Making the Most of McCarthy and Kennecott: Plan it now

Images courtesy Danielle Benson

Images courtesy Danielle Benson

by Danielle Benson

In my experience, there are two distinct ways to approach family travel. First, the Mouse Theme Park Trip. The family saves up, sometimes for years, spends a ton of money, does not worry about a thing and has a grand time. My family has been saving up for such a trip for a while now. On the flip side is the budget vacation. Duly  noted: a family is going to do as much as possible for as cheap as possible, which might require more work, but because it costs less, they can generally take these trips more often.

With Alaska summers passing in the blink of an eye, my family tries to pack in as many adventures as possible, and most of the time, I naturally gravitate towards the budget family trip. My family and friends are surprised to hear some of my unconventional money-saving techniques. I’ve been known to drive several hours towards my destination with a crockpot cooking dinner on the floor of my minivan. There’s cheap, and then there is using-a-cigarette-power-converter-to-help-make-dinner cheap. And a few summers ago, we pulled off one of the great Alaska road trips on a budget…the long haul to McCarthy and Kennecott Mine.

Walking the pedestrian-only bridge into the village of McCarthy.

Walking the pedestrian-only bridge into the village of McCarthy.

On the way from our home in Eagle River, we took a pit stop near the Richardson Highway at the Copper Center Visitor Center, about three hours into the journey. We originally planned to use the bathrooms, run into the store to by a patch for our collection and rush along. A couple of surprises awaited us. A Park Ranger captivated the nuggets with a quick compass and navigation lesson, and the building has a fun, 3-D interactive overview map of the park, which helped my nuggets grasp the enormity of the destination, and I do want to mention that the nuggets and I drove the road in a minivan with no problems. We did strap two of our winter stud tires on the back of the van just in case, but as long as we kept an eye out for large potholes, everything was manageable.

Staying at the Currant Ridge Cabins worked well for several reasons. They are close to the infamous footbridge, there is NO wifi (YAY!), and all cabins have a kitchen. I prepped almost all of our meals in the fully-stocked cabin kitchen during our trip, a huge money savor in this remote Alaska destination. I planned all of our meals before leaving, loaded up the cooler, and took all of the necessary ingredients from home. The Shidner Family, owners of Currant Ridge, have two large greenhouses on site, and they share, so don’t be surprised if some fresh produce is left at your cabin door during your stay. The property also has a trampoline, and various yard toys for kids to enjoy, including hula-hoops, badminton, and Frisbees. Book early, these cabins fill up.

Class III whitewater with kids? No problem with McCarthy River Tours.

Class III whitewater with kids? No problem with McCarthy River Tours. Image courtesy McCarthy River Tours and Outfitters.

In addition to hiking Root Glacier, exploring the mine, wandering in the museum, and becoming Junior Rangers, the real highlight of this trip was our 4-hour rafting tour with McCarthy River Tours & Outfitters. Being a family of 5, with youngsters aged 9, 9 and 11, we had our own raft and guide who helped outfit us in dry suits, boots and helmets. The McCarthy River Tour guides are experts in helping size everyone appropriately, and were upbeat and patient with the nuggets. While squeezing your head through the latex neck seal of a dry suit may initially feel like an uncomfortable birthing experience, staying warm and dry while riding the Class III whitewater is well worth it. Nik Merlino, founder and guide, told us this week many suits have now been upgraded to a more comfortable neoprene neck.

After gearing up, our guide drove us down to the launching area, where we had a thorough and easy-to-understand safety briefing, then loaded us into rafts to practice paddling in the shadow of the glacier. Our guide was fantastic with our chldren, offering tips, providing instruction and reminding them of safety concerns. He even provided engaging educational lessons, teaching them about the history of this area and the creation of geological formations.

We pulled our raft up onto the glacier for a quick hike around and then we were off down the rapids. Hooting, laughter, icy glacier water hitting our faces — the entire family grinned from ear to ear. It was an amazing adventure. The guide van meets guests downriver, and after helping deflate and store the rafts, drops them back off in downtown McCarthy.

We used a coupon for our half-day adventure, so keep an eye on the company’s website for deals; currently McCarthy River Tours is advertising an Alaska resident discount of 20% if booked prior to May 15.

We only ate three meals out during our trip, and one of them was after our rafting adventure. Knowing the nuggets would be coming off of the most exciting experience of their summer, we peeled off our dry suits, hugged and tipped our rafting guide and walked right across the street to The Golden Saloon. This restaurant is relaxed and accommodating to families (the kids could pick and chose items off of the menu for an easy and happy family dinner). Our other two meals were wonderful treats at The Potato and The Pizza Bus. Both are wonderful family options.

Taking the Junior Ranger pledge at the Kennecott Mines National Historical Landmark.

Taking the Junior Ranger pledge at the Kennecott Mines National Historical Landmark.

Next time we want to try

  • Tent camping. Campgrounds in the area looked pleasant, but we would probably still book our final night at the cabins to finish the trip with a bit of luxury.
  • More rafting. There are overnight trips that include kids as young as eight. I don’t think my nuggets would ever get tired of rafting.
  • We’ve never stayed or eaten at the Kennicott Glacier Lodge, but it looks fantastic. I’d love to enjoy a meal there. Check out Erin’s take on this beautiful property HERE.
  • More geocaching. We hit a few on the way back home, but I know there are more out there.
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