A wide range of trips throughout Southcentral Alaska.
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What sort adventures would you expect from a piece of Alaska the size of West Virginia?
If your answer is "everything," then you're on track.
The Matanuska-Susitna Borough, known locally as the Mat-Su or the Valley, is more than 23,000 square miles. The area is packed with a to-do list that is longer than most visitors' vacation time. Consider these options: premier backcountry adventure, glaciers, the Iditarod, unique history, unusual animals and, in the distance, Mount McKinley. North America's tallest peak sits just outside the borough boundaries, but the massive mountain is visible throughout much of the area. While the Mat-Su has some excellent in-town adventures and near-the-highway attractions, let's begin in the backcountry because there is so much of it.
Denali State Park, at the northern edge of the borough, is more than 325,000 acres. The 35-mile-long Kesugi Ridge is the backbone of the eastern half of the park and can be hiked in part or in full.
Dennis Heikes, Mat-Su area superintendent for state parks, said the Kesugi Trail is a highlight of the park.
"The views of the Alaska Range from within the park and hiking up on Kesugi Ridge are outstanding," Heikes said. "There are really dramatic views of the Alaska Range from up on top of the ridge. It's great hiking up in the alpine on a fairly broad ridge, and if the weather cooperates the scenery is just great.
"But even if the weather doesn't cooperate, it's still a great place to experience hiking and camping in the alpine. Things you'll see up there include alpine lakes, boulders and exposed bedrock."
One thing Heikes didn't mention was bears, but you might see those too. My group of seven watched a black bear for about 30 minutes during a four-day hike on Kesugi Ridge last summer. We had lunched at the Golog, a 2,970-foot mound on the trail, and were headed south toward the Cascade Trail near Byers Lake. We came upon a large black bear searching for food alongside one of those alpine lakes Heikes mentioned. The bear was more interested in finding food than in us and eventually it jumped into the lake, and swam to the other side.
Heikes said there aren't many moose in the alpine area but hikers can see black bears up high and might encounter grizzlies down near Troublesome Creek. This summer, the Troublesome Creek Trail will probably be closed, Heikes said. The area was damaged by heavy rain and flooding last fall.
Thankfully, the trail has three other trail heads - Little Coal Creek, Ermine Hill and Byers Lake - that all allow access to the backcountry. If a four-day backpacking trip is a bit too much, consider spending a day or two at Byers Lake. In addition to three public-use cabins that can be rented, there is campground with space for tents or big RVs. And be sure to spend some time on the lake.
"You can rent a canoe or kayak and go out on the lake and get beautiful sunsets and see Denali in the background," Heikes said. "There is a nice view of the Alaska Range from the lake. The lake is nonmotorized, and we have loons and swans on the lake.
"The wildlife doesn't feel threatened at all."
Even if you don't have much time to stop at the state park, enjoy one of its roadside rest areas, which offer some of the best views of Denali. Stops are at Mile 147.1, 158.1 and 162.3 Parks Highway.
While Denali State Park should be on everyone's must-do list, there are plenty of other outdoor activities in the Valley.
"Most visitors to Alaska want to see mountains, wildlife and glaciers," said Tammy Bruce, marketing manager of the Mat-Su Convention and Visitors Bureau. "The Mat-Su has that and more. I recommend a glacier walk on the Matanuska Glacier or a boat trip to the Knik Glacier.
"If you love animals, definitely schedule a stop at the Musk Ox Farm, Reindeer Farm, Havemeister Dairy Farm or local dog sled kennel. These tours are not only educational but entertaining and great for the whole family.
"Another highlight not to be missed is a McKinley or Denali flightseeing tour with a landing at climbers' base camp. Some visitors boast that they saw Denali. But how many can actually say they've walked on it?"
The Matanuska Glacier is a special attraction as one of the most easily accessible glaciers in Alaska. As drivers travel along the Glenn Highway, the glacier is visible to the east. A private business, Glacier Park Resort, controls access to the foot of the glacier. The resort charges a fee to enter, but once at the glacier, visitors are free to walk around on the ice.
To make the on-ice experience better, a pair of guide companies offer ice trekking and ice climbing. Nova (www.novalaska.com, 1-800-746-5753 ) and MICA Guides (www.micaguides.com, 1-800-956-6422 ) each get on the ice with hikes of different lengths and costs. The companies offer hikes from about 11u20442 hours to four hours, with prices from $35 to $80. MICA offers Midnight Sun hikes from June to August; they start at 6 p.m.
