Please note, this post is part of a series. Click here to read it from the beginning.
Almost as soon as we left Valdez, our guide Miles became like an excited school kid on a field trip. Our next stop would be McCarthy, his favourite place in Alaska.
On paper, McCarthy looks far from the most exciting place on Earth. The year-round population is between 25 and 40 people (as with all statistics in Alaska, it depends on who you ask), plus their dogs which about doubles it. ‘Downtown’ consists of two restaurants (one of which doubles as the bar), 2 hotels (owned by the same person, who owns most of McCarthy), the grocery store and a couple of excursion offices. However, as soon as we arrived in McCarthy we immediately understood why Miles was so excited. The town sits in Wrangell St Elias National Park, which was formed in 1980 and is home to the second and third highest peaks in the USA as well as nine of the 16 highest peaks. Only about 80,000 people visit this national park every year. Some national parks get more visitors than that in the month of January alone. One of the big reasons for the low numbers is that Wrangell St Elias is not easy to get to. There’s one road in, a dirt track that is labelled on the map as a highway and really shouldn’t be. It’s 60 miles long, and takes about 3 hours to conquer one-way. If you don’t like bumpy rides, this isn’t the place for you. You’re driving along the route of the old mining railroad, and it’s advisable that you don’t go over 35mph so as to avoid the old rail spikes sticking out of the gravel. As one local told me in McCarthy ‘In Alaska we don’t have a side of the road we drive on. If there’s a pot hole on the right hand side of the road, you drive on the left’. The road ends at the Kennicott River, where you must walk over a bridge then on into McCarthy, or catch a shuttle bus for $5.
So, the people who make it to Wrangell St Elias are the ones who really want to be there. And that’s what makes it such a great place to visit. Everyone who enters McCarthy immediately relaxes into its gentle pace of life and chilled out culture. We stayed at the Lancaster’s Hotel. Upon arrival we were told we would have a short introductory talk and tour of the hotel. It always makes me nervous when hotels have introductory talks, as they usually comprise of a huge list of rules and regulations. However, Becky just wanted to welcome us personally and tell us that if we needed anything all we had to do was ask. If no-one was on reception, she told us to press the intercom and someone would answer. It’s the complete opposite to Anchorage, where a member of hostel staff had looked put-out when I asked where the washing machine was. We soon discovered that everyone in McCarthy is this friendly. Both the restaurants, which are actually staffed by the same team, were happy to accommodate my vegan and gluten-free requirements. The grocery store, by no means big, had an impressive selection of gluten-free and vegan foods that could put some British supermarkets to shame. The lady at the grocery store also makes the sandwiches, for which you have to hand in a slip of paper with your order on the night before.
Although you have no desire to use it once you get into the McCarthy pace of life, there is wi-fi available for a charge. I believe it works in both hotels, but the reception is limited. I spotted a local sat on her quad bike outside the pub checking emails on her laptop, which leads me to assume the internet access is not available in the ‘suburbs’ of McCarthy.
Although I’m aware there are a lot of reality TV shows set in Alaska, I’d avoided watching them before I went there. Which is why I was a little embarrassed when I met one of the stars of The Edge of Alaska at the pub in McCarthy and I had to admit that I didn’t have a clue who he was. Two of the guys I was drinking with got very excited about the encounter though, and Jason was super nice in answering all our questions. I chatted to him for a while about all sorts of subjects, he told me he didn’t mind that I’d never seen the show and I promised to watch the next series.
Visiting McCarthy leaves you in two minds. You want to tell everyone you know about it, because it’s so cool. But, on the other hand, you also want to keep it a secret to stop more people piling in to the town.