Driving to McCarthy with Alaska 4x4 Rentals

Yasent Oliver 38 A0937

By Yasent Oliver

Cinematographer at Channel Films
Matanuska Glacier view from the Glenn Highway

Matanuska Glacier view from the Glenn Highway

On a slightly overcast morning in early June, my girlfriend Jai’lyn and I set out from Anchorage for the 300-mile drive to McCarthy, a town in the heart of Wrangell St. Elias National Park and sister village to the ghost/mining town of Kennicott. It’s one of our favorite spots in Alaska because of the access to hiking, rafting, ice climbing, and trekking—all amid the expansive wilderness of America’s largest national park. And, because McCarthy is off the beaten path, the extra effort to get here deters the crowds that converge on more easily accessible parks like Denali and Kenai Fjords.

That “extra effort” is mostly due to the last 60 miles of the drive, on the unpaved McCarthy Road—a former railroad bed where conditions are always changing. Only a few rental companies in Alaska allow their vehicles to traverse the road’s gravel surface.

One of them is Alaska 4x4 Rentals, so we began our journey by picking up a brand-new Jeep Wrangler—colored a delightful bright yellow—from their office at the Anchorage airport. We hit the road around 8 a.m.

Driving north out of Anchorage, we passed through some small communities, but it didn’t take long until we felt like we were in the wilderness. Some 45 minutes later, we reached the town of Palmer and headed east on the Glenn Highway. That’s when Alaska’s majestic scenery really came into focus, with the Chugach Mountains on one side and the Talkeetna Mountains on the other. Two hours into the drive, we encountered the first truly iconic sight—the mighty Matanuska Glacier—taking advantage of pull-outs to stop and take in the magnificent blue ice.

View of Mt. Drum

View of Mt. Drum

Approaching the quaint little town of Glennallen, we were treated to our first views of the Wrangell Mountains—some of the tallest peaks in North America. The 12,000-foot-tall Mt. Drum suddenly appeared and looked like it was rising straight out of the pavement.

We stopped in Glennallen—a key part of the drive, since McCarthy has no gas stations and this is basically the last spot to fill up. It was around 12:30 p.m. when we topped off the tank, headed out of town, and hit the Richardson Highway, which stretches north to Fairbanks and south toward Copper Center, Chitina, and Valdez. We turned south.

More views of the Wrangell Mountains filled our field of vision, but we didn’t stop until we had turned onto the Edgerton Highway and reached Liberty Falls State Recreation Site, around 2 p.m.

The campground and picnic area was a good place to stretch our legs, but it’s easy to miss, since it’s not visible from the highway. But once we took one of the two turn offs and drove down the road a bit, we heard a waterfall and wanted to see it up close. We found a little path to the right of it and got close enough to feel the mist—nice on a hot day!

Further along, we passed through the town of Chitina—a hot spot for anglers trying their luck on the world-famous Copper River—where we saw glacial silt blowing around.

The McCarthy Road officially begins at “the cut,” a narrow, rocky passageway that was once a railroad tunnel. We passed through around 3 p.m., then reached a long bridge over the Copper River. As the water rushed by—muddy in color due to the glacial silt—we could see just how powerful the current was.

Crossing the bridge over the Copper River

Crossing the bridge over the Copper RIver

Alaska 4x4 Rentals Drive to McCarthy  (:20)

The speed limit on the McCarthy Road is 35 mph, though you won’t see it posted frequently. Parts of the road were smooth enough for us to drive the speed limit, while some areas felt like 25–30 would be a safer speed. Much of the road is tree-lined and narrow, with lakes making an occasional appearance.

We took our time, especially when we reached the most scenic part of the drive, the Kuskulana Bridge, perched 238 feet above the Kuskulana River Gorge. Completed in 1911 as part of the Copper River & Northwestern Railway, this impressive bridge moved passengers, supplies, and copper ore to and from the Kennecott Copper Mines.

Around 5:30, after 2.5 hours traversing the McCarthy Road, we pulled into our lodge, located on the near side of the McCarthy footbridge (where vehicles are still allowed).

It had been a great day. We loved being able to go from the busy airport in the morning to the middle of a remote national park by the evening. That accessibility is one of the best things about Alaska.

To be sure, McCarthy Road is rugged, but by driving the speed limit and recognizing the rough conditions, we never felt unsafe. And since it’s one road, it’s not possible to get lost—fortunate, since we lost cell service after Chitina. Plus, we had the perfect vehicle for the drive, with a high ground clearance and spare tire on the back if we had needed it.

And the reward—spending two nights in a spot as beautiful as McCarthy—was absolutely worth the effort.

About Alaska 4x4 Rentals

Locally owned Alaska 4x4 Rentals offers 4-wheel drive vehicles with no restrictions on where you go, which opens up a lot more of Alaska for travelers with a penchant for adventure. The company has offices in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Deadhorse; the locals who work there know the regions and roads and are more than happy to offer advice.

Vehicle options include trucks, Jeeps, SUVs, and vans that can seat up to 12 with room for cargo. Depending on where you’re headed and what kind of activities you have planned, Alaska 4x4 Rentals offers accessories for rent and some items for purchase. Going off-grid? Rent a satellite phone or a Garmin InReach for emergencies. Planning on fishing? Buy some fish boxes for your catch and rent coolers for your food and drinks. Other items include bear spray, GPS, child-safety seats, and a trailer hitch for hauling.



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