To explorer George Vancouver, who sailed into the upper Cook Inlet in 1794, the crests of Mt. McKinley and its attendant peaks were “distant stupendous mountains.” These wonders remain as awesome as ever, but thanks to the George Parks Highway, completed in 1971, they are now within easy reach of their admirers.
Ice sculpted the face of Alaska, and the chisel marks are visible in the very first leg of this dramatic drive. Heading northeast from Anchorage, the Glenn Highway (Rte. 1) crosses two ice-fed rivers — the Knik and the Matanuska — en route to Palmer, gateway to the glacier-gouged Matanuska and Susitna valleys.
The colossal sheet of ice that covered this region some 12,000 years ago has long since retreated, but the silt and soil it left behind make the Mat-Su Valley (as the two valleys are jointly called) a veritable 15,000-acre vegetable garden. With daylight stretching to 19 hours and 21 minutes at the summer solstice, local farms turn out radishes the size of softballs and cabbages weighing as much as 90 pounds. You can find this produce at roadside stands throughout the summer or at the annual Alaska State Fair, which is held in Palmer during the 10 days before Labor Day.
The area north and east of town is laced with hiking trails that afford good views of snowcapped Pioneer Peak, named to honor some early emigrants from the Lower 48. In 1935, 202 families moved here from Depression-ravaged farms in Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin to form the Matanuska Colony, a New Deal agricultural collective believed to be the first and only one of its kind in America. Hence the area’s gabled barns are more reminiscent of Midwestern dairy farm architecture than they are of north-country homesteads.
2. Hatcher Pass
Just north of Palmer, the drive jogs west for a wilderness detour to Hatcher Pass. About 10 miles up Palmer-Fishhook Road, where the pavement gives way to gravel, the route enters a gorge and begins climbing through stands of willow, spruce, and birch that border the Little Susitna River. This stream once yielded gold but now is prized instead for its silver salmon. The fish swim upstream on their spawning runs from late July through August.
Farther up the road is Independence Mine State Historical Park, where exhibits recall the heyday of drill-and-blast gold mining. Hiking trails thread the 1,000-acre park and overlook the lake-pocked floor of the Mat-Su Valley below.
Two miles west of the park, the side trip reaches its scenic highlight: 3,886-foot-high Hatcher Pass, which serves as the cross-country training center for the U.S. Ski Team. Situated 1,500 feet above the tree line, this alpine enclave features hanging valleys, scooped-out cirques, and meadows carpeted in the summer months with bluebells, chocolate lilies, low-bush cranberries, and forget-me-nots. Sweeping vistas take in Summit Lake, to the west, and the surrounding Talkeetna Mountain range.