A wide range of trips throughout Southcentral Alaska.
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Outdoors paradise: There's plenty to do and see in the Mat-Su valleys
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.
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 Denali National Park and Preserve 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 the national park 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 requires 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, 800-746-5753) and MICA Guides (micaguides.com, 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 1 1/2 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 can progress to more vertical walls of ice.
Nova 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.
Those looking for a slower adventure can 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, June 11-13, is a celebration of the colony families.
The Valley's biggest annual festival is the Alaska State Fair at the Palmer fairgrounds from Aug. 26 to Sept. 6.
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 unusual animal attractions -- the Musk Ox Farm and the Reindeer Farm.
The Musk Ox Farm, Mile 50 Glenn Highway (muskox farm.org, 745-4151), has a herd of domesticated musk oxen, animals usually found in Arctic regions. The project started in the 1960s.
The Reindeer Farm, off the Old Glenn Highway (reindeer farm.com, 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. n
Alaska Live Steamers
Ride a scale-model railroad over about 1 1/2 miles of track that includes a high trestle, bridges and a tunnel. Enjoy the new depot and comfortable seats. The trip is about 25 minutes.
WHERE: Next to the Wasilla airport
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekends, mid-May to mid-September
West Coast/ Alaska Tsunami Warning Center
The center monitors seismic and tsunami activity worldwide. The center's area of responsibility includes Canada, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and all of the coastal United States except Hawaii. The center opened in 1967 after the 1964 Good Friday earthquake and a subsequent tsunami that killed 114 people. It added personnel after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
WHERE: 910 S. Felton St., Palmer
WHEN: Tours at 1, 2 and 3 p.m. Fridays
Colony House Museum
Take a trip back to the mid-1930s at the museum and follow a band of pioneers from the Midwest who traveled to Alaska to begin a farming community during the New Deal era. The museum is in one of the original farm homes built by the pioneers and is furnished in period decor and artifacts. All of the furniture and items are from the original settlers. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the colony.
WHERE: 316 E. Elmwood Ave., Palmer
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, May 1 to Aug. 31; special openings are available.
COST: $2 adults, $1 younger than 12
Dorothy Page Museum and Historic Town Site
Get a glimpse of Alaska and Wasilla's history, and take a walk through time in historic homes and buildings at the museum. A variety of permanent displays focus on local history, gold mining, Alaska wildlife, homesteading and the Iditarod sled dog race. The highlight exhibit this summer will be "Snoopy as the World War I Flying Ace" from July 3 through Aug. 14. A farmer's market is 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesdays from June through mid-September.
WHERE: 323 N. Main St., Wasilla
WHEN: April through September, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday; October through March, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Friday
COST: $3 adults, $2.50 seniors, $2 military, free for children 12 and younger
Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Headquarters
You needn't endure snow and cold to enjoy the Iditarod. The race takes place in March, but summer visitors to race headquarters can see Iditarod race displays, souvenirs and videos. Sled dog rides with a wheeled cart are available. A musher is on hand with sled dogs and puppies; rides are available 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
WHERE: Mile 2.2 Knik Road, Wasilla
WHEN: 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, mid-May to mid-September. Winter hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday
COST: Free; $10 for sled dog rides
PHONE: 907-376-5155, ext. 108
Independence Mine State Historical Park
Take a trip back to Alaska Gold Rush history with a visit to this scenic mine. The state has refurbished many of the buildings at the Hatcher Pass site. The park has handicap-accessible walkways, paved paths, a pavilion and more than 30 interpretive panels. Guided tours of the park's historic buildings are offered several times a day. The pass is named for Robert Lee Hatcher, who discovered gold in Willow Creek Valley in 1906. The mine closed in 1951 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. It was donated to Alaska State Parks in 1980.
WHERE: Mile 17.5 Hatcher Pass Road, off Fishhook Road
WHEN: Park is open 24 hours a day from early-to mid-June -- depending on weather -- to Labor Day; visitor center is open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily starting in mid-June.
COST: $5 vehicle or $40 season pass
PHONE: 907-745-3975 park headquarters, 907-745-2827 Independence Mine
Mat-Su Visitor Center
The center affords visitors outstanding views of the Chugach Mountains. Local staff can provide information about things to do in the Mat-Su area, including free guidebooks and brochures. There is information about last-minute accommodations and activities. The center houses a gift shop with Alaska maps and souvenirs and offers free Wi-Fi.
WHERE: 7744 E. Visitors View Court at the Trunk Road exit, Mile 35.5 Parks Highway
WHEN: 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. daily, mid-May to mid-September
Museum of Alaska Transportation and Industry
The 20-acre museum has a huge collection of artifacts from Alaska's history in the railroad, fishing, mining, farming, logging and oil industries. Indoor and outdoor displays feature boats, tractors, trains, aircraft and construction equipment.
WHERE: 3800 W. Museum Drive, off the Parks Highway, Wasilla
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, May 1 to Sept. 30; winter hours 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday.
COST: $8 adults, $5 military, students, seniors and children 3-17; $18 family. Winter admission $2.
Musk Ox Farm
Get up close with these fascinating animals that are native to the harsh Arctic. The Musk Ox Farm is a nonprofit corporation and home to a unique domestication project that started in 1954. Regular tours are offered. There are interpretive exhibits in the museum and a gift shop where visitors can purchase garments made of musk ox underhair, called qiviut, from Oomingmak Musk Ox Producers' Coopertive. The farm will host its seventh-annual Running With the Bulls 5-K run on Aug. 1.
WHERE: Mile 50.1 Glenn Highway, Palmer
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, May 9 to Sept. 30; winter by appointment
COST: $8 adults; $7 seniors; $6 children ages 5-12; free younger than 4
The company offers several day trips in Alaska, including both whitewater and river floats on the Matanuska River outside Palmer and Sixmile Creek near Hope. The company has guided oar rafting with paddle assistance or paddle rafting. It also offers multi-day trips on the Talkeetna, Copper, Chickaloon and Tana rivers.
WHERE: Hope and Chickaloon
Palmer Visitor Information Center
The log cabin in downtown Palmer includes the Colony Showcase Garden, which features annual and perennial flowers and Alaska's famous giant vegetables. The visitor center also is home to the Palmer Museum of History and Art, which features artifacts from early 1900s pioneer life. Exhibits include dairy farming, mining, the Colony project, homesteading, mushing and trapping. A historical walking tour begins at the center.
WHERE: 723 S. Valley Way, Palmer
WHEN: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, May through September; winter by appointment
Visit with Rudolph and about 140 of his friends at the Reindeer Farm outside Palmer. The farm is one of the original Colony farms from the 1930s. In the wild, reindeer are called caribou. At the farm, the tame animals can be petted, hand-fed and photographed. Also at the farm are moose, Sitka blacktail deer, Rocky Mountain elk, horses and a young bison.
WHERE: 5561 S. Bodenburg Loop Road, off Old Glenn Highway
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, May 1 to mid-September
COST: $6 adults, $4 children ages 3-11
WEB: www.reindeerfarm.com n