Remote Living and Traveling in McCarthy Alaska

April 21, 2022   15 Comments »

“We don’t have electrical plugs in the room to stay true to the history of Ma Johnson’s, but also because we think it makes people more social to sit in the common area and interact,” she said as she showed me around the lobby and headed towards my reserved room. The place felt a bit like my grandmothers old farmhouse; a mix of functional and feminine. Lace doilies, flowery pillows, and plenty of antiques dot the lobby of this remote hotel. Ma Johnson’s Hotel used to be an old boarding house and brothel and as you step up on the big porch and enter the lobby, you feel as if you have moved back through time indeed. Ma Johnson’s has rooms for rent and shared bathroom facilities; and if you don’t like shared bathrooms, then you are out of luck in McCarthy, Alaska. In this town of 40 full time residents, this is the only hotel in town.

“We also don’t have keys for the room, “ she explained “there’s really no need to have them – your stuff will be absolutely safe.” I loved this little hotel and town already and was thrilled to be staying in McCarthy as opposed to the big, luxe Kennicott Glacier Lodge outside of town where all the other couples on my Wrangell Mountain Air bush flight were shipped off to. I was surprisingly the only one heading to the little town of McCarthy, Alaksa which was a short 5 miles away from the luxury lodge.

McCarthy Alaska – A Town Like No Other

I came to small-town McCarthy to experience its remoteness and history as well as it’s surrounding Wrangell St Elias National Park and abundance of glaciers (and the best part, McCarthy Alaska travel is relatively unknown!).

However, I also had another reason, I wanted to understand why people would live here in this remote area and tiny town.

Ironically this tiny little town was surrounded on all sides by the largest US National Park, Wrangell St. Elias. I arrived with only 1 week left in the tourist season, so shelves were a practically empty in the one local market and you could tell people were a bit antsy. McCarthy’s tourism season only runs for 100 days of the year. People were getting ready to ship out, and a few hearty locals were ready to hunker down for the long winter.

McCarthy’s ‘Main Street’ was gravel and riddled with potholes. A shuttle ran around the town but I was rather confused as to what it went to. As far as I could tell there were two gravel roads no more than a 1/4 mile long. That was it. A hotel, a hostel, a few run down cabins, 2 restaurants plus an occasional pizza truck found across the river. The only way to describe this Mcarthy Alaska was “simple”.

McCarthy Alaska
McCarthy Main Street…it’s rush hour.

McCarthy Alaska Mining History

But it wasn’t always this quiet.  In 1900 copper was discovered in the area around McCarthy and soon a mining business was created by Kennicott Mining Company. McCarthy served as the supply and recreation stop for the entire Kennicott mining district. Because alcoholic beverages and prostitution were forbidden in the mining ‘company’ town of Kennicott, the town of McCarthy grew 5 miles away as an area to provide those in-demand services not available in the company town; namely drinking, gambling, and prostitution. It was a forbidden town…which meant it was a fun town. McCarthy was modeled after the wild western towns and still has that same personality today.

Mccarthy and Kennicott alaska
Kennicott Mine

Who Lives in Present Day McCarthy Alaska?

I walked up the gravel road to the museum. A woman and her dog sat outside soaking up the warm sun. She wore a badge that read “Curator” so I struck up a conversation with her while petting the ‘museum dog’ as she referred to him. I asked about McCarthy and she launched into telling me all about the mining history and prohibition. However, I waited until she got done with the history ‘lesson’ and ask her what I really want to know; why do people live here now and what draws them here?

The Loners

“I just like getting away and being in a place where people can’t find me, and they can’t reach me by cell phone,” she replied unapologetically antisocial. I kind of got it though – sometimes you just want to disappear; and McCarthy is a great place to do that.

She lived year around in a ‘dry cabin’ (no running water) and needed to do a water run yet that night, so she was getting ready to close the museum but let me quickly walk through it first; a fascinating walk through newspaper clippings, railroad and mining history.

McCarthy Alaska
McCarthy Museum – a curator and her museum dog.

Not Everyone Wants to Be Alone in McCarthy

Neil actually refers to a ‘downtown’ when he talked about McCarthy with me. I inwardly chuckled when I heard this. Neil bought Ma Johnsons and the nearby restaurant and hostel in 2001 and has been slowly restoring and fixing it up ever since. He came here in the mid 80s and fell in love with the area. As we stood on muddy Main Street, he looks around the town and says “I love marrying the people/history and artifacts together. I call it Rustporn.”

