Bluebird skies greeted us as a winter sunrise finally made its way over Pioneer Peak in Southcentral Alaska’s Matanuska-Susitna Valley. After days and days of cloudy, warmish gloom, below-Zero temperatures and a peach of a day were at our fingertips, and I wasn’t going to waste a second.
With snow levels still on the low side around much of the Anchorage area (okay, almost all of it), reports coming from the Hatcher Pass area were decidedly more positive, and with temperatures dropping and sun appearing, Sunday seemed to be the day to make some tracks in the powdery fluff. Well-known among outdoorsy families, Hatcher Pass and Independence Mine State Park are a trifecta of scenery, recreation, and history. Suitable for a multi-generational day trip or overnight experience, the area can be reached in about an hour from Anchorage.
It is a stunning place; tucked in a bowl of the Talkeetna mountains, Hatcher Pass is the site of Independence Mine State Park, a former mining community with restored buildings and interpretive hikes that appeal to many ages. In the summer, Hatcher Pass and the mine area are full of hikers, berry pickers, and overnight guests at Hatcher Pass Lodge, part of an inholding just below the park entrance. During the winter, however, the population shifts from alpine exploring to winter recreationalists looking for pristine snow and a place to ski, sled, or snowshoe in one of mother nature’s most treasured nests.
The perfect location to bring a youngster with solid Nordic skiing skills, Independence Mine offers enough tracked and non-tracked skiing to entertain, with a healthy dose of history at every turn. From the interpretive signs talking about early life at the mine to gutted remains of mine buildings and an old rail system for ore cars, skiing this part of Hatcher Pass is well worth the remote location and chilly temperatures. We took the easiest route, a series of loops that begin at the park’s entrance road (closed to vehicles in the winter), winding our way up for a mile to the mine site, itself. A steady but not difficult climb, the trail veers left for those who wish to explore the buildings, and straight for those wanting to see the upper area where the mine entrance peers out from a craggy hillside.
All around us, peaks and valleys were visible, and smoke from a hundred or more chimneys in nearby Palmer wafted across the still, cold, horizon. We spent nearly two hours on the trails from start to finish, a short window of full sunlight thanks to Alaska’s winter schedule, but it was plenty of time. Legs tired, fingertips chilled, and bellies growling, we retreated to the car for a warm up and snack of smoked salmon, crackers, and cheese before packing up and driving into Palmer for a late lunch at Palmer City Alehouse, the community’s newest pub. Conveniently located in downtown’s historic core, the Alehouse packs plenty of additional history and hearty grub into its restored building, and welcomes kids with open arms.
Sighing contentedly over his cheese pizza, AK Kid turned his windburned face toward us and said it best.
“I like this day, guys.”
Independence Mine State Park, Hatcher Pass: If you go
Getting there: From Anchorage, take the Glenn Highway north to Palmer, turn left at Fishhook Road and continue along this road to the end (about 11 miles). Allow at least an hour each way, more if snowy. The road is plowed and well-maintained, but little is available in the way of shoulder space, so drive carefully and watch for skiers and snowboarders who are awaiting rides back up the mountain.
NOTE: Parking at the gate near the mine requires an Alaska State Park Pass or payment of $5 at the kiosk. Do not forget!
Skiing: Nordic skiing trails are groomed and tracked for both classic and skate skiing. Kids should be able to wedge in order to slow down, and be familiar with skills to safely navigate the steady climb to the mine. It is not particularly difficult skiing, just consistently up or down, which may tire smaller children. Tweens and teens should have no trouble. Please follow all etiquette procedures (yielding to downhill skiers, stepping out of tracks if you need to stop, etc.)
Gear: Hatcher Pass and the park are treeless areas, and wind is frequent. Dress kids in many layers so they can climb cool and ski down warm. Add balaclavas or face protection against the breeze. Mittens are a must for hands, and we usually pack sunglasses or goggles as well. Don’t forget a backpack with water, snacks, and even candy to prevent break-down during the climb.
Services: The only business offering food or beverages is Hatcher Pass Lodge, a cozy establishment located at the end of the winter road. Great pizza, beer, cocoa, fondue, and even overnight lodging (make reservations, it WILL be full on the day you arrive), the lodge is a great place to warm up after a ski or sledding outing. Pit toilets are available at the winter trailhead; bring your own TP. There are NO services at the mine, so pack for a backcountry experience with kids.
Information: The State of Alaska DNR has great information about the local trails, conditions, and opportunities for recreation, year-round HERE.