Alaska: Bumpy Road to McCarthy

We woke up, showered, packed up and headed out from Beaver Creek around 10am.  As we pulled out of the motel, we noticed a little log cabin restaurant across the street.  I was still a little bitter about not getting my biscuits and gravy in Skagway yesterday (No, I don’t hold grudges.  Why do you ask?) so we decided to stop in for breakfast.

Buckshot Betty’s:

This place was a somewhat kitschy back-woods establishment.  The outside walls were wood paneling.  A tin-roofed lean-to covered a small patio overflowing with flower planters and a large pile of firewood.  The room was topped with moose antlers and a large sign that simply said, “Restaurant.”  Definitely the type of place we had to investigate.


Inside also had paneled walls adorned with old black-and-white photos and knick knack-covered shelves.  The beams were made of tree trunks, bulging in spots with what looked like tree tumors.  The tables were worn wood and seated many more than two, so we sat at a table with a few other people.  There was also a back room with home baked goods and a small sort of country market.

The guy who waited on us wore a cowboy hat and boots and, funny enough, seemed to have a bit of a southern drawl.  The place was really cozy and neat, but no frickin’ biscuits and gravy!  (This is bordering on conspiracy territory now…)  We both had ham and cheese omelets that came with fried potatoes and huge, thick slices of toast.  The food was good, but way too much.  I stuff in about half of what I was served and waddled out to the car to start the day.

After about 20 minutes on the road, we crossed back into Alaska.  I was surprised, again, by the lax border crossing.  We showed our passports and answered a few questions – What were you doing in Canada?  Any guns?  Over $10k in cash? – and we were on our way.  The guards never even came down out of their booths, never opened the trunk or anything.  Maybe we got it easy since we had US passports, I don’t know…


We stopped for gas just across the border in Northway, AK – for $3.59/gallon!!  Gas was only $2.65/gallon when we left home last week.  You’d think with the pipeline in their backyard, gas prices would be cheaper here, but I guess they really pay the price for not having any refineries up here.

Driving from Beaver Creek to Tok, the scenery was very much the same as it had been for the last several miles of the Yukon – trees, occasional water and marsh, and dense shrubbery mixed with fireweed near the road.  We continued to see big patches of dead trees.  The evergreens still have all their needles attached, but they’re not alive.  It was hard to tell if they were just dried up or damaged by fire.  Some of the trees were only dead on one side, and some only dead on the top half – then immediately next to some of the dead trees were perfectly healthy live trees.  Our theories of destruction were fire, insects or nutrient depletion.




As we started down out of Tok, the Wrangell and St. Elias mountain ranges came into view.  We were twisting and turning along the road, heading straight for a mountain, then rounding a turn and heading straight for another.  The road twisted up high through the mountains with steep, tree-filled ravines below, then wound back down along the feet of the mountains and back up again. The first mountains to appear were green, rounded peaks with reddish, exposed dirt faces.


We stopped at a pull out for a bit to do some light hiking, stretch our legs and take in the scenery.  The air was so crisp and fresh and wonderful.


As we drove on, off in the distance, jagged, rocky, snow-capped peaks began to appear again.  The snow cover on these mountains was much more substantial than that in Kluane, with the top several thousand feet blanketed.  Thick, billowy clouds loomed above the peaks making it difficult to photograph because of the lack of contrast between the sky and snow.  As we continued driving, both of us became more and more amazed as we twisted closer to the peaks and got different views.



And we continued on, blissfully, toward Wrangell-St. Elias.

Now is probably as good a time as any to divulge my biggest travel weakness – the source of many a vacation bicker-fest and silent, pouty car rides.  I SUCK at maps.  Really, truly suck.  Don’t believe me?  Ask my mom about the time I drove us 12+ hours out of the way on the way home from FL and we ended up in the middle of AL somewhere, still 12+ hours from home.  All because I thought we had to take only big interstates and not highways or state roads.  That was fun.  Especially the part where everyone was like, “What’s wrong with you?!  It’s so easy!!”  I don’t know what’s up with my brain, but when I have all these choices of routes – interstates, highways, back roads, etc. – my brain just doesn’t process how to connect them correctly.

Well, I finally found a place where I can get around using a map that’s more my speed.  That’s right – a cartoon map of Alaska and the Yukon.  THIS is what we were using to get around.  And guess what?  I didn’t mess up once!… … Until we tried to get down to Wrangell-St. Elias.


According to my not-so-detailed map, between Glenallen and Valdez, we should have come to a town called Copper Center (check) where the McCarthy Road should turn into the park (ummm…nowhere to be found).  At this point, bickering commenced.  After driving around for several minutes, we found a Wrangell-St. Elias visitor’s center, where the less adventurous can stop to read about the park and take pictures of the distant mountains.  We went in to see about camping permits and found out that the McCarthy Road doesn’t actually start in Copper Center.  A bit down the road, another highway branches off toward a town called Chitina (pronounced Chit-nuh), and dead ends into the McCarthy Road.

