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Airplane daytrip: Fly out to Wrangell-St. Elias and step back in time to Alaska's age of mines

Colleen Mondor
The Kennicott Glacier, near McCarthy, Alaska.
Creative Commons photo via Flickr
The end of the McCarthy Road. Visitors must cross a footbridge to enter the town of McCarthy.
Creative Commons photo via Flickr
The footbridge over the Kennicott River leading to McCarthy, Alaska.
Creative Commons photo via Flickr
Kuskulana Bridge near McCarthy, Alaska
Creative Commons photo via Flickr
Kennecott Mines is an abandoned mining camp that was the center of activity for several copper mines operating from 1900 to 1938. It is located beside the Kennicott Glacier, inside Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. The last train left Kennecott on Nov. 10, 1938, leaving it a ghost town.
Creative Commons photo via Flickr
The Kennecott Mines is an abandoned mining camp that was the center of activity for several copper mines from 1900 to 1938. It is located beside the Kennicott Glacier, inside Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. The last train left the mine on Nov. 10, 1938, leaving it a ghost town.
Creative Commons photo via Flickr

The former mining town of McCarthy offers pilots of Southcentral Alaska a unique opportunity: fly into Wrangell St Elias National Park and soak up some of Alaska’s most colorful history, during the Golden Age of Copper. Today, McCarthy is an abandoned ghost town pitched as the only “intact Bush community” inside a national park. But a century ago, it was a boomtown that sprang up practically overnight after discovery of a mother lode of copper in the treacherous mountainside between Kennicott Glacier and McCarthy Creek.

In 1900, McCarthy offered Kennecott Copper Mine workers bars and brothels, a hospital and a gym. Miners built a railroad into the mountain side to extract more than $200 million of copper ore, then, (worth some $26 billion, adjusted for inflation, today) over Kennecott’s 30-plus years of operation. In 1938 the mine closed; Kennecott and McCarthy became virtual ghost towns. A century later, 30 full-time residents call McCarthy home. The mine is owned and maintained as a National Historic Landmark by park service, which has worked tirelessly NPS over the past few years to preserve the site, buildings in the area which is considered the best remaining example of early 20th century copper mining.

Flight time and sightseeing

Flying a Cessna 180 southeast about 200 miles, pilots can expect to take about an hour and forty-five minutes to fly direct to the McCarthy Airport. Deplane, tie down and linger at the old airfield. That’s the site of the original Cordova Air Service Cabin, where Merle "Mudhole" Smith and Kirk Kirkpatrick (among many other bush pilots) worked for Cordova Air. The cabin now belongs to the park service and currently is under consideration for the National Register of Historic Places.

A few miles down a dirt road from the airport, visitors will find many of the old boomtown’s newly restored buildings. McCarthy Lodge & Ma Johnson’s Hotel offers an excellent lunch option and has been nationally recognized, most recently by Bon Appetite who listed it in “The Great Tasting Outdoors: 6 Fantastic Restaurants Inside National Parks” for 2013. More family-oriented fare is located just next door at The Golden Saloon where your passengers can enjoy Alaskan micro-brews. Here’s the Kennicott-McCarthy visitors guide.

The McCarthy-Kennicott Historical Museum is open seven days a week through the summer from 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Nearby, Chisana district, site of Alaska’s last great gold rush, is celebrating its 100th anniversary

If the “challenging” five mile hike from town to Kennecott Mine is a bit much, the Wrangell Mountain Bus (907-554-4411) is available every hour or half hour all summer for $5 per person each way. Up at Kennecott you can take a tour with St. Elias Alpine Guides, the only company with NPS permission to enter any of the buildings. Kennicott Glacier Lodge offers dining, including dinner starting at 7 p.m., and rooms with spectacular views if your daytrip runs long.

More to do

McCarthy’s newest addition is Alaska Boreal Canopy Adventure, “North America’s most remote treetop adventure.” With six zip lines, three sky bridges, two ladders and a hike, it’s an experience like few others. Fully guided every step of the way, and situated on the Nzina River bluffs, Alaska Boreal Canopy Adventure shows the McCarthy-Kennicott region taking a step forward in their embrace of a new tourist-based economy.

Be sure to check out the Copper River on your way into and out of McCarthy. Consider a river rafting trip along one of Alaska’s most famous waterways.

You can also fly over North America’s longest one lane bridge, the Kuskulana River Bridge, built in 1910 and northwest of town.

Kennecott Mine is almost as breathtaking as the glacier nearby. Both Kennecott Mine and Kennicott Glacier were named for Robert Kennicott of the 1865 Western Union Telegraph Expedition. The spelling difference? A miner’s typo.

Contact Colleen Mondor at colleen(at)alaskadispatch.com