Discover the ‘hidden’ valley
Jamie Hazlett / Sun Star Columnist
April 19, 2011
Heading north up the Parks Highway from Anchorage, one encounters the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. For many people, it’s just another leg of the journey to Anchorage or the Interior. Fear not, fellow traveler: fun and interesting things to do abound in what locals refer to as “the Valley.”
The true measure of a destination is its food and drink. The Last Frontier Brewing Company, situated within sight of the Parks Highway, offers a selection of delicious local brews, as well as a variety of low-priced and delicious dishes. Although there has long been a brewery on this spot (it was previously the home of the Great Bear Brewery Company), this new establishment is still working out the kinks. Be patient, and your taste buds will be amply rewarded. Another great Wasilla restaurant is Piccolino’s, a Greek and Italian spot that features one of the best wine lists in the state and is located directly off the highway.
If you love driving by the reindeer pens on campus, the Palmer Musk Ox Farm is the place for you. Yes, you can see these guys here in Fairbanks, but the Farm offers you a chance to get more up close and personal than most research facilities can offer the public. Go during the spring when the muskoxen are shedding their underfur (commonly known as qiviut) and you might get a chance to handle some of the rich, raw substance that sticks to the grass and fences around the Farm.
Nearby Hatcher Pass is a hiker’s paradise. Possibly the best part about the Pass is that the road loops from outside of Palmer and comes out in Willow, which means you can easily make this a side trip on your way back to Fairbanks without adding more than three or four relaxing hours surrounded by the peaks of the Talkeetna Range. From Archangel Road, on a clear day you can see down the valley to Anchorage, some 50 miles distant. Summit Lake is a great place to toss down a blanket and have a picnic. Stop by the historic gold mining area of Independence Mine to check out early 20th century buildings and industrial techniques. Attempting the road over the pass is not advised in the winter when the road is not maintained and caution should be used on some of the curvier sections even in the best weather. The hills make for great sledding and snowmachining in the winter, and the area is popular in summer with parasailers as well.
Finally, there are some phenomenal views to be had by driving around the area. Follow Knik Goose Bay Road (locally known as KGB) out of Wasilla toward its end for glimpses of the Knik Arm, part of Cook Inlet. For a touch of the absurd, keep your eyes open for a long-ago beached boat perched in the middle of a field of high wild grass. Travel from Hatcher Pass toward the Glenn Highway along Palmer Fishhook Road for sweeping agricultural fields bordered by the jagged ridges of the Chugach Mountains; this drive is especially romantic during late summer nights when the low sun presents a play of alpenglow across the few remaining patches of high-altitude snow and the forests below them. Those who prefer to view the ever-looming mountains in other ways should climb aboard the Ferris wheel at the Alaska State Fair towards the end of August. Bring a camera and someone you love.
Many Alaskans pass through the Mat-Su Valley without ever stopping to enjoy the area. Don’t miss this gem nestled between the ocean and the mountains – next time you’re headed south, save a little time and let the Mat-Su surprise you.