Welcome to Travel Tuesday and another stop along the beautiful byways of Alaska. In honor of our Alaska Travelgram Show guest, Casey Ressler from the MatSu Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, we’re going to sing a few praises for this huge region of outdoor recreation just north of Anchorage.
I’ll admit it <raising hand>, I have not talked up MatSu like I should, save for the Alaska State Fair and a few other AKontheGO favorites. But I promise, after today, I’m all there, and to show my devotion to this Valley o’ Fun, I’m going to start with the Visitor Center itself. Located on the flanks of a hillside with unobstructed views of Pioneer Peak, the Palmer Hayflats, and beyond, the center is a must-do for anyone wanting to explore the rich history and unique culture of The Valley. Take the first exit off the Parks Highway and wind your way toward the MatSu Regional Hospital (that shares a parking lot with the Visitor Center), then enter the front door ready for action, because action is what you’ll get. From hiking, fishing, bicycling, and camping to flightseeing or river rafting, the folks at the MatSu CVB point every visitor in the right direction. The only trouble is, what do you try, first?
When visiting the Valley with kids, we often combine a little wild activity with some history lessons, and Hatcher Pass delivers both along with some of the best views in the state. Home to Independence Mine State Historical Park, the pass and its trail systems provide ample scrambling opportunity for kids while at the same time offering a glimpse into the only-recently bygone era of mining. A restored townsite with paved, accessible trails make walking easy for just about everyone, and narrow, high-alpine trails are everywhere for the more adventurous (heads up: trails are extremely slippery during wet conditions, so dress kids in appropriate footwear!) Visiting in the winter? Bring sleds, Nordic skis, and your camera, for that townsite now becomes a groomed xc ski trail system with stunning vistas from which to view a winter-white world below. In either case, do stop in at the cozy and unpretentious Hatcher Pass Lodge for a warm beverage and a pizza, or stay overnight in one of their simple cabins. I know families who do this every year as a family sanity-saver, and they swear the absence of phone, flushing toilet, and television does wonders for parent-child bonding. Love this place. Reach it by driving through Palmer on the Glenn Highway toward the Palmer-Fishhook road, turning left, then following the directional signs. Visitor Center staff can help you with finding alternative accommodations along the way, too.
Further along the historic Glenn Highway sits another natural wonder, albeit a more sedate one. The mighty Matanuska Glacier and its state-run Recreational Site is found at Mile 101 of the Glenn Highway, and, frankly, is hard to miss for its stark, white layers spread out among the black, sandy moraine left behind as it recedes. Great for hiking, picnicking, and watching of hardy souls who actually strap on crampons (spiky thingies that help climbers navigate ice) and hike its surface, Matanuska Glacier is often the first glacier seen by visitors, and thus, garners a lot of attention. Try the Edge Nature Trail, a 20-minute or so walk that offers a number of platforms by which to see the glacier from different angles. Heads up: we like to visit the glacier during the fall, when the yellow leaves provide a striking contrast to the whitish-blue of the ice. It’s pretty cool.
If your travels take you the other direction, through Wasilla and up the Parks Highway (perhaps you’re headed to Denali National Park, eh?), we like to swing into the Nancy Lake State Recreation area. Ideal for canoeing a chain of smaller lakes in the summer, and wonderful Nordic skiing in the winter, plus a great system of 12 public-use cabins year-round, Nancy Lake is popular with southcentral residents who like the short drive (only 90 minutes) from Anchorage. Ditto for the fine campgrounds, too.
Of course, don’t forget AK Fam favs like the Museum of Alaska Transportation and Industry at Mile 47 of the Parks Highway, or the Musk Ox Farm in Palmer. Both are kid-pleasers with appeal for grownups, too. Both will be opening mid-May, (the Musk Ox Farm puts on a great party for Mother’s Day, their opening), and it’s not too early to begin plans for your family to head north from Anchorage and say “Yahoo, MatSu!”