It’s difficult to pin down the BEST things to do in McCarthy, Alaska because it is surrounded by so much wilderness that it is literally an endless playground for outdoor adventurers looking to explore places where very few have set foot.
However, as I have spent a great amount of time in McCarthy over the last 15 years, I am going to share what I believe should be on everyone’s must-do list.
IMPORTANT: Businesses and people come and go in this area so always check for the most recent hours and seasonal availability of the activities in this post. The author will keep it updated regularly, as well.
McCarthy, Alaska is a one-of-a-kind very small town, way off the beaten path, located in the middle of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. It’s truly special. For those with an adventurous spirit, a trip to McCarthy will be well worth the effort it takes to get there!
Situated in the southeast of Alaska, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park – at 13.2 million acres, is the country’s largest national park. It is home to some of the tallest mountains in North America, including Mt. St. Elias, which stands at 18,008 feet.
Whether you’re looking for adventure or simply want to enjoy some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is sure to exceed your expectations.
There’s a stunning variety of landscapes, from the rugged coastal mountains to the expansive glaciers and ice fields of the interior. Visitors can explore this diverse landscape by hiking, camping, or even taking a scenic flight.
However, one of the most popular ways to experience the park is by visiting McCarthy and Kennicott – the small towns situated in the park that can only be reached by plane or the 60-mile dirt road: The McCarthy Road.
Once you arrive at the end of the road, at the Kennicott River, there is NO CAR BRIDGE into McCarthy for the public. There is only a footbridge and a reliable shuttle that runs to and from town.
⛰ Best Things To Do In McCarthy
McCarthy is a truly unique place and its isolation makes it one of the most magical places in Alaska. It’s also not your typical “tourist” town so be prepared for an unusual experience and a quiet independent adventure here.
McCarthy is a popular base for hiking and camping, as it is surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery in Alaska, but the town is also rich with history and local culture.
There are plenty of guided tours available for those who want to learn more about this unique part of Alaska but an independent exploration of the area is also highly encouraged.
Please remember to be respectful of the privacy of the residents who call McCarthy their home. Dogs roam free. It is a husky’s best life here!
Most of the McCarthy and Kennicott townsites, as well as the surrounding land, are privately owned. A variety of residents live in the area, including full-time, part-time, and seasonal residents, which include my family.
1. Visit the McCarthy Museum
Wandering down the road away from the heart of McCarthy and toward the Kennicott Road will bring you to the must-see McCarthy Museum. It is housed in the former Copper River & Northwestern Railroad depot building with a big rail car outside.
The McCarthy Museum provides a fascinating collection of artifacts from the 1800s to the present. There are photographs, papers, books, home goods, a mining diorama, and more. There are also items for purchase available.
Take time to head to the Caboose car to view what’s inside this second gallery space. This is an exciting and super interesting stop for history buffs. The hours vary at the museum so be sure to check before planning a visit.
2. Enjoy the Wrangell Mountain Center
The Wrangell Mountain Center is a treasure within this small community on the National Register of Historic Places. The Old Hardware Store was built in 1911 as a general mercantile. It was converted into an education center supporting the arts in the 1980s.
It is the only private education and research-oriented institution in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve.
Nestled at the base of the Wrangell Mountains, the WMC is a place of creative inspiration. For more than 40 years, it has been a refuge for artists and writers seeking to connect with nature and tap into their creative potential.
The center offers a variety of courses, from writing and sketching workshops to writing and songwriting programs. There are also numerous community events and volunteer opportunities throughout the season.
In addition, artists can apply for the WMC Meg Hunt Artist Residency Program, spending two weeks at this inspiring non-profit center.
Stop in to say hello and check out the space and the current activities at this small, off-the-grid, sustainable organization. Wrangell Mountain Center is very welcoming.
3. Walk to the Toe of the Kennicott Glacier Lake
Talk to anyone who has been to the toe of the glacier lake. You might hear them sharing the same sentiment. “That is one of my favorite places on earth!” I feel the same and no matter how many times I go, the view changes and the feelings of admiration intensify for this magnificent location.
