If I had three free days, I’d head north. As we continue our Alaska Itinerary series in an effort to fill up the newest Pinterest board with fabulous reader-generated tours, I thought I’d chime in with a favorite road trip. North of Anchorage sits the beautiful Matanuska-Susitna Valley, home to a rich bounty of agricultural wealth, and a ring of mountains that seem to reach higher than one’s imagination. The “Valley” encompasses the towns of Palmer and Wasilla, and stretches along the Parks Highway within sight of Mt. McKinley. It is here we spend our time, today, beginning with the drive north from Anchorage.
Anchorage to Hatcher Pass, and Hatcher Pass to Talkeetna. Total distance is approximately 153 miles. Allow 2.5 hours to reach Talkeetna from Anchorage, and at least that much if you travel through Hatcher Pass, first. One can also skip Hatcher Pass entirely and take the Alaska Railroad from Anchorage to Talkeetna, or Fairbanks to Talkeetna with daily service during the summer months, and Saturday/Sunday service in the winter. If traveling by car south along the Parks Highway, allow 5-6 hours to reach Talkeetna, and another 2 if you want to swing through Hatcher Pass.
Families with adventurous spirits but perhaps not a ton of time should take advantage of this itinerary. Featuring enough craggy peaks and outdoor recreation, not to mention stunning scenery, the entire tour captures the best of rural Alaska in an affordable, easy atmosphere. Since this is a road trip along the sometimes unpredictable roads of Alaska, be sure to pack extra snacks, water, and emergency supplies, including a bit of cash.
Ready, set, go!
From Anchorage, take the historic Glenn Highway north from Anchorage, noting the change in landscape as you cross the Palmer Hayflats, a state-managed refuge where moose and a variety of birds hang out year ‘round. Just past the flats, stay on the Glenn Highway northeast if you intend on visiting Hatcher Pass from the “front side”, traveling through the community of Palmer, a former agriculture-based colony designated by then-President Roosevelt in the 1930’s, and home to the famous Alaska State Fair.
A few miles outside downtown Palmer, take a left on Palmer-Fishhook road, at the sign for Independence Mine State Park, and head through scenic farmland framed by towering mountains. Take advantage of pullouts along the way to picnic and spot large beaver dams, wildflowers, and tracks in the snow come winter.
At the head of the pass sits Hatcher Pass Lodge, a delightful little series of no-frills cabins and an equally-unfluffy but delightful lodge where hospitality reigns. Locals love this place, visiting during all seasons for bountiful hiking, biking, and berry-picking during the non-snow months, and skiing, sledding, and hot chocolate-drinking during a long winter. Even if you don’t stay overnight, swing by and have lunch or dinner. If you want to stay, make reservations early!
Just above the lodge is Independence Mine State Historical Park, a beautiful reminder of Alaska’s connection to gold, and an excellent place for alpine scrambling with kids. We enjoy wandering the townsite, mill, and old ore car tunnels, and hiking adjoining trails. Do watch kids on slippery rocks – they can be damp from springs or rainfall.
If you have a sturdy rental car (or your own vehicle), and wish to further explore the pass, take a left near Hatcher Pass Lodge and motor up and over Hatcher pass itself, a 40-mile trip into the rugged backcountry of Alaska, yet often within full view of the communities below. Dropping travelers down to the Parks Highway near the town of Willow, the pass is a beautiful drive, with alpine lakes, rocky mountain faces, and the occasional critter to sweeten the view. Note: make sure you have a full tank of gas, food, water, and extra clothing, just in case.
From Willow, take a right on the Parks Highway and continue north to the Talkeetna Spur Road, and take a right. Drive another 12 miles until the little mountain village comes into view, just across the railroad tracks. Talkeetna offers families a wealth of fun; we usually make a beeline for the Talkeetna Community Playground next door to the train station for a little run-about. Downtown Talkeetna is full of activities, too. Stop by the Talkeetna Historical Society’s little red museum and see what life was like back in the days before motor cars and airplanes, and learn a bit about mountain climbing, since Talkeetna is the check-in stop for all mountaineers wishing to climb the 20, 320-foot peak.
Don’t miss the Talkeetna Roadhouse, either. We rave about the food, the service, and the down-home feel of this place, and we visit from January to December. Stay overnight in one of their little cabins, or rest easy upstairs in the simple, but oh-so comfortable rooms.
If adventure is on your list, walk a few doors down the street from the Roadhouse to Denali Zipline Tours, a new attraction we experienced last summer. A perfect activity for the ‘tween or teen in our family (and the grownups), this is canopy-swinging, mountain-viewing fun, ending with a zip across a little lake!
Many people want to view Mt. McKinley up close, and there’s no better way to do so than aboard a flightseeing tour from K2 Aviation in Talkeetna. Ranging from 1-3 hours, these trips can include a glacier landing, hike, or even a complete wrap-around flight of the summit (only for big kids, however, since supplemental oxygen is needed at that altitude). Need a holiday photo op? This is the place, especially if your family doesn’t see snow in your part of the world.
Oh, yes, this is a favorite trip, indeed. Interested in a wintertime journey to Talkeetna? Read a post from last winter’s wonderful New Year’s Eve experience, HERE.
Don’t forget to share your family’s favorite Alaska itinerary with us. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and you could be the next Pinterest board pinner!