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The Hearts Gone South, but mine stayed in McCarthy

McCarthy Alaska is the small town forgotten by the world and hidden in the Alaskan mountains. It’s located in America’s Largest National Park Wrangell—St. Elias National Park and Preserve. We got there accidentally and suddenly discovered its charm. The Hearts Gone South band was performing that day, and mine heart stayed in McCarthy forever.

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hearts gone south band in front of golden saloon mccarthy alaska

„(…)All your begging and your pleading
it ain’t gonna change my mind
so you can go on and kiss the girlie that you got on down the line
you can go and say goodbye, to everything we had
cuz boy, your actions have got me hopping mad…”*

hearts gone south band member in mccarthy alaska

Our Story

In our ears sounded the melody of the original The Hearts Gone South country song. The Golden Saloon was completely empty, when we crossed its doorstep early afternoon. Suddenly it started to slowly fill up with the local audience. And even with four-legged friends. If you consider that only a few dozen people live in the town, we appreciated the company of dogs. After a couple of cheap local beers, the atmosphere got more cheerful. Everyone knew each other perfectly. Dances in the rhythm of the country music began. The band from North Carolina made exceptional and very natural contact with the audience.

It was too bad to leave this place. One of the most magical places in Alaska! And we were planning to get there only for 5 minutes …. But our plans turned out to be wrong, and we changed our minds… In McCarthy lives only a few dozen residents and there are several houses. We wanted to get there on the way back from the Kennicott mine to take a couple of photos.

TRIPTIP: The best places & photo locations in Alaska you will find in our Alaska Travel&Photo Guide.

dancing hearts gone south in golden saloon mccarthy alaska
hearts gone south performing in golden saloon mccarthy alaska
hearts gone south performing in golden saloon mccarthy alaska

But then we spotted the buildings of the town: Johnson’s Historic Hotel and The Golden Saloon and decided to stay a little bit longer. Magic! With a dramatic story, unfortunately. Abandoned wooden houses, hidden in a deep forest, in the mountains, far from civilization, whispered about the old days …

McCarthy lies 5 miles from the Kennicott Mine. The story connects these two places – Kennicott is a ghost town, and McCarthy has a year-round population of just a couple of dozen people.

Little History

The Kennecott copper mines and camp were established about 1908 across from the Kennicott Glacier, five miles north of McCarthy. An early misspelling named the mine and mining company Kennecott. The town, river, and glacier are spelled, Kennicott.

In 1911, the Copper River & Northwestern Railway carried its first carload of ore from Kennecott to Cordova. No gambling or drinking were allowed at the town of Kennicott. Nearby McCarthy developed as a colorful diversion for the miners as a place where miners could enjoy “wine, women, and song.” It provided a newspaper, stores, hotels, restaurants, saloons, a red-light district, housing over 800 residents.

Kennicott became a company town with homes, a school, hospital, gym, tennis court, and silent movie theater. Over its 30-year operation, $200 million in ore was extracted from Kennecott. It was the richest concentration of copper ore known in the world. In 1938, the mines closed, and both towns were abandoned.

A number of the buildings from that era are still used in McCarthy and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

mccarthy alaska
old car in mccarthy alaska
ma johnson hotel mccarthy alaska
old car in  mccarthy alaska

The population of McCarthy and Kennecott fell to almost zero until the 1970s, when the area began to draw young people from the many who came to Alaska in the ’70s for adventure and the big money of the Trans Alaska Pipeline project. In the ’80s, after the area was designated, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park (1980), it began to draw some adventurous tourists to the new national park. The few people that lived there began to provide a variety of tourist services. There has always been at least one family living in the McCarthy area since 1953.

Then a vast tragedy happened. In an attempt to disrupt the Alaska pipeline, 39-year-old Louis D. Hastings, armed with a rifle, murdered six of the 22 citizens of McCarthy on March 1, 1983. He also wounded two people. In July 1984, Hastings was sentenced to 634 years in prison. This case and the town of McCarthy were showcased on the Discovery Channel’s Alaska Ice Cold Killers episode “Frozen Terror.”

