From Hatcher Pass the drive does an about-face and retraces part of its path to Wasilla, a hamlet that hugs the shores of two long, narrow lakes. Turn off the highway near the center of town for a picnic at Lakeshore Park, which offers winter skating, summer swimming, and year-round views of the crenelated Chugach Mountains.
Founded in 1917 as a station on the Alaska Railroad, which links Anchorage and Fairbanks, Wasilla is now the biggest town between those two cities. About 10 miles east of Wasilla, the George Parks Highway (Rte. 3) intersects with the Glenn Highway. Named for the man who governed the Alaska Territory from 1925 to 1933, this paved artery runs north into the rugged heart of the state.
Wasilla is also along the route of the annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, sometimes referred to by locals as the Last Great Race on Earth. In early March solo mushers drive dog teams about 1,100 miles from Anchorage to Nome. Visitors who miss the race can catch it on video at the Iditarod Headquarters, a log cabin museum located two miles south of town on Knik Road. This museum chronicles the colorful history of the event, which commemorates a race against disaster: in 1925 a relay of heroic dog teams traveled 674 miles in about 127 hours to deliver serum to diphtheria-threatened Nome on the Arctic Ocean. Dog racing is also the theme of the Knik Museum and Sled Dog Mushers Hall of Fame, located at mile 13.7 on the Knik Road.
4. Big Lake
From Wasilla the drive proceeds due west, snaking through low, level terrain all the way to the turnoff for Big Lake. A short side trip leads to three state recreation areas (Big Lake North, Big Lake South, and Rocky Lake) supplied with campgrounds and picnic sites.
Although Big Lake is just five miles long, it is the largest of the dozen or so ponds that glaciers created in the lower Mat-Su Valley. Man picked up where the ice left off, dredging waterways that connect Big Lake to several of its smaller siblings. You can explore this network’s 53-mile shoreline by powerboat, paddle-wheeler, or canoe. Tranquil waterside views are available from restaurants that front the lake.
5. Nancy Lake State Recreation Area
Back on Rte. 3, the drive curves northwest toward Willow. Shortly after crossing the train tracks at mile 66.5 (the Parks Highway parallels the Alaska Railroad), Rte. 3 intersects a spur road leading into Nancy Lake State Recreation Area. This swampy but scenic domain, covering nearly 23,000 acres, is studded with some 130 lakes.
Nancy Lake Parkway, the area’s gravel access road, meanders through forests of spruce, birch, and aspen inhabited by moose, black bears, and coyotes. Sandhill cranes have been known to perform their elaborate springtime courtship ritual within view of the road, and common loons often can be glimpsed on the canoe trail that stitches together 22 of the area’s lakes (canoes can be rented at the South Rolly Lake Campground).
Returning to the highway, the drive passes through Willow, a lazy little town that almost became Alaska’s state capital during the 1970s, when a move from Juneau was considered but never carried out. Willow lost its shot at glory but held on to a more eternal claim to fame: it is here that travelers heading north on the Parks Highway often catch their first glimpse of mighty Mt. McKinley, which reigns supreme over the 600-mile-long Alaska Range.
During climbing season — May and June — mountain fever reaches its peak in Talkeetna, a town that serves as a springboard for expeditions to Mt. McKinley, some 60 miles to the northwest. Weather permitting, one of the best views of the mountain comes at mile 13 on the Talkeetna spur road, which branches northeast from the highway at mile 98.7.
At 20,320 feet high, Mt. McKinley is North America’s loftiest pinnacle. But what makes the mountain so daunting to scale is not its height but its climate. Thin air, frigid temperatures (even in summer), and winds gusting up to 150 miles per hour make McKinley’s upper reaches one of the most forbidding places on earth. In spite of such danger, about a thousand people per year try to reach its summit; in a good year, half of them succeed.