How to Get There: Walk from McCarthy toward Kennicott. Access the Wagon Road via signs on your left. After about 3/4 miles on the Wagon Road, the trail will fork – turn left to travel on a trail towards the face, or “toe” of the Kennicott Glacier.
Try to stay on already utilized foot and 4-wheeler trails. It is important to avoid stepping on dryas plants, the delicate vegetation that is abundant here. These dandelion-lookalike members of the rose family have a root system that is very easily destroyed when stepped on.
4. Shuttle to and Explore the Kennecott Mill Town
There is not another place on this planet that will give you the jaw-dropping views of a vast glacier combined with an historic mining town full of buildings that now remain as preserved artifacts for visitors to enjoy.
Shuttles run for FREE via the Copper Town Shuttle that departs the McCarthy Town Store every hour on the half-hour (8:30am, 9:30am, etc). Returning back to McCarthy from Kennicott, the shuttle runs every hour on the hour (9am, 10am, etc).
The story of Kennicott goes like this.
In July of 1898 prospectors, Jack Smith and Clarence Warner, discovered what would come to be known as one of the richest deposits of copper ore ever found. They spotted a green patch on the mountainside between McCarthy Creek and Kennicott Creek and the rest is history.
When news of the discovery reached Seattle, development of the claims began almost immediately. A post office was opened in January 1901. Construction of a railroad began that same year.
The first steam locomotive arrived in May 1903. Over 200 men were employed at the mine by 1904! Families lived and worked in this area year-round for over thirty years.
With an increasing workforce, more homes and other buildings were constructed including a hospital, assay office, bunkhouses, recreation hall, church, and schoolhouse. A total of 34 buildings were ultimately built by the company.
The story of Kennecott Mine is a fascinating one that ends with the very last train leaving the town on November 10, 1938, leaving it a ghost town. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1986.
Today, most of these buildings have been restored and are part of a National Historic Landmark District around the former mill site. Visitors can take tours of many of the buildings which house interpretive exhibits on the history of mining operations at Kennecott.
It can be quiet some days up in Kennicott so remember to be confidently self-guided and follow signage for exhibits. If the doors are open step inside end enjoy the special exhibits the National Park Service has been making available to the public. Lots of incredible historical information is available throughout on large boards and signs.
Even though Kennicott seems quiet, there are many private homes and cabins in town and scattered on the steep hillsides. So once again, be sure to be mindful of the locals and their privacy.
5. Tour the Kennecott Mill Building
The Kennecott Mill Building is an historic site that offers tours to the public through St. Elias Alpine Guides. The mill was used to process copper ore, and it played an important role in the development of the copper mining industry in Alaska.
This 2-hour Historic Mill Tour is a must-do for anyone visiting Kennecott!
This tour provides an up-close look at the mill building, which was used to process copper ore from the mines. The tour guides are very knowledgeable and can answer any questions you may have.
Take note that this tour involves steep climbs, ladders, lots of walking, and uneven ground and flooring. It is recommended that toddlers are carried in a hands-free carrier for safety reasons.
The tour of the mill building includes a visit to the processing room, where copper ore was crushed and sorted. You can still touch and move some of the motors that ran the machinery in the old mill building.
The tour provides loads of information about the history of copper mining in Alaska, and it is a great opportunity to learn about this important industry.
6. Hike the Root Glacier
In Alaska, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve tops the list for its abundance of glaciers. Of the 5,000 square miles of glacial ice in Wrangell-St. Elias, the Root Glacier is the most accessible.
Seeing this glacier up close is one of the best things to do in McCarthy, Alaska!
Before you jump all in on this hike, it is important to note that there are different levels of how you can immerse yourself into this experience based on age, skill, and what gear you have.
Regular hiking shoes will get you onto a good portion of the glacier but if you plan to continue further crampons are the only way to be able to get around easily and safely. Once the ice gets slick, stop and turn around if you are in basic hiking shoes.
