A few years back I worked on a show in McCarthy for National Geographic. The crew would fly in from out of state, prep for a day or two and then we would make the long 7-10 hour drive from Anchorage to McCarthy. While driving made the most sense for a camera crew with loads of gear and tight schedules, there are other options available. After doing the trip more than ten times in a year, I know I can help you tackle this journey! So keep scrolling to learn everything you need to know about traveling from Anchorage to McCarthy, Alaska.
Article Overview: Anchorage to McCarthy
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Anchorage to McCarthy, Alaska
Driving Anchorage to McCarthy
Buckle up for a truly one of a kind American roadtrip. The stunning scenery along the way from Anchorage to McCarthy will keep you captivated. Majestic snow capped mountain peaks towering overhead, lush valleys stretching out for miles, glaciers, wildlife, and roaring rivers; it has to be one of the most beautiful drives in the world. So how should you tackle the drive, and what should you know?
Time & Distance
McCarthy is a little over 300 miles/500 kilometers east of Anchorage. Driving from Anchorage to McCarthy usually takes around 7-8 hours, but there are a lot of variables that could effect your drive time. Season, route, road conditions, as well as how many stops you take along the way, should all be factored into your travel time. In the dead of winter its taken me over 10 hours to make the trek.
Smartphones have really made roadtrips a lot simpler, but there are a lot of dead cell service zones along the way. So it’s good to have a general idea of the route you are taking. Thankfully, the drive is pretty freakin simple.
Believe it or not, you really only have to turn twice the entire time! Once you get out of Anchorage and are on AK-1, you take a right onto right onto AK-4 and a left onto AK-10. Easy peasy, kinda…
The last two hours or so, is on an unpaved dirt road that can be unforgiving, especially in the winter. We’ll get into the details of the 60 mile McCarthy Road later in this article.
There are long stretches of the drive where you won’t see a gas station. Make sure you have a full tank before leaving Anchorage, or at least before you pass Palmer.
Absolutely make sure to stop in either Glennallen or Copper Center and fill up your tank. There are no gas stations for the rest of the drive, and you have to come back out with what you have left in the tank.
The McCarthy Road
The McCarthy Road is a legendary old railroad bed and the last 60 miles of your drive into McCarthy. It is unpaved, narrow, bumpy and at times it would seem, never ending. The McCarthy Road is not for the faint of heart, but it’s a unique experience you won’t forget.
The dusty stretch of road is full of pot holes and winding turns. It is breathtaking though, you’ll navigate through stunning landscapes, from dense forests to wide-open valleys, with breathtaking mountain views in every direction.
The best time to drive the McCarthy Road is during the summer months, from June to September, when the road is typically open and passable. The long days of Alaska’s midnight sun allow for ample daylight hours to safely navigate the McCarthy Road. With perfect conditions, the drive should only take you an hour and a half.
Winter is another story. The road isn’t maintained in the winter and can be impassable without a heavy duty 4×4. Depending on weather, road maintenance, and road usage, the 60 miles can take as much as 4-6 hours, or on rare occasions the road may close due to mudslides or “road glaciers”. (yeah, its a thing)
So use caution and a reliable vehicle, with a spare tire and a full tank of gas. There are no services along the road and no cell service. Driving this section was always my least favorite, especially after the prior six hours it took to get here. But a lot of folks are demented enough to think this drive is just part of the thrill of reaching the remote town of McCarthy.
Flying from Anchorage to McCarthy
Flying from Anchorage to McCarthy will help you avoid the hazardous McCarthy road AND save you a lot of time. Unfortunately, you can’t just book a flight on Alaska Airlines, and it can get pretty pricey. Don’t worry though, we’ve got you covered with everything you need to know about flying from Anchorage to McCarthy.
Charter a Private Flight
Wrangell Mountain Air is THE place to go if you are on a tight schedule and want a convenient, fast, and reliable way into McCarthy. A round trip for 2-3 people will cost you over $4000, but if money is no object, this is great way to make the trip.
I’ve never taken the flight myself, but a producer I was working with had to get flown out quickly after she ran into a tree on a snowmobile and broke her kneecap. Shitty reason to have to take the flight, but she said the views were incredible!
Take the Mail Plane
Yup, you read that right, you can get a lift from Copper Valley Air Service every Monday and Thursday on their scheduled mail deliveries. During peak season in July and August they also offer scheduled flights every Wednesday and Saturday.
The mail plane makes one stop in Glennallen and then continues onto McCarthy. The entire one way trip takes a little over two hours and will cost you around $400. It’s a pretty neat way to fully immerse yourself into the unique alaskan lifestyle.
Drive & Fly From Anchorage to McCarthy
What if you only have time to pop into McCarthy for the day? Or perhaps your rental car company won’t allow you to drive on the McCarthy road? (which is very common, so make sure to check) Whatever the reason is, doing a drive/fly hybrid trip, is another option for traveling from Anchorage to McCarthy.