We also found out that the McCarthy Road isn’t so much a road as a treacherous dirt and gravel path, fraught with washboard ruts and rogue railroad ties.  The road ends at a footbridge, roughly half mile outside of McCarthy and the only way in to the town is to walk.  According to the ranger in the visitor’s center, we would need at least 3 hours to drive to the footbridge, 60 miles into the park.  We looked at the clock – only 4:00 – weighed our options and decided to go for it.

We pulled into town in Chitina to find a hotel/restaurant, a dilapidated saloon, a gas station and not much else.



Hotel Chitina Restaurant:

We decided to stop at the hotel/restaurant for a little dinner before forging on, into the wild blue yonder.


The restaurant was a cozy little place with several large windows on each wall; the ones in the back facing out toward the mountains in the park.  The decor was fairly plain – simple sconce lighting, dark hardwood floors with scattered area rugs, red table cloth-covered tables with wooden chairs, framed old black-and-white photos of Chitina and the area, and the pristine view through the windows.

The waitress was very friendly and quick with the service.  I had a delicious, thick, juicy cheeseburger and K had a grilled chicken sandwich.  Both were really tasty and gave us a little kick in our steps before we set off for the long haul into McCarthy.  We paid $29 for both meals plus two sodas, and we were off.

As we pulled away from the restaurant, we were looking straight ahead into a big bend in the road.  Right in the bed sat a gas station with an old-school, above ground gas tank and a trailer/convenient store set back off the road.  K decided to pass this one and “just fill up at the next one,” only to come around the bend and find ourselves staring straight into a pass through a mountain just barely wide enough for the one-lane gravel road — the entrance to Wrangell-St. Elias.


At the entrance were a couple of bullet-hole-riddled signs giving the distance to McCarthy and warning of the road condition and strongly urging motorists to carry a full-sized spare tire.


At this point, K was ready to turn back, but there was no way in hell I was coming this far and not going in!  So we decided to go back for gas, ask the attendant for advice and make a final decision then.


The woman at the gas station told us that the road was long and bumpy, but definitely worth it and certainly doable, even in our little Chevy Cobalt.  She said the main danger is railroad ties – if we avoided those, we’d be good.  Up until about 15 years ago, the McCarthy Road was a railroad leading to McCarthy, where miners who worked in the Kennecott Mine lived.  They eventually filled in the railroad tracks with dirt and gravel rather than removing them, and sometimes when the road is graded, railroad ties surface.  K looked hesitant, but decided to go for it!  Oh, and did I mention that driving on an unpaved road voided our rental car contract, the insurance and windshield protection?  Screw it!  Rules were made to be broken, baby!  Especially out here in the wild, wild west.

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park:

As we drove down to Chitina, it had rained a bit, but by the time we had eaten and started into the park, the sky had cleared and the sun was shining.  After the first mile into the park, I was convinced that K was going to turn around and that was going to be the end of that.  The road was BAD – I’m talking entire chunks out of the road, washboard ruts, giant rocks in the road, and the potential for a railroad tie puncturing our tire bad.  We couldn’t go over 15mph, and K was white-knuckled and miserable trying to avoid destroying our rental car.  The girl at the gas station had also told us that the first 10 miles were the worst, so K agreed to keep going ’til then to see if it got any better.  (Oh, the things he does to make me happy.  He’s the best!)

At the entrance to the park, the road was up high, and down below – probably about 100 feet down – was a giant, smooth, flat gravel bar, partially covered with standing water.  Out of the gravel bar rose rolling hills, which gave way to the enormous mountains in the periphery.  In the background were the steep, rugged mountains in the distance, creating a really awesome contrast.  The gravel bar didn’t have any vegetation at all and appeared to be the result of a retreating glacier.


We crossed over the gravel bar on a nice, paved bridge, and then it was back to crappy roads.


As we kept going, the path became a dirt road with thick brush and trees on either side of the road.  Within the first five miles, we had a wolf run across the road in front of us and disappear back into the brush.  It happened so fast all we really had time to process was a flash across the road and then its hind end and tail disappearing into the brush.  We drove past where he’d disappeared really slowly, trying to catch another glimpse.  We didn’t catch the wolf, but a little ways down was a small coyote sitting in the brush peering out at us.


He was a sort of confused, timid little guy.  K stopped in front of him and rolled the window down to take a photo, and the poor little guy seemed confused as to whether he should jump in the care with us or turn around and run.  He kind of flinched toward us and then back toward the woods – back and forth a couple of times looking scared – back and forth a couple of times before we cautiously drove on and left him to be.

About a mile up the road, we caught sight of a brown bear – couldn’t tell if it was actually a grizzly or not – scurrying out of the middle of the road where he’d been feasting on some sort of roadkill.  All these animal sightings combined with the fact that the road had gotten a little better around mile 8 convinced K to keep going.  Unfortunately, the only wildlife we saw for the remaining 52 miles were bunnies and ravens the size of small dogs.

As we continued, most of the road was still thick brush and trees on both sides with an occasional break for rivers, lakes or small ponds.  We crossed three rivers, one of which was on an old, wooden bridge several hundred feet (I think 286 feet) above the water.  It was really trippy and kind of scared the crap out of me.


