Wrangell-St Elias National Park and the town of McCarthy

Driving east from Anchorage
Wild roses, so fragrant, we smelled them before spotting them.
A dead whale up the Matanuska River. How did it get so far inland?
Views from the Glenn Highway
The Matanuska Glacier

“Whats So Special about Wrangell-St. Elias?”

“Incredible. You must see Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve to believe it. Number and scale loom large here, magnified by splendid isolation. The largest U.S. national park, it equals six Yellowstones, with peaks upon peaks and glaciers after glaciers. Follow any braided river or stream to its source and you will find either a receding, advancing, or tidewater glacier. The park lets you sample representative Alaska wildlife as well as historic mining sites.

The peaks’ sheer numbers quickly quell your urge to learn their names. That roads are few means many travelers will not enter the park itself, but major peaks –Blackburn, Sanford, Drum, and Wrangell –are seen from nearby highways.

Four major mountain ranges meet in the park, which include nine of the 16 highest peaks in the United States. The Wrangells huddle in the northern interior. The Chugach guard the southern coast. The Saint Elias Mountains rise abruptly from the Gulf of Alaska to thrust northward past the Chugach on toward the Wrangells. The eastern end of the Alaska Range-mapped as the Nutzotin and Mentasta mountains-forms part of the preserve’s northern boundary.The Wrangells are volcanic in origin, but only Mount Wrangell remains active (last report erupting in 1900) with vents of steam near its summit.

With adjoining Kluane National Park in Canada, all these ranges form North America ’s premier mountain wilderness. Covered year-round with snow, the high-country stands cloaked with icefields and glaciers. Near the coast, North America ’s largest subpolar icefield, Bagley Icefield, spawns giant glaciers, the Tana, Miles, Hubbard,and Guyot.The Malaspina Glacier flows out of the St. Elias Range between Icy and Yakutat bays in a mass larger than the state of Rhode Island. So much glacial silt rides it that plants and trees take hold on the glacier’s extremities and grow to maturity only to topple over the edge when it melts.

Flowing from glaciers are multitudes of meandering rivers and braided streams. Largest is the Copper River, forming the park’s western boundary. The Copper rises in the Wrangells and empties into the Gulf of Alaska in the Chugach National Forest. In the early 1900s the Kennecott Mining Co. transported copper from its mines near McCarthy by railroad along the Chitina and Copper rivers to ships at Cordova. Ore was extracted from these productive mines between 1911 and 1938 and lured many people to the area. Gold was extracted from the Nabesna area, then too. Mining still takes place on private lands in the park, and evidence of earlier mining includes ruins of the Kennecott mines, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In mining’s heyday the Indian villages expanded and several new towns sprang up. Copper Center, Chitina, Gulkana, and Chistochina are among the old Athabascan settlements. The town of Yakutat is a traditional Tlingit fishing village.

While vegetation may appear sparse, especially in the interior, the park is home to a variety of plants and wildlife. Mountain slopes have a diversity of plants, dwarf shrubs, and grasses where dall sheep and mountain goats patrol the craggy peaks. Interior and coastal spruce forests are home to shrubs, such as blueberry and prickly rose. Caribou feed on lichens and sedges on the slopes of the Wrangells. Moose browse in the sloughs and bogs of the forested lowlands, while bears roam throughout the park. Many rivers, streams, and lakes provide spawning grounds for salmon and other fish. The Copper River drainage marks major flyways for migratory birds and provides nesting sites for trumpeter swans. Coastal areas are habitat for marine mammals, including sea lions and harbor seal”

The McCarthy Road

“The 60- mile McCarthy Road winds deep into the heart of Wrangell- St. Elias National Park & Preserve. Once the gateway to tremendous fortunes, it is now your gateway to spectacular scenery and vast wilderness. For those willing to leave the pavement behind and brave the ruts and dust, this road provides access to the many natural and historic wonders of our largest National Park.Today’s McCarthy Road originated in 1909 as a railway constructed to support the Kennecott Copper Mines. Over 200 million dollars worth of ore was hauled from the Kennecott mill 196 miles to the port of Cordova. The railway operated successfully until abandoned in 1938 when large scale mining ended. Most of the rails were salvaged for scrap iron, and no longer maintained, the Copper River Bridge was soon destroyed by flooding.”

The Chitna River. Salmon are running now. Dip netters were catching hundreds just over one weekend.
One lane Kuskalana Bridge 200-some feet above the river. Don’t look down!
Kuskalana Bridge

McCarthy and Kennecott

Partly because alcoholic beverages and prostitution were forbidden in Kennecott, McCarthy grew as an area to provide illicit services not available in the company town. It grew quickly into a major town with a gymnasium, a hospital, a school, a bar and a brothel. The Copper River and Northwestern Railway reached McCarthy in 1911.

In 1938, the copper deposits were mostly gone and the town was mostly abandoned. The railroad discontinued service that year. Over its 30-year operation, U.S. $200 million in ore was extracted from the mine, making it the richest concentration of copper ore in the world.

The old mine buildings, artifacts, and colorful history attract visitors during the summer months. The Kennecott and McCarthy area ranks as one of the United States’ most endangered landmarks by the National Trust for Historic Places. Emergency stabilization of the old buildings has been done and more will be required.

Camping on the Kennicott River
Visitors must park outside town and walk across a footbridge 1/2 mile to town
Downtown McCarthy
Fresh caught Copper River Sockeye
Great view from campground outhouse
Sunset on the Kennicott River
Walking tour of Kennicott
The old copper concentrator on the hill
Abandoned mill equipment

Photos from the drive to Valdez – absolutely breathtaking!

Bridal Veil Falls
Horse Tail Falls

Next Post: Valdez Glacier Cruise

Author: David Willett

Worked at Agilent Technologies and Hewlett-Packard, attended University of Washington and Michigan State University, lived in the Netherlands, the Peoples Republic of China and the United States, visited 36 countries and 49 U.S. states, living in Fort Collins, CO, USA

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