A wide range of trips throughout Southcentral Alaska.
Fairbanks: 16°/34°/Partly sunny
MAT-SU VALLEYS: Mountains, rivers and glaciers abound just a short jaunt north of anchorage.
From atop Pioneer Peak, my nephew and I gazed at the view of the Matanuska Valley below. It seemed so far away, but to embark upon this hike -- in an area that now officially ranks as my all-time favorite Alaska hiking destination -- required only a short drive north from Anchorage.
That's the beauty of Mat-Su, known as the "Valley." Mountains, rivers and glaciers surround this rural oasis, yet it's still close to restaurants, lodging and other visitor amenities.
"What we have here is pioneer life right beside the highway," said Patty Sullivan, Matanuska-Susitna Borough public affairs director. "I've always loved that collision of urban and rural ... where people are running on a sled powered by dogs alongside a busy rush-hour commute by car. It does take you to a different sort of mentality."
The Valley also is the breadbasket of the state, dotted with picturesque barns surrounded by fields of green.
In 1935, during the Great Depression, the Federal Relief Administration sent struggling Midwesterners here to build new lives. They could keep the land, the government said, as long as they could make a living from it.
Many of those pioneers succeeded, transforming this distant wilderness into lush, green farms.
Today the Valley, composed of Palmer and the nearby community of Wasilla, has a heartland-U.S.A. vibe. The rich soil generates some of the state's best produce and much of it can be enjoyed at local eateries and farmers markets.
"There is more of a push for the farm-to-table (movement) and supporting local restaurants," said Casey Ressler of the Mat-Su Convention and Visitors Bureau. "When you eat here, you're not only supporting the restaurant but you're supporting the farmers."
Visitors to the Valley can experience this wholesome combination of fresh air and fresh food in any number of ways.
While hiking remains at the top of the recreational options -- the borough identified improved hiking access as one of its main priorities in a 2008 tourism needs study -- others abound. Sullivan said the borough touts its stillwater-fishing opportunities as some of the best in the country.
"We have something like 80 lakes all within an hour's reach," Sullivan said. "You only have to own a raft and a pole ... it's about the experience, not combat fishing."
Fly-fishermen can cast for Arctic char, rainbow trout, grayling and Dolly Varden as well as other species.
They should make sure to purchase an Alaska Department of Fish and Game license before heading out, and check out the borough's website, www.alaska-stillwatercapital.com, for fishing reports and lake access.
Canoeing, white-water rafting, mountain biking and birding are other options, Sullivan and Ressler noted.
In the winter, skiing, snowmobiling and dog mushing take center stage, keeping this rural area hopping with activity.
"For many people out here, at any hint of sunlight they're out the door," Sullivan said. "There's no question of housework -- there is no housework in summer. We're just that kind of place."
This family-owned farm features reindeer, moose, elk and horses, and offers summertime tours as well as scheduled events throughout the year. Those on a budget can drive by and see the reindeer from the road for free. Horseback trail rides are offered from mid-May through late August.
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily May 1 through mid-September; by appointment in the winter
WHERE: 5561 S. Bodenburg Loop, Palmer
COST: $7 for adults; $5 for seniors, military and children ages 3-11
Independence Mine at Hatcher Pass
There was gold in them thar hills, and here's where you can see how tough Alaska miners extracted it. Maintained by Alaska State Parks, the mine offers visitors a view of the early gold-mining days. Hatcher Pass, named for Robert Lee Hatcher, who first discovered gold in the area in 1906, offers hiking, fishing and, in winter, skiing and snowmobiling.
WHEN: Hatcher Pass open year-round; Independence Mine open in summer from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.
WHERE: Mile 17 Hatcher Pass Road, Palmer
COSt: $5 per vehicle Alaska State Parks parking fee
Musk Ox Farm
Learn about the domestication of this Ice Age mammal at a 1930s-era Colony farm just outside Palmer. The nonprofit center offers tours, exhibits, and a gift shop featuring hand-knit qiviut (musk ox wool) scarves and hats.
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily from Mother's Day until mid-September
WHERE: Mile 50 Glenn Highway, Palmer
COST: $11 for adults, $9 for seniors, $5 for children ages 6-17, free for ages 5 and under
Mat-Su Visitors Center
The Mat-Su Convention and Visitors Bureau can help you plan day trips and longer ones for activities from fishing and hiking to camping, sightseeing and rafting.
WHEN: 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. daily from May through September
WHERE: Mile 35.5 Parks Highway (take Trunk Road exit)
Colony House Museum
The Palmer Historical Society has helped oversee this long-term restoration project of a New Deal-era home once owned by Oscar and Irene Beylund. The Matanuska Colony, the largest project of the New Deal Resettlement Program, according to the historical society, relocated 204 families from the Midwest to the Matanuska Valley in 1935 to set up a farming community.
