A wide range of trips throughout Southcentral Alaska.
Anchorage: 16°/30°/Freezing rain
The Matanuska-Susitna Borough is often described as an area as large as West Virginia. The comparison is made to help visitors understand the vast magnitude of the borough.
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Sorry, West Virginia, you just don't measure up.
Oh, sure, at more than 23,000 square miles, the Mat-Su and West Virginia are similar in size. And the Eastern state is famous for white-water rafting, but the Mat-Su has some great rafting too.
And it also has glaciers, glacier trekking, hiking, fishing, sled dog mushing history, reindeer, musk oxen ...
Oh, did I mention that from a large portion of the Mat-Su there are amazing views of Mount McKinley, North America's tallest mountain?
For West Virginia, it's hard to compete with all that.
While Mount McKinley and the entrance to the national park are outside the Mat-Su -- frequently called the Valley by locals -- it's difficult to hide a 20,320-foot mountain, so the impressive massif is frequently in the view of residents and visitors. A large portion of Denali National Park and Preserve is inside the borough.
One of the best places for views of the mountain is Denali State Park, which is within the borough's boundaries. The 325,000-acre park offers roadside camping, backcountry hiking, fishing and amazing views of Mount McKinley. Some of the best looks at the mountain are right off the Parks Highway, which leads from near Wasilla north to Fairbanks. The highway bisects the state park. At Mile 135.2 there is a highway pullout with an interpretive bulletin board that names the mountains and other terrain features visible in the Alaska Range. Other excellent views of the range are at Mile 147, Mile 158 and Mile 162.
For those who want to do a little hiking, views of the Alaska Range are simply amazing from the Kesugi Ridge. The ridge can be reached from several trail heads along the Parks Highway, including Troublesome Creek (Mile 137), Byers Lake (Mile 147), Ermine Hill (Mile 156.5) and Little Coal Creek (Mile 163.9). To reach the ridge, it's a pretty steep uphill climb, but the payoff is immense.
Many of artist Sydney Laurence's oil paintings were created in the Peters Hills area south of Mount McKinley. The area is just south of the state and national parks and can be reached from Petersville Road. There are some good day hikes in the area.
In addition to Denali, many visitors want other experiences that are mostly unique to Alaska. For that head to the Matanuska Glacier. The glacier is east of Palmer off the Glenn Highway.
Glacier Park Resort at Mile 102 Glenn Highway is the access point for the glacier. The resort charges an admission fee. But once at the glacier, visitors can hike around, near or on the ice.
For a real on-ice experience, Nova Alaska (novalaska.com, 1-800-746-5753) and MICA Guides (micaguides.com, 1-800-956-6422) offer guided trekking on the glacier. Guides provide all the necessary equipment, including crampons. The companies offer a variety of trips, from 112 to four hours. They cost from $45 to $85. Midnight Sun hikes beginning at 6 p.m. are offered from June to August.
MICA also offers ice climbing, with no experience required. The six-hour trip starts with moderate slopes, and it can progress to more vertical walls of ice.
Nova also offers white-water rafting on the Matanuska River. It can combine glacier hiking and a white-water trip for $155 to $175. Other rafting options include morning, afternoon and evening trips. They range in price from $75 to $110.
For those looking for a slower adventure, stop by the Colony House Museum in Palmer. It is part of the Valley's rich history.
In 1935 more than 200 families relocated to the Valley from several Midwest states. The Matanuska Colony was one of 100 of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal projects. Across the country more than 11,000 families were relocated.
In Alaska the families were brought up to establish a farming community. Some of the farms are still in use today. The building that houses the museum was one of the original farmhouses. It was relocated about two miles from Scott Road to Elmwood Avenue in 1995. The museum is across the street from the Colony Inn, which served as a women's dormitory during the early years of the Colony.
To help set the scene, the museum has photographs on the walls and books and magazines on the tables. All the items, from dishes to linens to pots, all date from the colony era. None of the items is a reproduction.
Palmer Colony Days, from June 12 to 14, is a celebration of the colony families.
The Valley's biggest annual festival is the Alaska State Fair at the Palmer fairgrounds from Aug. 27 to Sept. 7.
The fair includes all the usual trappings -- carnival rides, a demolition derby, a rodeo, crafts and tons of food -- but in Alaska the highlight is gigantic vegetables.
A couple of spots not to miss in the Valley are a pair of unusual animal attractions -- the Musk Ox Farm and the Reindeer Farm.
The Musk Ox Farm, Mile 50 Glenn Highway (muskoxfarm.org, 1-907-745-4151) has a herd of domesticated musk ox, animals usually found in Arctic regions. The project started in the 1960s.
The Reindeer Farm, off the Old Glenn Highway (reindeerfarm.com, 1-907-745-4000), has several domesticated caribou that can be hand-fed or petted. Also at the farm are moose, Rocky Mountain elk and Sitka blacktail deer.