This tragedy is still alive in the memory of the people of the area.
We walked between wooden houses, shocked by the history of this place. Abandoned old cars stand on the side of the road as flower beds. Wooden abandoned houses threaten with emptiness and fluttering with torn curtains. A few buildings are only inhabited. They are colorful, finished with artistic decorations. They attract attention. We enjoyed the silence and beauty of this place.
For us McCarthy is an absolutely magical place that we highly recommend!

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Before you go – Practical Information

Read our previous post about Kennicott Abandoned copper town because the story connects both towns.

Getting to the town is an adventure itself because the gravel road is challenging. However, it is worth the effort. The city is located among the mountains and glaciers of the largest national park in the USA – Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. The drive is approximately 7 hours from Anchorage and 8 hours from Fairbanks, and the final 2-3 hours are on the scenic, rugged McCarthy Road.

When planning our dream trip to Alaska, we used the following books:

The MILEPOST 2020: Alaska Travel PlannerMoon Alaska: Scenic Drives, National Parks, Best HikesMoon Anchorage, Denali & the Kenai PeninsulaDeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer: Alaska
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Where to stay and where to eat?

In McCarthy, you will find lodging, restaurants, saloon, essential services, the fascinating McCarthy-Kennecott Historical Museum, and outfitters that will take you on a range of activities, from glacier trekking through whitewater rafting to flight-seeing trips to the national park.

We highly recommend The Golden Saloon with great food and an authentic atmosphere, and Alaskan made draft beers. 

You should also visit the beautiful hotel Ma Johnson’s Historic Hotel

Sources of information:
*Lyrics „You Ain’t Sleeping Here Tonight” from Little Things by Hearts Gone South https://heartsgonesouth.bandcamp.com/track/you-aint-sleeping-here-tonight
https://www.travelalaska.com
https://www.alaska.org
https://en.wikipedia.org
https://todaysalaska.com

25 Comments

  1. I would love McCarthy.  It’s like a ghost town but with people. So much neat stuff to explore.  I’ve been to Alaska on a cruiseship and I always said that I wanted to go back to tour around on land.  There are so many cool towns like McCarthy.  Hanging out and drinking and dancing with the locals must have been a tonne of fun!

  2. I just love the historical charm of the buildings in McCarthy, not to mention the vast natural beauty that surrounds it.  Although it has had a relatively recent tragedy, I’m sure there would be a tight-knit, welcoming community that would be proud to share such a lovely town with visitors. Love the images you have included here as it really gives a wonderful feel to McCarthy and makes me want to visit and check it out.

  3. Alaska is such a gorgeous place! I visited on an Alaskan Cruise many years ago, but I have never been to McCarthy. It looks like a fun town to explore.

  4. I have never heard about this place in Alaska, but it is definitely getting into my bucket list of things to do in Alaska. I would love to experience the wilderness and the landscape that Alaska offers.  Been a long time dream. 

  5. Alaska is such a gorgeous place that most people never end up visiting. I definitely want to put it on my bucket list and see it for myself!

  6. Mc Carthy sounds like my kind of place. Mysterious, romantic yet intriguing. I would love to spend a few nights here. Probably someday I will.

  7. McCarthy would be my kind of place! I love the history and all the older trucks.  Visiting the Kennecott copper mines and camp would be so cool. I haven’t made it to Alaska yet, but I would definitely add this to my list if I am able to visit. Sometimes the places you don’t expect to visit are the best! 

  8. I love following all your adventures! I know you guys are traveling with a van but I am not sure if you sleep in it all the time? My question is, have you heard about McCarthy cabins? I saw some pics from some travel bloggers way back and it looks like a great place! Also, what is the Wifi situation in McCarthy? Decent? Just ok? I would also like to know how you guys survive the van without wifi! It’s such a cool thing what you are doing so thank you for making me a part of your journey.

