On a longer visit, you may want to spend a day or two in the suburbs to the north, known as the Mat-Su Valley. Reached by the Glenn Highway about 40 miles from Anchorage, Mat-Su is a bedroom community for the city superimposed on a former frontier farming region. Folks commute an hour or more each way to live out here, gaining space to run snow machines and all-terrain vehicles, and for lower-priced land. In the well-populated central valley, fields have turned into commercial sprawl, with little to interest a visitor. But beyond the suburban blight, vast wild lands of unspoiled mountains, glaciers, and rivers remain relatively close at hand.

If you're driving anywhere north from Anchorage, especially toward Denali National Park or Fairbanks, you'll pass through this area. You can learn more about visitor attractions, lodging, and the area's greatest strength -- its hiking, fishing, and skiing -- from the Mat-Su Visitors Center, 7744 E. Visitors View Court, Palmer, AK 99645 (tel. 907/746-5000; www.alaskavisit.com). The center is open mid-May to mid-September, 8:30am to 6:30pm. It's easy to find: Take the Parks Highway north from the interchange with the Glenn Highway; the center is on the right, in front of the Mat-Su Regional Medical Center.