athabascan man warned us there were several grizzlies spotted. And indeed in the sand we saw several fresh and huge paw imprints of the giant bears. 

Now the road started for real, it became a dirt road, but just a dirt road, the horror stories seemed way exaggerated.

Gilahina Trestle, McCarthy Road
Yet I drove like a snail. My policy is to treat a rental car like it is my own car. And I would have driven really slowly with my own car. The advantage was that we could see everything very well. The road offered amazing views over the Chitina River, and the surrounding mountains.

At 30 km (19 mile) into the drive we arrived at the Kuskulana Bridge. An amazing metal bridge built in the winter (!) of 1910, bridging a 73-meter (238 ft) deep gorge. The bridge deck consists of wooden planks and is just broad enough to comfortably driver over it with the car. A nice picture form the old days when the train was still here can be seen here. Another one of a train entering the bridge here.

Along McCarthy Road
Finally this video, gives a touch and feel of how it is to drive the bridge.

Another highlight showed up at kilometer 47 (mile 29). The Gilahina Trestle. This huge wooden bridge structure was 271 meters (890 ft) long and 27 meters (90 ft) high. About 15% of the whole railroad was built on trestles to keep the tracks on a gradual slope. The Gilahina Trestle was first constructed in 1911 in only 8 days. In 1915 it burnt down due to a spark of a train and was immediately rebuilt, in 10 days! It is still standing! Of course heavily impacted by time and the elements. But that makes it even more impressive! An old picture of the first trestle can be found here.

After this exciting feature McCarthy got a bit dull. The road got less good so we crawled at a really slow tempo.

Sunset in Kennicott
Until, at 56 kilometers (35 miles) the Crystalline Hills showed up and gave stunning views.

We continued our way rocking and crawling until we reached the end of the path at the Kennicot River. The old railroad used to continue here to the villages of McCarthy and Kennicott. But the old bridge over the river has long been gone. There is a pedestrian bridge, however. We unloaded all our luggage at the bridge and while Stephan stood guard I drove back half a mile to park the car at the lodge's parking. The parking lady was so kind to give me a lift back to the bridge. Our journey was not completed yet! We still had to travel 7 kilometers (4.5 miles) to our lodge, using the hotel shuttle which stood ready at the other side of the pedestrian bridge.

After some more shaking and rocking we arrived at the Kennicott Glacier Lodge.

Ruins of Kennecott Copper Mine just after sunset
A beautiful building built in the style of the nearby located remains of the Kennicott Mine (see next blog). The lodge provided a very special dinner. All guests were seated together at big tables and only one menu was served. We ate deliciously, and before we went to sleep we briefly walked around the spooky ruins of the old Kennecott mine. Although a stressy day (what would we have done if we got a flat tire) I cherish the memories of driving the McCarthy Road.

If you want to get an impression of riding the McCarthy road, have a look at this YouTube movie. The driver in the movie drives 10 times as fast as I did, and the road is much worse in the picture than we experienced it! 

And,... more pictures below!

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The Edgerton Highway, going down
The Edgerton Highway, going down
Chitina
Chitina
Along McCarthy Road
Along McCarthy Road
Along McCarthy Road
Along McCarthy Road
Gilahina Trestle, McCarthy Road
Gilahina Trestle, McCarthy Road
Along McCarthy Road
Along McCarthy Road
Sunset in Kennicott
Sunset in Kennicott
Ruins of Kennecott Copper Mine jus…
Ruins of Kennecott Copper Mine ju…
Mount Wrangell, near Willow Lake. …
Mount Wrangell, near Willow Lake.…
Mount Drum, near Willow Lake. The …
Mount Drum, near Willow Lake. The…
Along the Edgerton Highway
Along the Edgerton Highway
Chitina
Chitina
Chitina
Chitina
Chitina River, on the first 5 mile…
Chitina River, on the first 5 mil…
Kuskulana Bridge, McCarthy Road
Kuskulana Bridge, McCarthy Road
Kuskulana Bridge, McCarthy Road
Kuskulana Bridge, McCarthy Road
Kuskulana Bridge, McCarthy Road
Kuskulana Bridge, McCarthy Road
Kuskulana Bridge, McCarthy Road
Kuskulana Bridge, McCarthy Road
AAAAAAAAA Kuskulana Bridge, McCart…
AAAAAAAAA Kuskulana Bridge, McCar…
The Kuskulana Bridge under constru…
The Kuskulana Bridge under constr…
Along McCarthy Road
Along McCarthy Road
Along McCarthy Road
Along McCarthy Road
Along McCarthy Road
Along McCarthy Road
Along McCarthy Road
Along McCarthy Road
Gilahina Trestle, McCarthy Road
Gilahina Trestle, McCarthy Road
Gilahina Trestle, McCarthy Road
Gilahina Trestle, McCarthy Road
Gilahina Trestle, McCarthy Road
Gilahina Trestle, McCarthy Road
Gilahina Trestle, McCarthy Road
Gilahina Trestle, McCarthy Road
Gilahina Trestle, McCarthy Road
Gilahina Trestle, McCarthy Road
The first Gilahina Trestle around …
The first Gilahina Trestle around…
The first Gilahina Trestle around …
The first Gilahina Trestle around…
The Lakina River bridge, McCarthy …
The Lakina River bridge, McCarthy…
Along McCarthy Road
Along McCarthy Road
Along McCarthy Road
Along McCarthy Road
Along McCarthy Road
Along McCarthy Road
Along McCarthy Road
Along McCarthy Road
The pedestrian bridge at the end o…
The pedestrian bridge at the end …
Kennicott Glacier Lodge
Kennicott Glacier Lodge
The first view of the Ruins of Ken…
The first view of the Ruins of Ke…
Sunset in Kennicott
Sunset in Kennicott
Ruins of Kennecott Copper Mine
Ruins of Kennecott Copper Mine
Ruins of Kennecott Copper Mine jus…
Ruins of Kennecott Copper Mine ju…
Ruins of Kennecott Copper Mine jus…
Ruins of Kennecott Copper Mine ju…
Kennicott