Neil loves collecting and showcasing old things; which explains Ma Johnson’s décor. He’s a controversial guy in town, wanting to make changes and improvements. Not an easy role when it comes to a small town of 40 people who are pretty set in their ways and are probably here because they want to be alone.

He’s currently working on a new project for the town, creating a town event area, sort of like a town square. He also has instituted an Artist in Residence program helping him create the feel of the space as he is a strong believer in the art and feels that every community – no matter how small – needs art.

McCarthy Art

“You have to love yourself if you are going to live alone in Alaska in the winter,” Neil explained.

We talk a bit about what it’s like to be in McCarthy year around when the few tourists leave in September. He said that he loves sharing the place in the summer, but he also loves having the town to himself in the winter. The best part is that every day is different – losing and gaining light.

McCarthy Alaska
Neil working at Ma Johnson’s

McCarthy’s Seasonal Residents

I meet part time resident Camille, my young St. Elias Alpine Guide, who will be leading me on a full day glacier hike as well as a tour of the abandoned Kennecott Copper Mine.

She was a college graduate doing seasonal work in McCarthy Alaska leading people through the beauty of Wrangell St. Elias National Park – a dream job for many outdoorsy 20-somethings. However like most ‘dream jobs’ – there are some sacrifices you have to make. Camille lived in a tent all summer and slept in a sleeping bag. Most of the seasonal St. Elias Alpine Guides did the same. She was able to shower every 3 days using a ‘bucket shower’.

Glacier Hike Wrangell St Elias
Camille leading the way

As I heard about her lifestyle in this small town, remote environment I wondered what kept her there. I reasoned that it must be her love of the area, a relationship, youth, or not knowing what she wants to do in life. As I talked to her more about her plans and goals I realized that the answer was probably the latter. She was in that stage where she was trying to figure out her next life move…and even though I was 20 years older than her, I thought…so am I.

Later that evening I went to dinner and open mic night at the Golden Saloon as it was the only place open this late in the season to have dinner. On my way there I ran into Neil who asked me about my day and we went for a stroll on Main Street. As we walked, I saw the Museum lady and her dog drive by in a pickup with containers of water in the back; she gave me a friendly wave. At the Saloon later that night I ran into Camille and her friends enjoying their last nights together in the season before they all took down their tents and went their separate ways.

As I drank my beer, and listened to the ‘local talent’ at open mic night, I thought to myself, it doesn’t take long to become a part of McCarthy, or fall in love with it.

8 Things to do in McCarthy Alaska

McCarthy is a simple town, but don’t think that mean there’s nothing to do there. McCarthy is surrounded by the US’s largest national park, Wrangell St. Elias. There you have a wealth of hiking trails, peaks, river rafting, and glaciers at your disposal to play on.

1. Drive the McCarthy Road

There are only a couple of roads in the entire Wrangell Saint Elias National Park; yes – it’s that remote. The infamous McCarthy Road leads from Chitina AK and goes 60 miles to McCarthy. In fact, when you reach the end of the road, you must park your car there and walk, bike, or take a shuttle into town – only a 1/2 mile away from the road’s end.

The National Park Service has a wonderful article and audio tour of the entire McCarthy Road Drive giving you history, and sites by milemarker as you drive along.

2. Go on a Glacier Hike in Wrangell St Elias National Park

You can hire a St. Elias Alpine Guide and you’ll find all of the nooks and crannies of the park and the glaciers. My guide Camille and I had a fabulous time exploring Root Glacier for an entire day by ourselves. Since it was the end of the season – everything was pretty empty…and that’s just how you want a glacier…all to yourself. They offer half day and full day tours on the glacier as well as an ice cave option too.

3. Tour the Kennecott Mill and Mines

You can also take a half day and explore the old abandoned Kennecott Mill.  When the Kennecott Copper Corporation abruptly abandoned the town in 1938 they left behind their equipment, their buildings, and their personal belongings. I had a great morning learning about the history of Kennecott and doing photography of the abandoned buildings. The old red buildings really stood out in the fall landscape and ended up being one of my favorite things I did in McCarthy.

This is a really high demand experience so you’ll want to book as far in advance as possible. They are limited to the number of people who can visit.

Learn more about Mine tour via St. Elias Alpine Guides Mill Tour.

