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Author Topic: Alaska's McCarthy Road trip report - long, with photos  (Read 2870 times)

oscar

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Alaska's McCarthy Road trip report - long, with photos
« on: March 02, 2019, 12:07:48 AM »

This is another belated report from my "Bad Roads of the Arctic" summer 2012 tour. This one is for a day trip on the McCarthy Road, a mostly-unpaved road covering the 60 miles between Chitina at the end of AK 10 (Edgerton Highway segment), and the historic mining communities of McCarthy and Kennicott. Those towns, and most of the McCarthy Road, are within the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, but the road is an unnumbered state highway maintained by Alaska DOT&PF.

The McCarthy Road follows, with minor realignments, part of the old Copper River and North Western (once mocked as the "Can't Run and Never Will") railroad, which for almost three decades hauled copper ore from Kennicott to the port of Cordova, until the mines were depleted and shut down in 1938. The abandoned rail trackbed between Cordova and the Million Dollar Bridge was eventually converted to the Copper River Highway. But attempts to fill the gap between the Bridge and Chitina were unsuccessful. The odds are remote at best that those efforts will ever be revived. That would give Cordova a land link to the rest of the state highway system, but many Cordova residents like the lack of road access, judging from all the "No Road" bumper stickers I saw there during my last visit there in 2009.

When I last traveled the McCarthy Road in 2012, pavement on the road's west end went only as far east as mile 1.5. The Milepost travel guide to Arctic highways reports that chip seal now goes east to the Kuskulana Bridge at mile 17.2.

The Milepost and the National Park Service recommend you bring one full-size mounted spare, since the gravel surfaces after the chip seal ends are unkind to space-saver spares. Unpaved road conditions vary a lot, depending in part on when the graders last came through, with potholes, washboard, and/or soft or slippery spots. The speed limit is 35 mph or lower. The Milepost and the National Park Service suggest allowing at least two hours each way to travel the entire road.

There are no gas stations or auto repair facilities anywhere along the McCarthy Road. There is a gas station (no diesel, last I heard) near its west end in Chitina, and another (with diesel, but limited hours) in Kenny Lake on AK 10 about 26 miles north of Chitina. Cellphone coverage reportedly is spotty at best.

Alaska DOT&PF reported an AADT of 78 in 2017. But this probably is not seasonally-adjusted for the higher traffic volumes in the peak summer season, and that the road is closed or at least unmaintained in the winter from mid-October to mid-May.

All of the photos below are my own, and unless otherwise noted were taken in July 2012. There are also some photos from my first attempt to travel the McCarthy Road in 1994 (I turned back about a quarter of the way to McCarthy), and a short trip on the west end of the road in 2009.





^ ^ The McCarthy Road has an interesting start, with a one-lane passage through a rock cut at mile 0.2, which was originally a tunnel for the CR&NW's one-track rail line. (Both photos June 2009)



^ Near the beginning of the road are several distinctive CMR (Chitina-McCarthy Road) milemarkers, like this one at mile 1.0. They indicate that the McCarthy Road is separate from AK 10, with its own milemarker sequence. I don't recall any of these past the first two miles of the road. (June 2009)



^ At mile 1.1, the McCarthy Road crosses the Copper River. This bridge was built in 1971, as a replacement for the original railroad bridge. I took this photo from northeast of the bridge, using the river access mentioned in the next item. (June 2009)



^ Pavement ended here until recently, here at a river access and informal campground turnoff at mile 1.5. (June 2009)



^ The Kuskulana River bridge at mile 17.2, a converted rail bridge more than 200 feet above the river, viewed from a pullout west of the bridge. (July 1994)



^ A truck crossing the one-lane Kuskulana River bridge, heading westbound. Reportedly this bridge was much more "exciting" before 1988, when a wider wooden deck was installed, and guardrails were added. (July 1994)



^ A typical milepost for the McCarthy Road (this one at mile 25), unlike the unusual CMR milemarker shown above.



^ The Choskosna River Bridge, at mile 26.8. Unlike the Kuskulana River bridge, this probably was not originally a railroad bridge.





^ ^ The first of these National Park Service boundary signs is eastbound, between the Chokosna and Gilahina bridges. I don't know the location of the other, which I photographed on my return from McCarthy. The first sign is at a boundary between the National Preserve and National Park parts of Wrangell-St. Elias, with the arrows indicating that preserve lands are on both sides of the road. The second indicates that both sides are on national park land. There are other signs I did not photograph, that say the park is on one side of the road and the preserve is on the other. Both the park and the preserve are under National Park Service protection, but the park/preserve distinction seems to matter mainly for hunters, fishermen, and trappers, for whom the preserve's rules are more liberal.



^ The modern Gilahina River bridge, at mile 29, and the remains of the old wooden railroad trestle alongside the road. There is a Park Service footpath under the old trestle, but don't climb on the trestle.



^ The Lakina River bridge, at mile 44.5, was originally built for the Glenn Highway (part of AK 1 northeast of Anchorage), but was disassembled and moved here as part of a Glenn Highway widening project.



^ The McCarthy Road ends at this footbridge across the main channel of the Kennicott River, viewed from the river's west shore upstream from the bridge. Visitors to McCarthy and nearby historic sites must park their cars, and walk or bike to the other side where they can take shuttle buses to their destinations. Otherwise, tourists in their personal vehicles would overload the sketchy local road network, which the Park Service and the few local residents prefer be traveled by non-residents only on foot or bicycles, or a small number of shuttles. (See below on how the shuttles got across the river.)

The raging river water was because I lucked into the flood every summer, when the Hidden Creek Lake upriver breaks through its glacial dam and drains into the river. Reportedly icebergs from the burst glacial dam also float under the footbridge, though I didn't see any.



^ Another view of the footbridge, from above the east end of the bridge. This shows the end of the McCarthy Road on the other side, and the cart available to haul luggage to one of the lodgings in McCarthy.



^ Before the footbridge was built in 1997, visitors to McCarthy had it even tougher. They had to put on work gloves, get on a tram, and pull themselves and the tram across the river on a suspended cable. This photo shows what appears to be remnants of that tram, and the still-standing cable on which the tram rode.



^ Viewed from the northeast, the privately-built cobbled-together Kennicott River Service Bridge, downstream from the footbridge, is how McCarthy residents and businesses get their vehicles across the river. They pay an annual fee for the privilege, to cover bridge maintenance costs. Non-residents are out of luck -- AFAIK, there are no shuttles taking passengers across the river, so they have to walk (or bike) over the footbridge.

The cable in the foreground might be the one used by the old tram mentioned above.
« Last Edit: March 02, 2019, 10:24:16 PM by oscar »
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Rothman

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Re: Alaska's McCarthy Road trip report - long, with photos
« Reply #1 on: March 02, 2019, 12:10:45 AM »

Did you go up to Kennecott?
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oscar

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Re: Alaska's McCarthy Road trip report - long, with photos
« Reply #2 on: March 02, 2019, 06:59:52 AM »

Did you go up to Kennecott?

I took a shuttle from McCarthy to the old mine buildings in Kennecott. I did not take any of the hiking trails from there, which might've been an option had I stayed overnight (or longer) in McCarthy rather than returning to my hotel in Glenallen.
« Last Edit: March 02, 2019, 02:03:18 PM by oscar »
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