Ice Ice Baby! An Epic Glacier Hike in McCarthy Alaska
I have no idea how McCarthy ended up in our Alaska Bound plans but for some reason I knew we had to get here. You know how sometimes you trust your gut and everything works out? That’s exactly how our trip down Alaska’s worst road ended up…and we can honestly say this little side trip might be our favorite Alaskan experience.
On our way up the Richardson Highway, after our fishing adventures in Valdez, we decided to hang a right at mile marker 82.6 and onto the Edgerton Highway towards Chitina and the USA’s largest National Park: Wrangell – St. Elias.
Typically we try to keep our stories in order so it makes for easier research, however this amazing glacier hike is the thing that’ll inspire you to come here, and if you’re not sold after this video then you won’t need to read all the extra details below.
I could attempt to describe the beauty of this hike and fail miserably at communicating the feelings and emotions that overwhelmed us throughout this experience, but that would be a disservice to all. Instead I’d like to direct your attention to the video below, it’ll sum up everything I can say and more, I hope you enjoy it.
This is one of those experiences I wish we had more time to capture! I wish I could have flown our drone; I wish we would have owned our handheld gimbal for those butter smooth steady shots; I wish I would’ve remembered to capture time-lapse; the wish list goes on and on but the only thing that matters is we got out there and we had a mind-blowing good time hiking on Root Glacier. It’s impossible to share the impact this adventure had on our entire group of friends, but if you like hiking and you like jaw dropping scenery then you’ve got to get out on this glacier.
The abandoned Kennecott Mines are designated a National Historic Landmark and were only acquired by the National Park Service in 1998. Many of the buildings and equipment have been restored and open for visitors to walk though on a self-guided tour. The history here is unbelievable from the hauling of a steamship across the mountains from Valdez, to wealthy investors with powerful names like J.P. Morgan and Guggenheim, and the most striking statistic to me: the workers pulled over $200,000,000 worth of copper out of these mountains in under 30 years , that’s about $3.5 billion in today’s money!
Wrangell – St. Elias National Park and Preserve
This is the largest area in the United States protected by the National Park Service and it’s a stunning landscape carved by volcanoes and glaciers. The park contains several active volcanoes, the world’s longest valley glacier, the 2nd tallest peak in North America and the parks borders are larger than the country of Switzerland. Only a tiny fraction of the park is accessible by road and our short time here didn’t even begin to scratch the surface of this place. The terrain here is absolutely spectacular, we could have spent weeks exploring just this tiny portion of the park.
It was love at first sight as we pulled into our camping spot near the edge of a cliff overlooking the raging glacial Kennicott River below. We immediately hopped out and popped open a tasty brew and began to soak in the scenery. The road to McCarthy is only accessible to visitors by foot over a walking bridge, in the past visitors were required to sit in a bucket and pull themselves across the river using a cable system. We headed into town for open mic night at the Golden Saloon and it’s buzzing with positive energy. If you like adventure, good food, friendly dogs and nature I think you’ll fit in well here.
If you’re interested in the history of this area I’d recommend reading Pilgrim’s Wilderness before you arrive, one of our friends picked up a copy and the stories she told us were fascinating.
Sips and Bites
When I asked the Campground owner about where to eat he replied with “You can’t go wrong here.” Apparently this little town attracts famous chefs from around the world and we’ll have to agree since each of our food experiences were nearly perfect.
The Golden Saloon – One of the best housemade veggie burgers we’ve had in a while, served up on fresh baked bread and of course with a heap of tasty fries on the side. Of course there’s plenty of Alaska beer on tap too. This place was bustling with locals and visitors alike, including the adventure tour guides swapping stories of the craziness that is their daily life.
Tailor Made Pizza Bus – “How good can Bus Pizza Really be?” we asked ourselves. Turns out pretty freakin’ tasty! The pizza coming off this bus has got to be some of the best pizza in all of Alaska. Between the six of us we were all satisfied with our pizza purchase, which is difficult considering we’re a mixed bag of meat eaters, vegetarians, gluten free and a vegan. As if nearly perfect pizza wasn’t enough it’s BYOB which makes the experience even better!
