Typical of the road composition and construction on the McCarthy Road, this shows why slow speeds and caution are recommended: twisty and slippery off the hard pan in the loose gravel.
A travel guide description of the 59-mile section of gravel road leading to the town of McCarthy on the edge a national park in southeast Alaska read “beware of sharp rocks, railroad spikes, narrow sections, no shoulders, soft spots, potholes, and roller coaster curves.” That piqued my interest when looking for new adventures in Alaska. Like a voracious trout caught by a well presented fly, I was thoroughly hooked when I read the road was “recommended for those who like adventurous driving.”
Reading further I found there would be at the end of the road a weird town made up of odd people (population 70, plus or minus a few “drifters”), in part a ghost town. Nearby was the dead settlement of Kennicott, formerly a small mining village supporting the business operations of the defunct Kennecott Mill.
Finally there was the graphic and colorful description of the majestic view from above the Kennecott Mill of the largest unit in the national park system (13.2 million acres), containing 9 of the 16 highest peaks in the United States, two canyons exceeding the size of Yosemite Valley, a 300-foot waterfall and the largest concentration of glaciers on the North American continent.
This “ghost gas station” in Chitina, at the end of the Edgerton Highway (Highway 10) couldn’t help you with gas, but two other small stations in town could, the last gas for 59 miles. Chitina is where the pavement ends.
A couple of strange towns or settlements, spectacular views, 59 miles of adventure driving and a warning that there would be no gas or mechanical services at the end of the road suggested an interesting day or two of adventure riding in Alaska.
I had heard of the town of McCarthy, supposedly used as a model for a television series titled Northern Exposure, and knew it was located somewhere off the normal motorcycle tourist routes around Alaska. Most motorcyclists do the Anchorage-Fairbanks loop, some adding Valdez or Homer as a side trip. For those wanting to tag extreme points there is the run up the Dalton Highway to Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay. Very few motorcyclists try the described “adventurous driving” of the McCarthy Road because it is out of the way, and for the cruisers and luxo-touring motorcycles, a bit of a challenge if the pilot is afraid of paint chips, possibly some slippery mud and definitely a round trip of 128 miles on gravel.
The road to McCarthy from Fairbanks (372 miles) is paved except for the last 59 miles. Fairbanks is a good place to start from having motorcycle shops for fresh tires, plenty of motels and eateries, and for the urban living junkie, a Wal-Mart. The Richardson Highway south (Highway 2, then Highway 4) offers a few photo ops, like the North Pole and the end of the Alaska Highway sign at Delta. The next major stop is easily reached in four hours, the town of Glennallen, which offers some restaurants and motels, but no K-Mart or Wal-Mart. From there to the turn-off towards McCarthy on Highway 10, known as the Edgerton Highway, it is another half-hour south and well paved, as is Highway 10 for the next 33.5 miles to Chitina. That is where the pavement ends and the gravel begins.
Before taking the turn east, off the Richardson Highway, and riding to Chitina, then on to McCarthy, a strong recommendation from many visitors to McCarthy is a stop at the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve Visitor Center. Located 255.5 miles south from Fairbanks on the Richardson Highway, there are no easy driving ways into huge Wrangell-St. Elias National Park that is known for having some of the most spectacular scenery in Alaska.
This is a spectacular view of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve at the end of the gravel McCarthy Road. In the background Mount Blackburn (16,390 ft.) towers over the Kennicott Glacier.
While Alaska’s Denali National Park boasts the highest mountain in North America, the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve has the second tallest, Mt. St. Elias. Also inside the park is the largest piedmont glacier in North America, the Malaspina Glacier. Because the road skirts the national park, the visitor center, with its multimedia shows, visual presentations and photographs, gives the visitor a chance to see what they cannot as they drive along the outside of the park to McCarthy.
Chitina (approximate population of 130) is small town at the end of the pavement and the last gas station for the next 120 miles roundtrip. There are no gas stations in McCarthy, although gas can be purchased from private individuals out of 50-gallon drums from their private stock, but this is both awkward and pricey.
