The drive to McCarthy and Kennicott isn't your run-of-the-mill road trip. It's 7-8 hours from Anchorage, with the last 61 miles-between Chitina and the Kennicott River-on an historic, gravel road. Not all rental vehicles are allowed on the McCarthy road, so check with your rental agency before you travel. Or, rent from Alaska 4x4 Rentals, they allow their vehicles on the McCarthy Road.
At the end of the McCarthy Road, a footbridge brings you across the river to McCarthy and Kennicott. Once a rowdy pioneer town, McCarthy now makes a great basecamp for adventures into American's largest national park, Wrangell-St.Elias.
Four mountain ranges converge in this remote park the size of six Yellowstones. Kennicott was abandoned during the Depression, and visitors can explore the past on a tour of this historic ghost town. Leave early enough from Anchorage and you can enjoy some of the scenic highlights and activities on your way there.
Anchorage to Glennallen
Forty minutes from downtown Anchorage lies Eagle River Nature Center, a gateway to Chugach State Park and a glacial river valley as wild and dramatic as any in Alaska. Enjoy an easy, 3‑mile nature walk on the Albert Loop or trek up-valley 5 miles to see plunging waterfalls and 3,000-foot cliffs. In winter, traverse the trails on cross-country skis or snowshoes.
Who can say no to a cool waterfall only a half-hour’s drive from town? One of the most popular “first hikes” for families with small children, the one-mile trail to Thunderbird Falls traverses a handsome birch forest along the Eklutna River canyon to reach a deck with views of a 200-foot waterfall. During winter, the falls can freeze, forming fabulous columns of blue ice.
Dating back to 1650, the park is the area’s oldest continuously inhabited Athabaskan Indian settlement. Russian Orthodox missionaries came here in the early 1800s, and you can still see St. Nicholas Church, the oldest standing building in greater Anchorage. Snap some pictures of the colorful Spirit Houses build over the graves of the deceased‑a custom that came from the melding of the cultures. Up for a walk? It’ll pay off with a glacier… ...more
Experience a scenic float along a glacial river. Just 90 minutes from Anchorage, the Matanuska Glacier is Alaska’s largest road-accessible glacier, and the water running underneath creates a river that’s perfect for rafting. You’ll float downstream for up to 2 hours, taking in the scenery along the way — mountains, river channels, hillsides, moraines — and looking out for wildlife. It’s fun for the whole family — anyone ages 5 and up can do this ...more
Looking to break up your drive with a jog or bike ride? This little-used, 2‑mile section of the former Glenn Highway has little to no traffic. Rocks and shrubs are creeping onto the road surface in places. It’s quiet, scenic, and hilly. The roadway is officially closed in the middle but easily-passable.
The Matanuska State Park is the best place for a free view of the Matanuska Glacier. You won’t be able to walk up to the glacier (that’s at Mile 102 and is $30 per person), but this well-developed site (wihch is also connected to the nearby RV Park) offers plenty of parking, public restrooms, and excellent glacier views and photo opportunities. You’ll also find: A half-dozen interpretive signs about glaciers, ice creatures, spruce bark… ...more
It’s only a small pull-out on the side of the highway, but this is the closest viewpoint of the Matanuska Glacier. If you don’t have a powerful zoom on your camera, or just want to get a great look at the ice, this is the spot. There’s only room for about six cars and the feel is a bit more rustic than the official state rec site a mile to the west, but you’ll be perched on a bluff overlooking the glacier. Distance 103.3 miles north of… ...more
There’s climbing a mountain – and then there’s climbing an ICE mountain. Regardless of your climbing ability or experience, you’ll end the day feeling fulfilled and inspired. MICA also offers short, guided hikes and longer treks if you prefer a more leisurely explore of the glacier and its grandeur.
Lion’s Head is famous throughout the state. This rock outcropping is the prominent feature beside the Matanuska Glacier and is featured in magazines and advertisements all over Alaska. And you can hike it! You’ve got to be in good shape and ready for a scrambling, one-hour climb. You’ll be rewarded by great views, looking down a 2,000-foot cliff face to the glacier. You’re panorama will include views of the Matanuska River, Caribou Creek with… ...more
South-facing slopes can concentrate large numbers of sheep that are especially visible after green-up in the spring. Lodges in the area provide spotting scopes and good advice, and there are several pullouts and trailheads with safe parking.
People love to pull off here and shoot a photo beside this classic sign. A local theory on the creek name is that the crusty, old sourdough who lived down near the creek used mules for guiding hunts. These mules purportedly escaped a lot, so the asses were always by the creek. Who knows? But it’s a classic photo for the friends back home.
Just south of the Caribou Creek bridge near mile marker 104 on the Glenn Highway in the shadow of the Lion’s Head rock formation, look for the turnoff for the Caribou Creek Recreational Mining Area. You are not going to get fabulously rich here and be the next star of the TV reality show Gold Rush, but you do have the opportunity to carry a gold pan and shovel, hike the steep half-mile-long trail down to the creek, and pan for gold.