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday in the summer; by appointment only in the winter
WHERE: 316 E. Elmwood Ave., Palmer
COST: $2 per adult, $1 for children 12 and younger
Mat-Su Miners Baseball
Baseball can be enjoyed all summer with this Palmer-based team, one of six Alaska Baseball League teams.
WHEN: June and July, at varying locations
WHERE: Home games at Hermon Brothers Field, Palmer
COST: $4 per adult, $2 for seniors and kids ages 6-17
Museum of Alaska Transportation and Industry
The museum houses the remnants of the booms and busts that helped grow Alaska's economy and infrastructure -- from trains and planes to automobiles and tractors, and more.
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily in the summer, starting on Mother's Day; by appointment only in the winter
WHERE: 3800 W. Museum Drive, Wasilla
COSt: $8 per adult, $5 for seniors and kids ages 3-17
Dorothy G. Page Museum and Historic Town Site
The museum features preserved collections representing the historical heritage of Wasilla, Knik and the Will Creek areas. It is the city's first museum, opened in 1967 in a building constructed in 1931 as a community hall. Outside the museum are relocated historic buildings that have been set up as models of early-era homes in the area.
WHEN: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, May 1-Oct. 31; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday-Friday in the winter
Where: 323 N. Main St., Wasilla
COST: $3 per adult, $2.50 for seniors and $2 for military; kids 12 and younger enter free.
Palmer Museum and Visitor Center
The center is housed in a log cabin in downtown Palmer. Stop by to get visitor information, learn about the region's history and walk through the agricultural showcase gardens featuring annual and perennial flowers and Alaska's famous giant vegetables. The museum exhibits include Native influences, 1900s homesteaders, mining, trapping, farming and the Colony Project.
WHEN: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily May 1-Sept. 30; by appointment only in the winter
WHERE: 723 S. Valley Way, Palmer
COST: Free; donations appreciated
PHONE: 907-745-8878 (907-746-7668 is the museum's number)
Iditarod Trail Race Headquarters
Wasilla is home to the famed Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, and race headquarters features historic items from the race, including photos, trophies, booties and harnesses. There also is a gift shop. Dog sled rides are available in the summer, weather permitting.
WHEN: 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily mid-May through mid-September; 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday in the winter
WHERE: Mile 2.2, Knik Goose Bay Road
Downtown Palmer is transformed each Friday with food vendors, local artists and farmers bringing their fresh vegetables to market. Live music, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., is an added bonus.
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fridays, May 18 through Aug. 17
WHERE: Downtown Palmer
WEB: On Facebook with the Palmer Chamber of Commerce
Palmer Colony Days
The three-day event celebrates all things small town, with craft vendors, music, food, a parade, fun run and smoked salmon contest, among other events.
WHEN: June 8-10
WHERE: Downtown Palmer
COST: Free for events; $20 to enter the annual Bill Mitchell 5-K fun run
Alaska State Fair
The annual fair has been drawing huge crowds for 75 years, with carnival rides, 4-H demonstrations, a pie-baking contest, giant vegetable contest and all sorts of food, craft, art and entertainment vendors.
WHEN: noon to 10 p.m. (10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday) Aug. 23-Sept. 3; plus $5 parking fee.
WHERE: Palmer Fairgrounds, Mile 40, Glenn Highway
COST: Advance tickets are $9 adults, $5 youth and seniors Monday-Thursday; $10 and $6, respectively, on weekends.
RESOURCES FOR OUTDOOR FUN
Valley Mountain Bikers and Hikers: A recreational trail advocacy group that offers hikes and bikes in the area, and works to improve trails in the Valley. Check its calendar for events. vmbah.org, 907-746-6010.
Alaskans for Palmer Hay Flats: This nonprofit organization works to preserve responsible stewardship of the Palmer Hay Flats State Game Refuge, and offers public events, including birding, hiking and volunteering for visitors and locals alike www.palmerhayflats.org, 907-357-8711.
Matanuska Greenbelt Trails Association: This group recently received a community service award for its work installing trailhead signs, posts and directional maps. www.matanuska-greenbelt.org
Matanuska Susitna Trails and Parks Foundation: The Foundation works to improve and build trails in the area. www.matsutrails.org
Matanuska Susitna Borough Trail Maps: Download maps at www.matsugov.us/communitydevelopment/trails. Click on the "trail maps" link for details. Or try www.alaskavisit.com/visitors/the-great-outdoors/trail-maps/which has an even wider selection of maps.
Valley fly-fishing: Cast for Arctic char, rainbow trout, grayling and Dolly Varden among other species and look up the fishing report and locations for various lakes in the area. www.alaskastillwatercapital.com