MICA also has ice climbing adventures, and no experience is required. The six-hour ice-climbing trip is $130. Beginners start on moderate slopes, but can end the day climbing on the glacier's vertical walls. "Hiking on a glacier is fairly uniquely Alaskan," said Chuck Spaulding, owner of Nova, which has been in business since 1975. "As far as accessibility, the Matanuska Glacier is tops. It's even accessible without a guide.
"You can hike out there on your own; it's pretty obvious what is safe and what isn't. But if you go with a guide, you can safely go out farther onto the glacier. You get a natural history interpretation of the glacier and its characteristics. You'll see features you won't normally see."
Nova also offers an ice hike and Matanuska River white-water rafting trip. The combination is $149. If you're looking just for rafting or a float trip, Nova has you covered too. The Lion Head white-water trip has Class III and IV rapids and is $80 per person, while the evening trip starts at 7 p.m. and ends around midnight to take advantage of Alaska's long summer days. It is $99.
For those with young children, consider the Matanuska River float, which includes Class II and III rapids and is $75 for adults and $40 for children younger than 12. Customers can choose a paddle raft, where they get to participate in the action, or an oar raft, where the guide does all the work.
"As you drive on the Glenn Highway, the glacier really catches your attention because of its expansive size and beauty," Bruce said. "It is relatively easy to access by car, and it offers many recreation opportunities like river rafting, ice trekking, ice climbing and photography.
"And you don't have to be super adventurous to appreciate what the area offers."
For those who want a more sedate vacation, the area is packed with tons of history, from the Native cultures to homesteaders, miners and the 1935 Colonists.
The Palmer area was selected for a relocation project as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal program. In 1935, more than 200 families from the Midwest relocated to the Palmer area to set up a farming community. Some of the farms established as part of the Matanuska Colony are in use today.
One of the original houses today serves as the Colony House Museum, 316 E. Elmwood Ave. It is across the street from the Colony Inn, which served as a women's dormitory during the 1930s. Visitors to the museum are stepping back into time. The building's furnishings are originals from the Colony era.
"This is an area that's rich in history, that's for sure," said Jeanette Barker, executive director of the Palmer Chamber of Commerce. "A lot of people might be surprised at all the history here. One of the nice things about Palmer, is that even with the fast growth of the Valley, we're still holding onto history."
Other museums in the area include the Dorothy Page Museum and Historic Townsite in Wasilla, which includes an original schoolhouse from 1917; the Museum of Alaska Transportation and Industry outside Wasilla, which has many artifacts from Alaska's past, including aircraft, trains and boats; and the Palmer Museum of History and Art, in the Palmer Visitor Information Center, with exhibits on farming, mining, homesteading and mushing.
Even some of the Valley's animals have a historic twist. The Musk Ox Farm, Mile 50 Glenn Highway (www.muskoxfarm.org, 745-4151 ), has a herd of domesticated musk oxen, animals usually found in Arctic regions. The project started in the 1950s. Musk ox are a prehistoric remnant of the last great ice age.
The soft under-wool of the musk ox, qiviut, is harvested once a year and delivered to Oomingmak in Anchorage. Oomingmak is an Alaska Native knitters' cooperative. The knitters work in their home villages, creating a variety of items, including scarves and hats.
Admission is $8.50 for adults, $7 for seniors and $6 for children.
Special sections editor Steve Edwards can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4316. Visit his Alaska travel blog at www.alaska.com/alaskology.
- Hiking gold: Whether you're interested in a great day hike or Alaska's gold history, Hatcher Pass is your place. Independence Mine is the place for the history lesson. Take the ranger-led tour; it's worth the small cost. One of my favorite hikes in Alaska is the Reed Lakes Trail off Archangel Road. The road is rough, the hike is amazing.
- Alaska animals: Don't miss the chance to see a herd of caribou, or reindeer, up close at the Reindeer Farm on Bodenburg Loop Road. And be sure to stop and see the musk ox at the Musk Ox Farm, Mile 50 Glenn Highway. If you come early in the year, you can see the young playing in the field.
- Go to the dogs: Alaska is the land of mushers and their dogs. Visit the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Headquarters and make a special effort to visit a musher and his or her kennel. Some of these folks don't make much cash, but they love their lifestyle and their dogs.