The 59-mile ride is a good gravel road if the weather is dry. Going in I saw two Harley-Davidsons, fully loaded, coming out, although slowly. When I flagged them down and asked what they thought of the road, one said, “I’ll be glad when I hit the pavement again, and my 21-inch front wheel is sliding around a bit.” The other said, “It’s better than some of the construction on the Alaska Highway we came over getting up here.”
The speed limit on the road is 35 mph but it seemed none of the locals drove at that speed unless it was slowing through curves and one of the reasons why the motorcyclist should stay wide on their side of the road. Sometimes the oncoming cars or trucks came around a curve at speed, taking up the center of the road, forcing the motorcyclist to go wide to the right and into the loose grave on the sides.
At mile point 28.8 on the McCarthy Road this is a good view of the old Gilahina Trestle, part of the rail line that runs along the road from McCarthy. Use was discontinued in 1938.
There were plenty of potholes, but nearly all could be avoided by weaving. A couple of washboard sections rattled the windscreen and chain but at slower speeds were less serious. Most of the 59 miles had two hardpan tracks with deep loose gravel on the sides and in the middle. Oncoming vehicles would usually slow and move to their right but marble sized gravel was sometimes tossed into the cloud of dust left behind, a couple of times solidly hitting my motorcycle or myself. A couple of airborne rocks whacking the helmet face shield made me glad I was had it down.
The ride was nearly all through forested areas, but there were several openings for picture taking and some views of the old railroad the McCarthy Road ran along. The railroad was built between 1907 and 1911 to carry supplies to, and ore from, the Kennecott Copper Mine and used until 1938 when the mill and attached mine was shut down.
The Kennecott Mill itself was built at the base of a mountain and mine tunnels burrowed from it into the mountain behind. A small settlement grew near the mill, a company town known as Kennicott, which is now a ghost town. Originally it housed the mine offices, school, and hospital/clinic and movie theatre. However, the town of McCarthy, about five miles south, sprang up to meet other requirements of the miners such as more housing, stores, small hotels, a newspaper office, saloons and a red-light district. When the mine closed so did the adjoining town of Kennicott, but not nearby McCarthy.
The entrance to the Kennecott Mill, now a national historic landmark. Guard house (Information center) for the government watch person is on the right.
Of note was a mistake in the early spelling of Kennecott which resulted in the Kennecott Mines Company and mill being spelled with an “e” while the company settlement of Kennicott, the Kennicott River and Kennicott Glacier were spelled with an “i.” When asked how the mistake had managed to stay uncorrected over time, the local guide tried to be politically correct by saying, “Up here bear poop happens.”
Today McCarthy still has stores, hotels (and B & B’s), restaurants and a saloon, plus a myriad of tourist businesses from horseback riding to glacier trekking or mine tunnel tours. After a thorough inspection of the town I could find no active red-light district, a matter I discussed with the self-identified mayor when I met him in the town saloon. When asked what happened to it he just shrugged his shoulders and said, “Like the mine, some things got shut down, one being a money maker, the other not.”
Today it is tourism that makes the money in McCarthy. There is not enough of it to support a McDonalds or Starbucks, and likely not an outdoor barbeque rib joint, but enough for the handful of year round residents.
The foot bridge across the Kennicott River is closed to cars, the end of their road. It is open to motorcycles though, saving a walk of about a mile to the town of McCarthy.
When tourists arrive in cars, trucks, and RVs at the end of the McCarthy Road they must park in a large parking area on the west side of the Kennicott River. From there passengers walk and carry their luggage across the fast moving stream on a narrow footbridge from where they can then either walk or catch a shuttle into town about a mile away. Motorcycles, ATVs, snow machines (in the winter) and bicycles however, are allowed to be ridden across the footbridge and into town.
In the summer Main Street in McCarthy has everything from horses to ATVs on the street, with some cars and trucks. The cars and trucks are gotten into McCarthy by crossing the Kennicott River in the winter when it is frozen and are landlocked on that side until the next freeze. In the winter McCarthy is a destination point for snow machines so the McCarthy Road and town have a tourist reason to be open all year.