Meatza Wagon – We swung by for a quick street taco appetizer after our hike because we were absolutely staving and we had 30 minutes to kill before our bus pickup. Food was tasty but the prices were a little higher and the stuff in McCarthy is hard to beat.
Where we parked it:
Base Camp Root Glacier. It’s a giant open lot right along the Kennicott River with spectacular views of the nearby glaciers and surrounding mountains. This is the closest spot to park for access to the town of McCarthy. It was $20 a night and the prettiest parking lot we’ve ever stayed in!
The McCarthy Road
We were warned by numerous people NOT to drive our RV down this road “It’s the WORST road in Alaska” so naturally we say “challenge accepted” and we eagerly begin the adventure…you know…for testing purposes. Somehow we convinced our friends (The Bonelli’s and The Banks) to head down this crazy road with us, either we’re extremely convincing or they’re crazy too.
The road is only 59 miles long, most of it is dirt and it follows the railbed of the old Copper River & Northwestern Railway. The drive down took us nearly three hours. We stopped a few times for photo opps but the main reason is we were only travelling at 30mph most of the way. There are spots that were rough, there is plenty of intense washboard, sharp turns, narrow single lane stretches and so on, but overall it wasn’t the worst road we’ve ever been on. The highlight of the drive is the spectacular single lane Kuskulana Bridge soaring 238 feet above the river, it’s absolutely thrilling to drive over, especially considering it was originally constructed in 1910 (but don’t worry it’s been reinforced and updated since then).
When we arrived at the end of the road the campground owner proclaimed, and I quote, “we’ve never had 3 big RV’s before, this is definitely a first!” We made it no problem and for that I’ll give myself a pat on the back!
This tiny town is the most famous place you’ve never heard of! Here the Copper River flows directly through town bringing with it the best salmon in the world: Copper River Reds and Copper River Kings. Ask any Alaskan about Chitina and they’ve likely fished here themselves. The preferred method of fishing here is called dip netting. Fishermen hike down the cliffs edge, tie themselves to a tree and hang out over the river with a giant net, it all sounds wildly dangerous and thrilling at the same time. Apparently the old railway tunnels approximately 4 miles past the end of O’Brien Creek Road is the dip-netting hot spot, but it’s only accessible by quads, side-by-side or any other small off road vehicle. I would have loved to see it in person but the salmon weren’t running so the area we could easily access was literally empty. Sadly if you want to catch a Copper River Salmon you’ll have to try your luck with a rod and reel, only Alaskans are allowed to use dip nets.
Where we parked it
61.490866, -144.458805 It’s one of two large pull-outs just off the road. On weekends, and while the salmon are running, this spot can get pretty busy but all the people we met here were extremely friendly…even though they weren’t catching. Talk to the local businesses or visitor center to see if you can leave your tow car behind, if you’re heading down to the end of the McCarthy Road you won’t need it.
We’re not the most prolific writers but I sincerely hope we’ve given you enough information to start planning your own McCarthy road trip! It’s one for the record books! Tell us what you think in the comments below, we’d love to hear from you.
Fuel Prices – Fuel this direction is sparse and expensive so make sure you fill up in Valdez or Glennallen area before heading towards McCarthy. For the most recent pricing, check out the free Gas Buddy app.
Road Conditions – The road is only 59 miles long, most of it is dirt and it follows the railbed of the old Copper River & Northwestern Railway. The drive down took us nearly three hours.
Weather – We had a mix of weather as you can tell. It would go from warm and sunny to misty rains all within a day.
Dates Visited – July 8 – July 13, 2015
Resources – We would suggest picking up a cheap pair of multi-purpose crampons and good hiking boots. It will be cheaper than renting in McCarthy and you will find them useful many other places here in Alaska and beyond. We always chat up the locals for suggestions, we consulted the milepost, and read the Church’s Alaskan Camping book.