From McCarthy take the shuttle up to Kennicott. You will land at the visitor’s center. Start walking north up the road, through Kennicott, and about a half-mile beyond the visitor center, you will reach a split in the road. Go straight, as the trail to the right heads to other hikes.
The trail is basic, mostly wooded, and you will pass over creeks as you make your way to where the view really gets exciting. The turnoff to the toe of the Root Glacier is about 15 minutes past Bonanza Creek, just past Jumbo Creek, and clearly marked “Glacier Access.”
The trail splits here, with one going left to the Root Glacier and the other going straight to Erie Mine and a public toilet. As you descend toward the glacier, you will cross onto the moraine.
There is a great primitive base camping site nearby (Jumbo Creek Campsite) with camping food storage boxes to store items away from bears. Water is available from nearby streams. This is a great spot for base camping if interested.
Eventually, you will reach the ice and you can explore in every direction from here!
Always avoid the crevasses and edges of the glacier! A moulin is a shaft that forms in glaciers in areas where there is a lot of liquid water. This can happen when melting ice forms a stream that flows through cracks in the glacier.
The water erodes the ice, widening the cracks and forming a shaft. The moulin can be several meters deep and is usually cylindrical in shape.
7. Book A Flightseeing Trip
While visiting McCarthy in itself is a bucket list item for many, experiencing flightseeing in the Wrangells area is over-the-top magnificent. It will blow your mind! If you budget this into your trip expenses you will not be disappointed.
This is truly another one of the very BEST things to do in McCarthy Alaska.
Wrangell Mountain Air has been flying in this area since 1992 and can help you plan your personalized itinerary for an epic experience in the air.
It’s important to mention that if you are prone to motion sickness, this may not be the adventure of your dreams. Tiny planes experience a lot of turbulence at times due to the mountains and extremes in this area.
Flights in McCarthy take off from the airstrip outside of town and can be booked with the lovely staff at Wrangell Mountain Air. They can answer any questions or concerns you might have about flightseeing. Their office is located right in the heart of McCarthy for easy communication in person.
Options include anything from a 50-minute to a 120-minute flightseeing tour over the most beautiful scenery you have ever experienced. There is a three-person minimum when booking; single persons may join with other scheduled flightseeing groups.
If you are short on time Wrangell Mountain Air also offers day trips from Chitina. The flights from Chitina are only 30 minutes to McCarthy and this allows travelers to skip driving the McCarthy Road and jump right into the grandeur of flightseeing!
8. Day Hike to Bonanza Mine
Are you in relatively decent shape and energized for a truly epic hike? Then get ready for a memorable relentless climb up to Bonanza Mine with an out-of-this-world reward at the top!
Another option is to hike up to Jumbo Mine. Both are incredible and intense hikes. Please check in at the Kennecott Visitor Center prior to departing on this hike.
Carry bear spray on the outside of your pack when hiking! It is likely you will come across fresh bear scat and the possibility of crossing paths with a bear is definitely there. Learn how to use your bear spray properly BEFORE you go adventuring.
Pack your day hike food for a vigorous trek to an historic site atop a mountainside. Remember to pack plenty of water for at least the climb uphill.
Trekking poles are VERY useful and strongly recommended on this hike, at least for anyone ages 12 and up.
Fresh mountain spring water can be accessed easily about 3/4 of the way up the mountain. The water is sweet and pure perfection, definitely refill at least on the way back down!
This is an arduous 9-mile hike with a 3,972-foot elevation gain from Kennicott. Air is thin as you reach the summit. Follow the switchbacks up and up as you gain access to the above treeline majestic views.
Please remember to leave all mining ruins where they rest for others to enjoy. Removing archeological artifacts from national parks is illegal.
Depending on the time of year you complete this hike, you may enjoy saxifrage and other wildflowers that grow beautifully against all odds on the raw exposed mountainside.
9. Book a Rafting Trip on the Kennecott River
Looking for an adrenaline-pumping adventure? A trip down the Kennecott River is not for the faint of heart, but it is an unforgettable experience! The river runs through a stunning valley of glaciers and mountains. The scenery is breathtaking.