Some 15,000 years ago, this glacier reached another 50 miles west to the Palmer area. It now has a four-mile wide towering face that you can walk right up to and touch. Keep an eye out for summertime ice-climbers at this most impressive roadside glacier. Directions: Head north from Anchorage on the Glenn Highway. At mile 102, you can drive down to Glacier Park and pay a day fee (888−253−4480), then hike 15 – 20 minutes to the face of ...more
Climb to the summit of Belanger Pass, bike an all-day loop to Caribou Creek or off-road in a four-wheeler or ATV. This public access area is a gateway to adventure in the rolling tundra and alpine ridges of Belanger Pass and Syncline Mountain. The hike to the top of Belanger Pass is 90 minutes, following an old, rutted road. You can also bike this, following the Mining Road Trail for an all-day, 35 mile ride to Syncline Mountain and Caribou… ...more
This is one of Alaska’s premier recreation meccas. You’ll see lots of big-boy toys around Eureka Summit: RVs or big trucks pulling trailers with ATVs or brand new snow machines. This summit receives several feet of snow each winter, and rugged trails open access to the terrain during summer. Eureka Summit is the highest point along the Glenn Highway.
Even though black spruce forests look sickly, they’re actually healthy trees. Their shallow roots spread over permafrost, so they grow slowly. Soil above the permafrost melts and freezes, buckling the ground and making the trees tip. This stand might’ve sprouted around the same time as World War I, or even earlier. Maybe back when there were only ten miles of paved roads in the entire country.
Glennallen to McCarthy
The town of Glenallen is named after two early explorers. Henry Allen was a lieutenant who travelled through this area in 1885 on his way to the Yukon River, and Capt. Edwin Glenn was part of the U.S. Government survey crew for the Richardson Highway that came through in 1898 – 99. Glennallen is also a part of the Copper River Watershed. Find the interpretive sign at the visitor’s center and orient yourself in the watershed with a map of Ahtna ...more
Just outside Glennallen you’ll find some great views of the Copper River and the Wrangell Mountains, as well as the chance to take some photos that don’t include any roads or buildings. Mt. Drum will be straight in front of you, with Mt. Sanford on the left side, and Mt. Wrangell— a massive shield volcano — on the right. Cloud cover is the only way you’ll miss this dramatic scene. And these mountains are definitely dramatic. The western… ...more
Exploring the rivers of Copper Center, around 4 hours from Anchorage and right on the edge of gorgeous Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, brings opportunities for everything from mild floats to Class III and IV rapids. Since the Copper River Basin is a little more remote than other areas, you’ll be able to truly appreciate the wilderness as you enjoy a relaxing day on the water.
Historic Copper Center is one of the oldest non-native communities in Alaska’s Interior. Founded as a government agricultural experimental station, it later served as a transportation center for gold rush prospectors. Also find the interpretive sign where you’ll learn about the local fish species that make their home in different habitat niches of Copper River watershed creeks and rivers.
Get a taste of early 19th-century Alaska in Copper Center. This small community located at the confluence of the Klutina and Copper Rivers, was established in 1898 as a camp for prospecting gold miners. After the Richardson Highway route opened in 1900, roadhouses sprung up every 15 to 20 miles, providing services for travelers between Valdez and Fairbanks. You could get meals, lodging, mail service, medical help, hay for your horse, gasoline… ...more
Kenny Lake (pop.500) Kenny lake was established in 1910 as an Alaska Road Commission Roadhouse for the Valdez-Fairbanks-Chitina Military Road. Today it is a small farming community where residents lead a self-sufficient lifestyle harvesting fish, game, berries and organic produce.
This trail follows an old road along the Copper River and has excellent views of the glacier along the way. The trail starts out in a section of thick vegetation, then follows the river until it reaches Childs Glacier Recreation Area. In early summer, this is the place to be for birdwatching.
This is an easy, well-marked BLM trail that leads 1.3 miles south through the spruce forest to a picnic site overlooking the Tonsina River. You’ll enjoy stunning views of the Chugach Mountains and the abundant wildflowers here.
In the summer, there may be fresh produce and homemade baked goods available at a roadside stand to the north. The stand is operated by SAPA, a Pentecostal Christian community of about 70 people. Pull over and enjoy the Alaskan hospitality and tasty treats. SAPA also runs a successful local sawmill.
The first part of this trail is a bit steep, but once you’re out of the spruce forest, the rest of the hike is pleasant and takes you along the ridge. Once on the ridge, there are places where the trees open up and there are great views of the surrounding mountains. The official trail ends at mile 1.7, but you can continue another 0.25 miles to the lake and even further on unbroken trails.
Chitina (pop. 105) came to life almost overnight with arrival of the Copper River & Northwestern Railway on September 11, 1910. The railway was built to haul ore from Kennicott Copper Mines at McCarthy to Cordova for shipment to Seattle. Chitina became a supply town for both the railway and the mine. When the mine closed in 1938, Chitina became a ghost town almost overnight. In the 1950s and 1970s, ghosts were painted on some of the old ...more
The rock cut you’re about to drive through was blasted out in 1909 as a railway to supply and support the Kennecott Copper Mines when they were being built. The railroad began in Cordova and followed the Copper River to current day Chitina before turning through the rock cut and heading east towards the Wrangell Mountains.
You’re now looking at the Chitina River just before it merges with the Copper River and disappears out of view. The braided Chitina below actually carries more water than the Copper River, despite losing the name battle. (It’s actually more of a name tie, though, as Chitina is the native word for copper.) Heavy rains, floods, and outbursts from glacially-dammed lakes can fill the riverbed, in comparison to the channels you’re likely seeing… ...more
At this point in the drive you may need something to talk about.The Athabascan people traveled along the current McCarthy Road corridor to access their summer hunting camps in the Chugach Mountains. Their trails took them to prime mountain sheep country, as well as to some of their favorite spots for harvesting copper. One copper nugget taken from Dan Creek, almost pure and as big as a refrigerator, now sits in a museum at the University of… ...more