McCARTHY — Two rusty baggage wagons sit at one end of a narrow steel bridge connecting people to the tiny town of McCarthy and the Kennecott Mines National Historical Landmark. Only foot traffic is permitted, which means my family and I have to strategically load our packs, hiking boots and a small cooler so nothing slides off during the five-minute roll to the other side.
A cluster of tourists watch curiously as my son grabs the handle and starts across the bridge, pausing only to look beneath his feet at the rushing, silty water of Kennicott River before proceeding to the small shelter where a van from Kennicott Glacier Lodge arrives to pick us up. Seemingly, we've crossed an isthmus between modern-day Alaska and a bygone age on our way to four days of historical wandering. Already, we're feeling the zing of adventure.
That's what a trip to McCarthy and Kennecott will do — transform a perfectly average family into curious explorers ready to investigate a segment of America's largest national park and the community nearest its heart.
Visiting with kids
A few weeks ago I wrote about the drive to McCarthy and Kennecott via the McCarthy Road, a mostly-dirt affair with a reputation as rugged as its surface. For many, that's the tough part, navigating a remote passage with no services to speak of, kids in tow. Once you park and cross the bridge, however, the fun can begin, and every time we visit I chide myself for not staying longer.
It's not the abundance of kid-centric activities that make the area so enjoyable. Rather, time spent in and around the tiny, funky town of McCarthy and the Kennecott Mines National Historical Landmark means touching the remains of history within our 21st-century lives.
Kids who visit are party to a no-frills way of thinking from the second they cross the footbridge toward McCarthy to tour the Kennecott mill town site, home to around 500 people during its heyday as a productive copper ore source between 1911 and 1937.
From hiking trails that lead to abandoned mines to crunching one's way across Root Glacier for a bit of ice climbing, this area is flush with activity, most of it accessible to families with children of all ages.
Where to stay
I always grow nostalgic, perhaps overly so, whenever we reach a destination with historical significance, so my lodging choices usually reflect that, especially here. Looking for a 24-7 view of a national historical landmark with sweeping gazes upon glacial moraine and the Wrangells? Stay at Kennicott Glacier Lodge, named for the namesake glacier that makes up one of several rivers of ice visible from town. In operation since 1987, the lodge is a replica of Kennecott's historic mining buildings. Plus, its wooden porches overlooking the townsite and mountains are a great place to enjoy a beverage after a busy day of exploring.
Five miles down the road in McCarthy proper, Ma Johnson's Hotel and sister property, the Lancaster's Backpackers Hotel, offer luxury and budget accommodations, respectively, but with a similar model of clean, comfortable accommodations the charm.
Camping families can turn to the Glacier View Campground (complete with a food stand and bike rentals for $25/day) and Root Glacier Base Camp, both located near the footbridge in McCarthy. Expect to pay between $15-$20/night at either. If backpacking appeals to your kids, there are also a limited number of designated campsites with food lockers along the Root Glacier Trail, an easy-to-moderate hike of 2 miles one way. This is an excellent opportunity for families looking for backcountry experiences within easy reach of "civilization."
What to do
In McCarthy, our primary stop is at the McCarthy-Kennecott Historical Museum, located along the road into town. This tiny building, painted in the signature colors of red with white trim, open Memorial Day through Labor Day, is filled with interesting memorabilia of the Kennecott mining years, when McCarthy was known as the place to play (sometimes to the detriment of workers' reputations) after a hard week of work. It is here that you'll learn why Kennicott the glacier and terrain nearby are spelled with an "I" and Kennecott the mill town was spelled with an "e." Pick up a walking tour map of the area while you're there to find little nooks and crannies of historical artifacts and sites between McCarthy and Kennecott.
If you have time, walk or ride a mountain bike along the old Wagon Road that winds five miles from the Tony Zak community center in McCarthy to the Kennecott Mill Town site. Watch for black bears that frequent the area and keep kids close by.
Once in Kennecott, the National Park Service and a handful of longtime concessionaires take over teachable moments. The Kennecott National Historical Landmark visitor center is where kids can pick up a Junior Ranger book, and mom and dad can find maps, schedules for presentations, and the best hiking trails to explore this unique and amazing town. Climb up and up toward Jumbo or Bonanza Mines, a strenuous hike meant for hardy kids and parents, or take the wandering trail out to the aforementioned Root Glacier, stopping at the toe of the glacier if you don't have crampons.
If you'd like to proceed across the ice, St. Elias Alpine Guides offers half or full-day glacier treks for even small children, and ice climbing for bigger kids like mine, who scampered up a 50-foot wall of ice like a squirrel shinnying up a spruce tree. The company also has the only contract with the park service to take visitors through the details of Kennecott mine buildings, where renovations are being conducted each summer to restore the town to its original condition. Two-hour tours are offered several times a day, and are meant for kids age 7 and up due to the amount of walking, climbing, and navigating tricky aspects of abandoned structures.
Where to eat
Food, of course, is the most important energy-boosting activity for vacationing families, and even though McCarthy and Kennecott don't have many choices, all appeal to youngsters with hearty appetites. In McCarthy we like to nosh at The Potato (there's also one in Valdez, by the way), where curly fries, burgers, and huge burritos satisfy us after a day of hiking or biking. In Kennecott, there are family-style dinners at Kennicott Glacier Lodge. Another option (and really the only other one in Kennecott) is The Meatza Wagon food truck and their enormous sandwiches, like the beefy meatball sub. The Wagon is open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. for lunch and dinner and offers a nice view from the picnic table dining area.
We supplement dining out with a small cooler of snacks, drinks, and picnic items we can carry with us on our adventures, saving money (everything is expensive in McCarthy and Kennecott) and helping with our picky eater's preferences.
Four days passed quickly, and by the time we were dropped off at the McCarthy footbridge for our return to civilization, we felt refreshed and ready for the seven-hour road trip back to Anchorage. Memory banks were full for another year — until we return to do it all over again.
Note: Typical summer season attractions and park services are available through Labor Day, a popular time for Alaskans to visit McCarthy and Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark. Fall colors are vibrant and crowds are few.
Erin Kirkland is author of the Alaska On the Go guidebook series and publisher of AKontheGO.com, Alaska's only family travel resource.