Kennecott is the name of the mines and company, while the glacier and town are named Kennicott after a local explorer by the name of Robert Kennicott. The mines and company were misspelled due to a clerical error. After the green streak in the mountain was discovered, the next step was to get it out of the back country of Alaska. They ended up mining some gold in the area to fund the building of the railroad to the copper streak. That green streak was one of the richest copper ore deposits ever found!
McCarthy is the name of the creek and the town that popped up below the mine due to the “dry” Kennecott mine not allowing gambling and or other assorted affairs. Today, the mine is a ghost town that is being restored and McCarthy has a winter time population of between 15-20 families. They say that the population is rising due to the tourism in the summer. The McCarthy road from Chitina to the mine is closed in the winter but you can use snowmobiles to travel the 60 miles or use the airport.
Construction of the railroad to the mine began in 1908 and stretched 196 miles. The current McCarthy road is built over top of most of the old railroad. For 27 years, the railway carried a staggering $200 million in copper ore from the historic Kennicott mining area to the coast of Cordova. The last train delivered the very last load of copper ore on November 11, 1938. During the 1964 earthquake, with a magnitude of 9.2, the railway was destroyed and never rebuilt. Kennicott has been a ghost town since then and, in 1978, President Jimmy Carter declared the area a National Monument because of its cultural and scientific significance. They are now part of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve. At 13.2 million acres, it is twice the size of Denali National Park and larger than the country of Switzerland. It is home to 9 of North America’s 16 tallest peaks, over 150 glaciers, 4 major mountain ranges, and the largest glaciers outside the polar ice caps.
Today, instead of the tram that was used to pull yourself across the river, they have a foot bridge. There is a bridge down a ways that only permitted motorists can use to cross the river and those are usually only the locals or deliveries. Once on the other side, you can choose to hike the short distance to the small base town of McCarthy or you can take the shuttle. You can also skip McCarthy and just head straight up to the mill town of Kennecott. The shuttle to McCarthy is free but the ride to Kennecott is $10 for a round trip and they will give you a little ticket for your return trip. It is a 5-mile hike and so worth the shuttle ride, because you will want to save the hiking for the trail to the glacier or up to the mines. Another good option is to bring a bike and I highly recommend it as many people bike in the area.
For accommodations, there is the Kennicott Glacier Lodge (http://www.kennicottlodge.com/) that is right on the mountain and within the old mining town itself. It is a restored building so expect the rooms to reflect that. Another option is to stay at the historic hotels within McCarthy. You have the McCarthy Lodge and The Ma Johnsons Hotel (http://www.mccarthylodge.com/) with many services available nearby. On the road side of the foot bridge, you will find many campgrounds, Bed & Breakfasts’, Lodges, and cabins nearby. We stayed at the Kennicott River Lodge (http://www.kennicottriverlodge.com/) in one of their cabins that could accommodate 6 people and a dog. We were very glad that we did and found that they are extremely accommodating and had all the services that we could possibly want. We had a great view of the glacier, mill town, and a glacier lake in the foreground.
One of the things that I found confusing, beyond the spelling of the Kennicott/Kennecott names, was whether the glacier was called the Root Glacier or the Kennicott Glacier. Well, it turns out that there are two glaciers in the area which explains all of the dirt, ice, and water that flows beneath them. The glacier actually closest to the mine is called the Root Glacier and beyond that, and partially connected, is the Kennicott Glacier. You can hike both if you are of able body. They have hiking tours (http://kennicottguides.com/ or just google Kennicott guides) available for the cost of a guide and cramp-ons for your boots. We didn’t have a guide and we chose to just hike to the Root Glacier for a shorter experience since we are amateur hikers.
The trail to the toe of the Root Glacier is around 2 miles and most of it is a fairly easy hike. There is the last 3/4 mile of the trip that is down hill and partially in the moraine (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moraine), so you can expect sliding rocks and some of it is a strenuous hike. I found it even more difficult coming back up out of there. Now if you are used to hiking and are used to mountain climbing, you might get a slight laugh out of my version of strenuous. I am an asthmatic so it made this hike a bit more difficult for me as I have not been hiking much this year. I did have to use an inhaler on several occasions during the hike, sad to say (Just a warning for those in my current condition.) The hike is worth the pain!
There are a few beautiful creek crossings, some wonderful views of the glacier and surrounding mountains, and the exhilaration of completing the 4 miles round trip is so very worth it. The glacier was beautiful but ended up not being my most favorite part, although the kids loved it. Jumbo Creek, and its waterfall that you cross, was my most favorite part of the hike. Making it back to Kennicott and saying “Wow! I made it!” was a really great feeling for me. I pushed myself and, while most hikers would find it a casual hike, I felt accomplished. I now know that I need to hike more often and condition my body for what I really want to do because there is nothing worse than your mind saying “I want to go see that!” and your body replies “oh…there is no way that is happening!”.
Kennicott, McCarthy, and the Root Glacier are worth the 60-miles (on a dirt road) road trip and worth seeing if you see nothing else in Alaska. You must have a spare tire and a tire repair kit if you attempt this trip in your vehicle, although I have never had a flat. The old railway spikes have a tendency to come up to the top of the road from time to time. I have seen little front wheel drive cars, as well as RV’s, make this trip with no problems whatsoever. You will also cross the single lane Kuskulana Bridge over Kuskulana River Canyon that is around 525 feet across and 238 feet above the river. Take plenty of pictures of this historic bridge and enjoy the mesmerizing views! Make sure you have plenty of gas as the last gas available is in either Kenny Lake or Chitina. Also, make sure you have plenty of room on your camera or smartphone for lots of pictures. Have a great trip…we sure did!!!