The Kennecott River is fed by glacial runoff from the nearby mountains. As a result, the water is extremely cold. Your guides will outfit you in neoprene rafting gear and personal flotation devices.
Copper Oar provides single-day and backcountry rafting trips. They offer options suitable for everyone ranging from families to solo travelers, or groups.
10. Experience Ice Climbing
Ice climbing is a mighty epic activity anywhere, but ice climbing on a glacier is incredibly exciting! The beauty of the Root Glacier is that it is perfect for ice climbing and the access points are not far from the initial trail down to the ice.
Ice climbing is an exhilarating way to experience the majesty of a glacier. This sport requires strength as climbers must use ice axes and crampons to scale sheer walls of ice.
The experience is truly unforgettable, and anyone who enjoys a challenge should give it a try. Just be sure to heed the advice of experienced guides, as ice climbing can be very dangerous if attempted without proper preparation.
Adventures in ice climbing can be booked with either St. Elias Alpine Guides or Kennicott Wilderness Guides. All ice-climbing clients will learn basic crampon and ice-ax techniques among the skills taught while in action on the climb.
11. Visit the Historic McCarthy Cemetery
A leisurely walk on the wagon road to this cemetery will add an interesting tidbit of history to your visit. At the risk of sharing too much and leaving a little element of surprise, I am not sharing photos of what is in the cemetery. It’s worth a visit, I promise!
Bonus Idea: Schedule a Bucket List Mountaineering Trip
If you have time to add a multi-day adventure to your travels, consider scheduling a mountaineering trip while you visit. If you are new to this sport, you can book an introduction to Alaska mountaineering course with SEAG.
St. Elias Alpine Guides has provided Alaska mountaineering trips and courses in Wrangell St. Elias National Park since 1978! The climbing trip options abound here. There are currently over a dozen mountaineering trips to choose from with St Elias Alpine Guides.
It’s possible that once you climb in Wrangell St Elias National Park that you may just not want to climb anywhere but here! There is an incredible opportunity to learn to climb in one of the most spectacular settings.
🥔 Dining in McCarthy Alaska
It may surprise some that a location as remote as McCarthy can serve up delightful top-notch cuisine all summer long, with some dining venues providing a killer view of glaciers as well. Many restaurants aim to utilize local produce, eggs, and more to support their mission to be a more sustainable community.
The food is exceptional at The Potato, hands down. Owners, Rebecca Bard and Ian Gyori (head chef) have created a destination for foodies. So, of course, that means I LOVE eating here!
No matter what your taste, there is something for everyone on the menu, from falafels and hummus to bangers and mash. Everyone will tell you, there is just something about the fries at The Potato. They are the very best.
The original Potatohead Burrito or the Spudniks Supreme are staples and you truly have to try them both at least once – just see if you can finish them! They are both chock-full of all the goods to help you fuel or recover from your epic outdoor adventuring.
If fries aren’t your thing, go for the most delicious salad: the Miso salad with local greens, shaved brussels sprouts, crispy onions, and dreamy miso dressing. The soft-boiled eggs make it a complete meal for someone who prefers lighter fare. It’s my personal favorite!
The whole menu is a picture of perfection so I struggle to point out only a few items. However, other items to notice are the dinner specials, the local salmon entree, and wood-fired pizzas (on select evenings only). Just eat here, you will be so happy!
Top off your meal with a refreshing beverage. You can choose from items such as natural sodas and there is a full bar selection with special items on tap.
The Meatza Wagon
There are views at eateries and then there is THE VIEW at The Meatza Wagon! Is there any other food truck that looks out over a giant glacier? This is not to distract you from the mega delicious offerings for lunch and dinner (served until 7 pm).
There are daily specials worth paying attention to but everything on the menu is delightful. Things to try are the Alaskan salmon BLT, the souvlaki steak bowl, and the tacos (either carnitas or fish).
This incredible place has helped my family and me many times when we were completely ravenous after full days of exploration and we felt we couldn’t walk another few feet before eating!