  9. Reading your post I realized how little I actually know about Alaska! I’ve seen some of the places that are on the route of the cruise ships, but I’ve never heard about the beautiful town of McCarthy, or about St. Elias National Park. It’s funny to learn that McCarthy developed as a “sin city”, since the miners in Kennecott couldn’t gamble or drink in the small mining town. You made me really curious about this area of Alaska.

  10. Have never been to Alaska, but Mc Carthy is intriguing. The buildings have stories to tell, and the surrounding is so beautiful. I am sure the people there are welcoming. The history is a bit painful, thanks for sharing. Your pictures are stunning. 

  11. Haven’t visited the States yet, but reading about such quaint towns, is so much fun. Towns like McCarthy, even though don’t have that many permanent residents, still have a unique old world charm to them, that makes tourists and travellers visit them . Really loved your photos where you’ve managed to capture the old world essence.

  12. Quite a melancholic tale of a town. Plenty to see but not without emotions. It reminds me of a place called Dhanushkodi in India which got swept by a tsunami. It was sad to visit it but at the same time, eerily beautiful. The description and the pictures in your post evoke the same emotion within me. Loved this read!

  13. McCarthy sounds like a great quaint town. I LOVE ghost towns and towns rich in interesting history. I once went to Jerome Arizona and had a similar experience to one you had at the saloon and it was such a good time. It’s kind of crazy how many ghost towns exist because of mining. I can’t wait to visit explore this place, especially Johnson’s Historic Hotel and The Golden Saloon.

  14. I’d love to visit Alaska, one of our honeymoon destinations by next year.. I cannot wait to see the Alaska National Park and thank you for publishing this, we would definitely drop by here 🙂 I would love to hear folk songs surrounded by dogs… I can feel the atmosphere of the people, having fun after a heavy day. I love hidden, classic places like this.. It’s full of mystery that’s interesting to discover! 🙂 I love this post, can’t add anythig more to it 🙂 

  15. There is nothing like visiting a small, old, forgotten town in the mountains, with a tragic past. Its actually a horrific story, about the murders of the residents of McCarthy; you don’t usually expect such big tragedies to take place in such small towns! The town looks so scenic, old (which makes it charming) and untouristed, which for me is the icing on the cake!  

  16. In our ears sounded the melody of the original The Hearts Gone South country song. The Golden Saloon was completely empty, when we crossed its doorstep early afternoon. Suddenly it started to slowly fill up with the local audience. And even with four-legged friends. If you consider that only a few dozen people live in the town, we appreciated the company of dogs. After a couple of cheap local beers, the atmosphere got more cheerful. Everyone knew each other perfectly. Dances in the rhythm of the country music began. The band from North Carolina made exceptional and very natural contact with the audience.

  17. sounded the melody of the original The Hearts Gone South country song. The Golden Saloon was completely empty, when we crossed its doorstep early afternoon. Suddenly it started to slowly fill up with the local audience. And even with four-legged friends. If you consider that only a few dozen people live in the town, we appreciated the company of dogs. After a couple of cheap local beers, the atmosphere got more cheerful. Everyone knew each other perfectly. Dances in the rhythm of the country music began. The band from North Carolina made exceptional and very natural contact with the audience.

  18. I also love to decorate with a good green with a lot of wood
    accents and a mixture of tans, cream, and white to finish everything
    off. May the good times and treasures of the present become the golden
    memories of tomorrow. Wish you lots of love, joy, and happiness.<a href=”https://www.monstertruckzshop.com/”>Monster Truck Events</a>

  19. Hello
    t ain’t gonna change my mindso you can go on and kiss the girlie that you got on down the lineyou can go and say goodbye, to everything we hadcuz boy, your actions have got me hopping mad…

  20. you will find lodging, restaurants, saloon, essential services, the fascinating McCarthy-Kennecott Historical Museum, and outfitters that will take you on a range of activities, from glacier trekking through whitewater rafting to flight-seeing trips to the national park.

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