As we passed the rivers, I searched a lot for bears and near the lakes and marshy areas I searched a lot for moose and caribou, but nothing.  The open lakes with mountains for backdrops made for some excellent views and photos, though.


And as we continued to drive, the sun had moved back behind us, and was shining brilliantly on the mountains appearing through the pass straight ahead of us.



Around mile 30, I’m pretty sure K was completely fed up with the drive and his resulting tunnel vision, but at that point there weren’t many options.  Much of the park – especially along the road – is private property belonging to natives, so pulling off the road to camp wasn’t an option.  Aside from camping, the only other optionss were to turn around and drive 30 miles back out or continue 30 miles to McCarthy.  K chose to keep going (Hooray!) but as the sun started sinking lower, he started getting grumpier.  And grumpier.  And quieter.  And poutier.  And despite my insistence that I could drive, he kept going.

By the time we got to the end of the road, it was 9:30 and completely dark – no streetlights on this road!  Our original plan for the night was to pack into McCarthy and hike out to camp, but there was no way we were going through all that in the complete, claustrophobic, pitch black of night.  So we shelled out $20 and set up shop at a private campground about a half mile from the footbridge.


We walked around to stretch our legs and explore our surroundings, then headed over to the little snack stand for a couple of beers.  The guy working at the stand told us the saloon in McCarthy was still open and Thursday nights are the best – it’s open mic night and highly entertaining.  So we quickly set up our tent by the glow of the car headlights and set out for the saloon.

The snack stand guy had told us it was about a mile walk, but in the pitch black, surrounded by woods exuding all sorts of creepy nature sounds, with only two small headlamps to guide us, that mile seemed eternal!  We made it down and across the footbridge, which seemed like a mile itself, and then…nothing.  We couldn’t see anything, and all we could hear was the roar of water under our feet.  We thought we’d see some lights or signs or something on the other side of the bridge.  Or maybe hear sounds of the town.  But…nothing.

We asked a group of teenage girls standing at the end of the bridge if they know how to get to McCarthy and got an answer something along the lines of, “Ummmm…you walk up there and then there will be a bridge with no water under it, go over and and then there will be a museum and a ‘Y’ and I think you go right…or maybe it’s left…or maybe it’s before the bridge.  I don’t know.  It’s been a long time since I’ve been here.  Sorry.”  So we walked off with our dinky headlamps pointed ahead , with me dragging my feet through the rocks to warn bears we were coming, and lo and behold it was just as the girls had said – a bridge and a ‘Y’ leading us straight into McCarthy.  We never even saw a single light of the town as we approached; just heard the faint hum of a generator off in that direction.

New Golden Saloon:

As we walked into McCarthy, the small town was faintly lit – enough to see the old, worn down facades of a guide center, a post office, a restaurant and the lodge/saloon.  I’m sure there was more to the small town, but we stopped walking and paying attention once we’d found the saloon.  The town definitely had an “old west” feel, and the saloon was no different.

We walked through the small, saloon-style swinging doors onto the patio were a huge husky was laying, waiting for its owner, and on into the saloon to find an old-school, wooden bar and raw wood barroom.  We could immediately tell the locals from the tourists – the locals were sitting around in shorts and flip flops while everyone else was all bundled up.

We hopped up at the bar, settled in with a couple of Alaskan IPAs ($5 each) and enjoyed the show.  Open mic night was a riot – from the MC who kept reciting random poetry and leading group songs, to the overly inebriated kid from Oregon who wouldn’t quit telling (and forgetting the punchline to) ridiculous jokes, the chick from Oregon who just happened to be at the bar with sheet music for Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” the older local guy who had some crazy rap he’d made up about a train (which sounded more like a lunatic’s babbling than a “rap”), and the local guide who had a hilarious rambling about when Harrison Ford/Han Solo/Indiana Jones came to visit the glacier.  It was quite entertaining and much better than shivering in a tent.  We stayed for a few rounds and many laughs before we headed back toward the campground.

As we walked back, I insisted on shuffling my feet through the gravel to warn the bears we were coming, while K simulated bear attacks with the hunting knives he’d been wearing around his belt.  (We embrace our weirdness.  It’s okay to make fun.)

Along the way, amidst our mindless chatter, we took a minute to stop, look up and admire the wide open sky, out in the wilderness, far away from the pollution of city light.  The image of that sky is burned into my brain like a billion of the most brilliantly illuminated fireflies stuck against the backdrop of an infinite black hole.  Holy shit, it was stunning.  Standing there, embracing, peering up into the wider wilderness of space was such a serene and mind blowing moment.  Being present in that moment, there in the middle of a ginormous national park, surrounded by gargantuan mountains, a thriving forest, a billion bright stars and the sounds of pure nature reminded me just how small I am in this big world, and just how much more of this big world I have left to conquer.  I thank God for my sense of adventure, and for my best friend who keeps me company as we explore.  This feeling is like crack to me.  It’s such a rush and such a completely humbling feeling.

We got back to the tent and crashed around 1am with every intention of waking up early to have breakfast in McCarthy – I still want my biscuits and gravy, dammit! – and visiting the Kennecott Mines before heading to Anchorage…

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