Don’t forget to look up and all around while dining. Just look at where you are and how lucky it is that you are in this very spot and eating an amazing meal!
Salmon and Bear Restaurant
The Salmon and Bear restaurant in McCarthy is a must-visit for anyone traveling to Alaska. The restaurant is located in an old cannery building, and the decor pays tribute to the area’s history with photos and memorabilia from the early days of canning.
Chef Josh Slaughter creates masterful dishes that are both beautiful and delicious. The result is a dining experience that is truly unique to Alaska. While the prices may be a bit higher than average, the quality of the food and the setting are well worth it.
Guests will find unique Alaskan ingredients on the menu. Orders can be paired with fine wines, of which there is a large collection. Salmon and Bear Restaurant is a great place for a romantic dinner.
The Golden Saloon
The saloon is where many gather every evening to enjoy the outside deck and observe the activities of locals around the town. Grab a beer, meet some free-range dogs, order a plate of food and enjoy the evening.
Kennicott Glacier Lodge
The Kennicott Glacier Lodge is another one of those places with a breathtaking, almost unreal view that just happens to be right there while you eat. It sometimes feels like the view is from another planet. Pinch yourself, you are there!
The lodge serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner though I must admit my favorite meal there is dinner. It is a unique experience because the meal is served family style.
It is a way to meet travelers from all over with many different life stories. My husband and I have always loved this. This single nightly dinner service is offered at 7:00 PM. Reservations are required.
You can glance at the menu posted on the outdoor bulletin board below the lodge and choose when to go depending on the offerings each night (of which there is one). For example, do you want Alaskan Salmon, Chicken Florentine, or Prime Rib? The homemade bread and desserts are a perk!
🛌 Places to Stay in McCarthy, Alaska
Considerations for guests staying in town should be made regarding noise tolerance when choosing a place to stay. On weekends live bands play outside at the Golden Saloon and music can run quite late.
If this is a sensitive issue for you, check the band schedule, stay on a weeknight or choose Blackburn Cabins or Kennicott Glacier Lodge.
Ma Johnson’s is one of the most noticeable buildings with a cheery facade in McCarthy. It is truly the one and only accommodation in town that will provide you with a certain level of comfort and amenities you may desire in your travels.
It is worth it to stay here if you need a certain level of support when visiting such a unique town. Wifi can be accessed in the lobby of the hotel where otherwise it is not available.
The manager, Shere Keegan, is a bundle of smiles and kindness. She is always eager to help newcomers find their comfort zone and feel welcomed here.
Shere even hands out earplugs to those staying at Ma Johnson’s or Lancaster Backpacker’s on a Saturday night (when live bands play).
If you are lucky you will get to meet her adorable puppy (growing fast) Hercules, who likes to hang out on the porch and greet people.
The spaces and rooms at Ma Johnson’s are decorated with period furniture and filled with artifacts from McCarthy & Kennicott. They are looked after with the love and care of dedicated staff.
Many of the rooms have sinks and the hotel has a ratio of 1 bathroom per 2 bedrooms. So, you are always next door or across the hall from a bathroom.
Bathrobes, slippers, and handmade soaps are provided making this a very cozy place to stay!
The Blackburn Cabins are a truly special option for a place to stay in the McCarthy area. The cabins are nestled right in the woods near the Toe of Glacier and located along the Wagon Road between McCarthy and Kennicott.
The cabins are only one mile from McCarthy and 4 miles from Kennicott, creating a more private and quieter option for a place to lay your head at night.
A resident of McCarthy since the 90s, Mark Wacht, built these cabins, starting with two that were completed in 2015. There are now a total of eight cabins for guests to choose from for booking.
➡️ Lancaster’s Backpacker Hotel
The Lancaster Backpacker’s Hotel is a simple, clean, and basic place to crash after a day exploring the McCarthy area. This accommodation is managed by Ma Johnson’s and reservations are made through them solely.
It’s important to remember the bathrooms in Lancaster’s Backpacker Hotel are shared by all and as everyone staying here has been exploring the outdoors, likely all day, these spaces get used a lot. By the end of the day bathrooms, especially showers will be heavily used.