During peak season in the summer, Wrangell Mountain Air offers 3 daily flights between Chitina and McCarthy. The flight lasts about half an hour and will run you around $400. The earliest departure from Chitina is at 9am and the last flight back out of McCarthy is at 5pm.
In addition to avoiding the long bumpy dirt McCarthy road, it’s also a great option for folks that wanna get a different perspective. Weather permitting, most flights will include a pass over the gorgeous Kennicott valley. The views are truly stunning.
Take a Shuttle Van from Anchorage to McCarthy
If you don’t want to deal with the hassle of renting a car and you don’t want to spend a fortune chartering your own plane, a shuttle can be a good option for getting from Anchorage to McCarthy. There are a couple reliable outfitters who offer regular service.
A great shuttle company is Copper Spike Transport. Their Anchorage to McCarthy shuttle is $225/person, one way. They have a minimum of 2 passengers required to book, but they offer a 10% discount for large groups of 6 or more.
Every Monday and Friday Overflow Transit offers a shuttle for $225/person, one way. They’ll pick you up at your lodging in Anchorage and drop you off at the footbridge in McCarthy. One stop in Glennallen.
Kennicott Wilderness Guides offers infrequent shuttles from Anchorage to McCarthy for $250, one way. They use a 14 passenger van and limit you to one bag of luggage.
Anchorage to McCarthy: Noteworthy Stops
Palmer, Alaska is a quaint little town about an hour’s drive out of Anchorage. We would always stop here to do any last minute beer runs or to grab a bite and a caffeine refill. Vagabond Blues is an awesome little cafe with great food and coffee.
If you have time there’s some cool stuff to see in Palmer, such as the Alaska State Fairgrounds, which hosts the annual Alaska State Fair. Or you could check out the Musk Ox Farm, where you can learn about these hairy cow looking Arctic animals up close.
Palmer is the last real town you’ll see before driving back through Palmer on your Anchorage to McCarthy trip. So make sure to take advantage.
From Anchorage to McCarthy at around the 2.5 hour mark, you’ll come across the Matanuska Glacier. Just off the Glenn Highway this breathtaking natural wonder is certainly worth a stop. It’s one of the few in Alaska that is accessible by road, making it a fairly convenient stop.
It spans over 26 miles long and is an impressive sight with its blue ice, crevasses, and towering ice formations. You can take a short hike to the glacier’s edge or join a guided tour if you want a more in-depth experience and insight into the glacier’s history and features.
As of June 2022 you now have to pay to join a guided tour to see the glacier. It’s 125$ for non residents. If you’re on a tight schedule or don’t wanna pony up the dollars, pull out at the Matanuska Glacier State Recreation Area for an epic view of the glacier.
Glennallen, a small town located along the Glenn Highway. It’s roughly the halfway mark on your trip from Anchorage to McCarthy. It is an absolute must stop because it’s one of the last major towns with full services before reaching McCarthy. So gas up folks!
If you’re hungry, make sure to get food in Glennallen before moving on. It’s gonna be awhile before you have another chance to eat. There’s a Thai food truck and a Mexican restaurant named Ernesto’s. The owner is super friendly and the food is surprisingly really tasty. (surprised solely based on location)
Chitina & the Copper River
Chitina, is the last town you’ll come across before finally arriving in McCarthy. You should arrive there around six hours into the trip and it marks the end of paved roads.
We never spent much time in Chitina and the Copper River area, it was too close to our destination to stop for anything more than a bathroom break. The town’s pretty dead outside of the summer season. But it can be a rewarding stop.
Fishing enthusiasts can try their luck at catching Copper River red salmon. Its also home to the historic Chitina Ranger Station, which serves as a museum, providing insights into the area’s rich history and Native Alaskan Athabaskan culture.
Arriving in McCarthy
There is no road access to McCarthy. You have to to park your vehicle in the designated parking area near the footbridge that crosses the Kennicott River. The footbridge is the only access point into McCarthy. There is payphone at the rivers edge you can use to call your lodging. Carry your bags over the bridge to meet your shuttle.
It an be pretty frustrating driving 8-10 hours and then having to cross a footbridge to get to your final destination, but the town prides itself on keeping its roads free from car traffic. Ahh Alaska.
McCarthy is known for its rich mining history and the iconic Kennicott Mines, which are a National Historic Landmark. Stay tuned for a full guide on how to visit McCarthy, Alaska!
Map: Anchorage to McCarthy
Article Recap: Anchorage to McCarthy
- Driving Anchorage to McCarthy
- The McCarthy Road
- Flying from Anchorage to McCarthy
- Drive & Fly From Anchorage to McCarthy
- Take a Shuttle Van from Anchorage to McCarthy
- Anchorage to McCarthy: Noteworthy Stops
- Arriving in McCarthy
- Map: Anchorage to McCarthy
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