Through Hatcher Pass
If you're headed north to Denali National Park or Fairbanks, the winding road through Hatcher Pass to Willow makes a glorious alpine detour around the least attractive part of your drive. Note, however, that past the mine and skiing area, the road is unpaved, open only in summer, and not suitable for large RVs. From the Parks Highway, just after it branches from the Glenn Highway, exit to the right on Trunk Road and keep going north when you reach Palmer-Fishhook Road, which becomes Hatcher Pass Road. From the Glenn Highway near Palmer, take Palmer-Fishhook just north of town.
Even if you're not headed north, a trip to Hatcher Pass combines one of the area's most beautiful drives, access to great hiking and Nordic skiing, and interesting old buildings to look at. The Independence Mine State Historical Park (tel. 907/745-2827 or 745-3975; www.alaskastateparks.org, click on "Individual Parks," then "Matanuska and Susitna Valleys") takes in the remains of a hard-rock gold mine that operated from 1938 to 1951. Some buildings have been restored, including an assay office that's a museum and the manager's house that's a welcoming visitor center, while a big old mill, towering on the hillside, sags and leans as a picturesque ruin. A visit is interesting even if you don't go inside, using the interpretive panels and map on a self-guided tour. The paved trails are easily navigable by anyone, and the rugged, half-mile Mill Trail leads up to that building's ruins. The setting, in a bowl of rock and alpine tundra, is spectacular. The day-use fee is $5 per vehicle. The visitor center is open from 10am to 7pm daily in the summer, closed off season.
Leave some time for a summer ramble in the heather if you visit the mine. In the winter, the Nordic or telemark skiing is exceptional, with a few kilometers of groomed trail and miles of open country to explore. There are four hiking trails and two mountain-biking routes in the area -- ask at the visitor center. The Gold Cord Lake Trail is less than a mile. The Reed Lakes Trail is spectacular for its mountain scenery and waterfalls with challenging terrain; one boulder field is known as "kneecap valley." Starting from the Archangel Road, it gains 3,000 feet over 4.5 miles to Upper Reed Lake. Another challenging hike is the Gold Mint Trail, which starts across the road from the Motherlode Lodge on Hatcher Pass Road and leads 8 miles to the Mint Valley.
The park maintains two campgrounds along Hatcher Pass Road, charging a $10 fee. Backcountry camping is allowed without a permit, but fires are prohibited outside of campground fire rings.
On the Parks Highway
The Museum of Alaska Transportation and Industry, off the Parks Highway at mile 47 on Museum Drive, west of Wasilla (tel. 907/376-1211; www.museumofalaska.org), is a paradise for gearheads and tinkerers. The volunteers have gathered every conceivable machine and conveyance -- 14 airplanes, 13 fire trucks, 7 locomotives, and 2 steam cranes, for example -- and fixed up to running order as many as they can. It's open May 1 to September 30 daily 10am to 5pm, winter Tuesday 10am to 2pm. Admission is $8 for adults; $5 for students, seniors, and military with military ID; $18 for families.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.