Breakfast at the Salmon and Bear Restaurant (next to the Golden Saloon) is included in your stays at both Ma Johnson’s and Lancaster’s Backpacker Hotel. It is yummy and served in a cozy space!
➡️ Kennicott Glacier Lodge
You have never stayed anywhere like this before! The building overlooks 25 miles of glacier. This is the only lodge in the historic town of Kennicott. This is not only a place to sleep but a true bucket list destination for many.
It is located quite literally steps away from the starting point of various activities (the mill tour, glacier hikes, etc).
Family-owned and so very welcoming, Kennicott Glacier Lodge will exceed your expectations. The service the staff provides is impeccable. It is a very clean and well-maintained lodge. Breakfast is served buffet style from 7am to 10am.
⛏ FAQS: McCarthy Alaska
Many consider McCarthy to be a quirky place and for sure, there really is not another place like it, or even closely related!
People may have a lot of questions and concerns before visiting. Hopefully, most things you wonder about have been covered thus far but here are a few extra tidbits for you, below.
How to Get to McCarthy
If driving, the town of McCarthy is only accessible by the McCarthy road, which is a gravel road that runs for 60 miles from the town of Chitina. Chitina is located on the west bank of the Copper River at its confluence with the Chitina River.
The McCarthy Road follows the old route of the Copper River Northwest Railway as a way to access the town of McCarthy and the nearby copper mines of Kennicott. Today, it is popular with tourists who want to experience a true Alaskan adventure.
While the road can be challenging to drive, it is also very scenic and provides stunning views. This GUIDE provided by the National Park Service is a helpful read for newcomers.
Pack a spare tire and fill your rank with gas beforehand! No gasoline or fuel is available in McCarthy or on the road.
Once reaching the end of the McCarthy road, by the footbridge, visitors need to park at Base Camp Kennicott. Parking rates range from $10 per day, per vehicle. Or, folks can choose a short-term parking rate of $5 if staying for 4 hours or less.
Walk, bike, or take a shuttle into McCarthy, which is 1/2 mile away across the footbridge.
Regular round-trip transportation to downtown McCarthy is available from across the footbridge two times per hour. Please check the current schedule on the board.
McCarthy Alaska Weather
Weather in the Wrangells can change quite drastically from day to day. Summer temperatures can range anywhere from the high eighties to the upper 40s during the day. That’s quite a range, right? There is not really a way to predict what you will get when you visit in June, July, or August.
I can assure you that you will experience a certain level of unpleasant mosquitoes in June, ranging from almost unbearable to tolerable with a must-have bug net.
Each day exploring the McCarthy area revolves around the weather. Downpours on the dirt roads can create large puddles and runoff that make it hard to get around without the right gear so plan in advance when packing.
Where’s McCarthy Alaska?
McCarthy is located in the southeastern part of the state about a 7-8 hour drive from both Anchorage and Fairbanks. Likewise, it is located about a 4-hour drive from Valdez.
What is the Population of McCarthy?
The population of summer residents in McCarthy hovers around 100 but drops to about 20-30 in the winter months due to its isolated location and harsh winters.
Is the Mother Lode Mine Open?
No, the mine is not open to the public. It closed in July 1938. The mine is located at an elevation of 5,300 feet, 2,600 feet east of Bonanza Peak. It may be seen during a flightseeing tour if you request this specifically.
🏔 The Wrap Up: Best Things To Do In McCarthy, Alaska
McCarthy offers visitors the chance to get off the beaten track and explore the wilderness on foot. There’s no doubt it is an area full of history and endless scenic beauty.
With its remote location and spectacular scenery, McCarthy is a truly unique place to visit. Whether you decide to hike through the stunning Wrangell-St. Elias National Park or raft down the Kennicott River, McCarthy is definitely a must-see destination in Alaska!
So what are you waiting for? Start planning your trip to McCarthy today!
Interested in learning about other interesting places to visit?
Check out my other travel posts HERE!