We’re writing about McCarthy as an aside not only because it is a necessary stop when traveling to Wrangell St. Elias National Park, but also because it was a really fascinating place to visit. After a long journey down the endlessly bumpy McCarthy Road, we felt like we had entered into an alternate universe where Alaska’s small-town civic pride bustles in exemplary form; where the process of living is the draw. It is sometimes referred to as a "Pilgrim Wilderness" —originally a book title outlining the quest of a troubled homestead family who bulldozed the area to call home —now a casual term for the community-driven lifestyle that thrives there.
McCarthy represents the quintessence of small town living in Alaska. Everyone knows everyone, waving to one another in cars and on foot, each contributing in some way to help the community improve… it’s idyllic in a strange, far-flung, rusty-edges sort-of way. Unless you live there year-round (28 residents as of the 2010 census,) you will always be considered a bit of an outsider. Guides and seasonal summer residents are lesser outsiders; and one-off travelers to the area like us, while welcome, get the sense right away that they are just visitors.
In the central area of town, you will find a couple of restaurants, lodging, historic sites, and local residents interacting along the main street that slips through town. On one side of the street is the Golden Saloon, the most popular gathering spot in the area; and across from it, Ma Johnson’s, a former brothel-turned-historic hotel that stands in its original form. Both were established when the Kennecott copper mines were operating at their strongest in the early part of the 20th century as a means to provide illicit services to miners that would not be appropriate in the more upstanding, god-fearing town of Kennecott four miles down the road. Today, Kennecott and McCarthy are connected by a free shuttle service provided for visitors to the area, and both towns are worth a visit for different reasons.
McCarthy is also home to the Motherlode Powerhouse, where the St. Elias Guide company is based. As we discussed on our Wrangell St. Elias National Park page, St. Elias Guides transported us into other worlds on a 5-day glacier/tundra backpacking trip—we stopped by to make final arrangements before starting our trek into backcountry. The Powerhouse isn’t just some office—it is a compound equipped with climbing walls, a pantry that would inspire any foodie keen on perfecting a menu of protein-packed wilderness eats, and guiding operations constantly at work with in-house field experts planning trips into the mountains. Just walking in is an adventure, and it makes you excited for whatever is next.
To get to McCarthy, head to Chitina from Anchorage and start the long, brain-shaking ride down 61 miles of unmaintained road to the end—you’ll know you’re there when you reach it. From there, you will head to the welcome office of St. Elias Guides to plan your way into the field, or to one of the designated, privately-owned campgrounds where you can set up camp and park your vehicle before setting out on foot. McCarthy is located across a footbridge (you cannot drive there without special access) across the Kennicott River.
A note to road travelers planning to travel McCarthy Road: Expect potholes for days, occasional mudslides, narrow passages, an occasional moose or bear, and other vehicles making the pass too. The road doesn't have any sharp drops or turns, so it is completely passable in an RV or trailer if under 27 feet—just plan on taking your time. They say it takes two hours one way—it took us three. Our brave Airstream made it just fine though (with his innards slightly rearranged upon arriving) but it did get a flat tire, and we weren’t alone on the side of the road with an elevated jack.
Our recommendation: Bring a spare tire. Actually, bring two. And be sure to check in at the National Park Visitor Center in Chitina before departing as they have the latest updates on road conditions. Along the road you may find yourselves wondering as we did on the drive into McCarthy, 'hmmm, I wonder why they don't just pave this road?!' A couple of days into your adventure you’ll understand why—to keep it wild.