4. Go on a Backcountry Hike

You can also use McCarthy as a jumping off point for multi day backpacking trips run by St. Elias Alpine Guides or companies like Expedition Alaska. These experiences take you deep into the park for 2 to 7 days of camping, hiking, and sometimes kayaking. It’s a real epic experience in the largest National Park we have!

Glacier Hike Wrangell St Elias

5. Go Rafting Through the Wilderness

This isn’t exactly whitewater rafting – but it is packrafting along glacial fed rivers where you can go deep into the wilderness with guides. Visit places inaccessible by foot or any other means of transport. These rafting trips are about exploration – exploration of glaciers, of tundra, of wooded stream courses, of routes through mountain ranges draped with ocean mist, of deep, rock walled canyons, and wide open braided glacial valleys. All while you are enjoying fresh food, comfortable camps, and evening campfires next to crystal clear streams.

Learn more about McCarthy’s Rafting Options

Rivers in McCarthy AK

6. Go Skiing in the Summer

You read that right, it’s possible to ski all summer long around McCarthy and Wrangell St. Elias! The St Elias Alpine Guides will take you deep into the backcountry to do ski mountaineering. They define ski mountaineering as the art of turning mountaineering terrain into skiing terrain. I didn’t try this because I personally don’t like skiing. However the idea of being able to ski in powder in August in remote Alaska is pretty cool!

Learn more about St. Elias Alpine Guides Ski Moutaineering Tours

7. Visit the McCarthy Museum

It may be small, but it’s filled with information and history about the area. It’s a great primer to do before you go out on any adventure! Exhibits cover the history of the McCarthy-Kennicott area from the late 1800’s to the present. Hours vary and it’s run by volunteers – so you’ll also likely meet an interesting local upon visiting!

McCarthy-Kennicott Historical Museum Website

8. Go Flightseeing Over Wrangell St Elias National Park

Wrangell Mountain Air runs flightseeing trips out of the McCarthy airstrip. So, if you drove into McCarthy – here’s your chance to see this spectactular park and mountains from the air. They offer flightseeing ranging from 1 to 2 hours. You not only get to see mountains from a new perspective, but you’ll fly over multiple glaciers high alpine lakes, and the abandoned Kennicott Mine. Your pilot will also provide you commentary the entire time about the area.

Wrangell Mountain Air website

What to Pack on a Trip to McCarthy AK

This is an outdoor adventureland – so I recommend the standard hiking gear for traveling out to McCarthy. Here are my 5 favorite pieces of hiking gear to take with you anywhere!

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Where to Stay in McCarthy

Stay at Ma Johnson’s Hotel for a authentic McCarthy experience! This is where I stayed and I must admit – I loved the whole vibe there. It sort of felt like staying in my grandmother’s house…but this history you soak in from this place is magical!

Ma Johnsons Hotel McCarthy Alaska

Blackburn Cabins – simple and small cabins in a beautiful setting

Wrangell Mountain Lodge – is a rustic lodge/cabins at the 26 mile point on the road to Mcarthy

Kennicott Glacier Lodge – This is the more luxurious option in the area. It’s not quaint – but it is historic. The building and facilities are lovely with restaurants right in the lodge so you don’t have to worry about where to find food. Note that it is closer to the National Park, but it’s 5 miles from McCarthy.

How to Get to McCarthy AK

In a place this remote, you’ve only got 3 options. But each option is full of incredible scenery and getting there is an activity in itself!

1. You can fly in by bushplane like I did. It’s an incredible flight that takes you gliding past mountain peaks so close you feel like you can reach out and touch them. You get to fly over glaciers and see just how remote and rugged this area is. It’s the most expensive way to get there…but also the most scenic.

2. You can drive the McCarthy Road as mentioned above. You must disclose to your rental company that you intend to drive the remote road as some companies do not allow you to take rental cars on it. You will be required to rent a specific kind of car (SUV or 4X4) and they will not offer any assistance if you have trouble.

3. You can also take the road but not drive it yourself! There is a shuttle company that takes you into McCarthy and they do all the driving – leaving you to just enjoy the sights. Check out Kennicott Shuttle here.

See all of my photography from the Abandoned Kennecot Mine

Kennecott Mine Photography

Disclosure:

I was a guest of Alaska Tourism on this trip, however all opinions expressed here are my own.



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