Some of the local residents meet or exceed the definition of different. In the saloon on Friday night I was bought a beer by a minister who preached to me of the delights of fallen doves in Costa Rica. A colorful local resident, missing all his front teeth except one lower front one, told me he lived in McCarthy because he didn’t have enough money to get out of town. When I asked him what he did in McCarthy he said, “I’m a miner. I mine the tourists. Buy me a shot of whiskey?”
When I asked if there was any basis for the story about a ghost roaming the hotel across the street, the waitress at breakfast said, “Oh, she’s real alright. Sometimes you can hear her moving through the hotel when no tourists are checked-in. She’s real enough I wouldn’t sleep in there.”
I was having trouble with the steering lock on my motorcycle; dirt in it prevented the mechanism from opening. The small hotel owner where I was staying told me not to worry, no one would steal the Kawasaki, and if they did, they would be quickly caught because there was no place they could ride it without being seen for the 59 miles back to Chitina.
I then suggested it was likely not much got stolen in McCarthy given the get-away limitations. The hotel handyman who was repairing a leaking toilet pipe overheard our conversation, laughed and offered “You’d be surprised what gets stolen around here. If you’ve got a woman with you you’d best watch her well. Us men up here are so good looking we steal their hearts, and those of our best friends if we get a chance.” I looked at the dried spittle, drips of toilet water and specks of food left over from his lunch in his foot long beard and had my doubts, but then I didn’t have a woman with me nor had not seen those of his friends.
The road behind the Kennecott Mill was rutted and steep.
The “secret” of this part of Alaska is how to get to the best viewpoint for the surrounding area: far above and behind the closed mill. Because the mill was purchased by the federal government and designated a national historic site, the road though it has been closed by the bureaucrats to public access. A ranger is stationed at a small information building near the entrance where the road passes through the mill and then upwards and behind the huge wooden structure.
During the ranger’s work day the road is only open to foot traffic, except for those with authorized business or who have houses along the road after the mill. One option to getting around the ranger office was to ride around the back, quietly, and through a small stream. A second option was suggested by the mayor of McCarthy. “Tell her you’re going to visit one of the owners of the homes further up the road, and tell her I said it was OK.” That option, and a Get Out Of Jail Free card from the Aerostich Designs Company
might get the motorcyclist through, or might get them buying their own cup of coffee from the mayor back at his hotel back in McCarthy. The third option, another he suggested, was to wait until the ranger went off duty then ride on past the office and through the mill. There being no fence or gate, and in June and July the sun being up until well after the ranger went home, this was the secret way to the top. Four or five miles later the motorcyclist could be well up the side of the mountain behind the mill enjoying one of the best views in Alaska.
For the high-end adventurer, there is the option of parking the motorcycle at the McCarthy airstrip and taking one of the flight-seeing tours offered by a local flying service. There are also several guided hiking tours into the park for those wanting to hoof it up or into the surrounding area.
A view from the secret spot on the top. Directly below is the Kennecott Mill, and to the left the town of McCarthy. In the background is where the Kennicott River meets the Chitina River, frozen in the winter.
For the motorcyclist with a full load and pillion who wants to treat their passenger to a flight instead of fright on the bike over the McCarthy Road, there is the option of flying from Chitina to McCarthy. The view from the small airplane has been described as breathtaking.
McCarthy is one of those places which offers a motorcycle adventurer a real taste of the Alaska wilderness, and yet rewards them for taking the risk with a comfortable and interesting stay at one of the furthest points they can reach on two wheels on the North American continent. If, when they get there, the road through the mill is closed because some government official reads this and figured out the secret, blame the mayor, not this messenger.
(ALASKA BY MOTORCYCLE, the book for $19.95, and the DVD, MOTORCYCLING TO ALASKA, for $24.95, come with a free DVD, the American Motorcyclist Associations’ ALASKA RIDE GUIDE, when ordering both together from the Whole Earth Motorcycle Center with a MasterCard of VISA at 1-800-532-5557, (303)733-8625 outside the USA, but you must ask for the free DVD offer from MotorcycleUSA when you order both.)