Alaska’s Playground: Matanuska-Susitna

March 2, 2009
Filed under Destinations

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2052829_alaska_1.jpgEver have one of those days when you’re just overwhelmed with choices? Such would be a bright, sunny afternoon in Alaska’s Matanuska-Susitna Valley.

Here’s the dilemma: Do you head up to the Denali Viewpoint North on the Parks Highway, set up camp and wait for the evening and early morning light to photograph Mount McKinley? Do you park your motorhome next to a stream filled with scrappy silver salmon? What about the blueberry picking in Hatcher Pass? Is the prime campsite in front of the Matanuska Glacier available?

Now imagine an entire vacation filled with these kinds of choices, or even a whole year, and you know why the Matanuska-Susitna (Mat-Su) Convention and Visitors Bureau describes this part of the state as “Where Alaska Comes to Play.” Adding to that, your motorhome offers the perfect means of taking advantage of what the Mat-Su Valley has to offer. 

What is the Mat-Su Valley?

Most people planning an overland trek to Alaska for the first time have never heard of the Matanuska-Susitna area – Mat-Su Valley for short, or simply the Valley. They usually think in terms of driving first to either Fairbanks or Anchorage and then exploring the state from those cities. The fact is, though, that everyone who explores Alaska by RV will almost certainly pass through the Valley a couple of times while driving around the 49th state. And it’s not like the Valley is trying to hide from anybody, as it’s approximately the size of West Virginia.

If you drive south from Fairbanks, you’ll enter the north side of the Mat-Su Valley shortly after passing Denali State Park. If, driving into Alaska, you turn left at Tok and set a course for Anchorage, you’ll enter the Valley from the east about an hour after passing through the small town of Glennallen. Once entering the Valley from either direction, you’ll remain in it until just before you get to Anchorage.

Geographically, the Mat-Su Valley is the land drained by the Matanuska River flowing west out of the Chugach Mountains and the Susitna River flowing south out of the Alaska Range. The two rivers flow into the Knik Arm of Cook Inlet within a few miles of each other. Both rivers are spawned by massive glaciers.

Three mountain ranges dominate the landscape: the Alaska Range to the north and west; the Talkeetna Mountains, which are sort of in the middle; and the Chugach Mountains on the east side. The Alaska Range, in particular, provides one of the sights that make visiting the Mat-Su Valley a must: Absolutely the best roadside views of Mount McKinley, the continent’s highest peak, can be had from alongside the Parks Highway in the Valley.

The two state-maintained roadside viewpoints, Denali Viewpoint South and Denali Viewpoint North, are about 130 miles and 160 miles north of Anchorage, respectively. The two facilities are part of Denali State Park, which complements Denali National Park and Preserve by providing additional facilities and activities for visitors. Both sites can handle motorhomes; you can even stay overnight at Denali View North Campground.

Feasting your eyes on the scenery is one thing, but after awhile a feast on some local protein is in order. Since you’re in the area, you may as well cast for a salmon from one or more of Alaska’s fabulous roadside salmon streams. Along the Parks Highway south of the Mount McKinley viewpoints are Montana Creek, Sheep Creek, Willow Creek, the Deshka Landing and the Little Susitna River. There are more famous salmon streams in Alaska, but no part of the state offers as many of these splendid fish in roadside streams as does the Mat-Su Valley.

There are campgrounds and/or RV parks at or near all of these streams. Fishing guides with boats are available, or you can join hundreds of other fishermen casting from shore. For the most part, regulations require anglers to fish downstream of the Parks Highway bridges, and most fishermen tend to concentrate near where these streams empty into the Susitna River. The one exception is the Little Su, which flows into Cook Inlet on its own; the best fishing there is near the boat launch and campground, which are about 15 miles up Knik-Goose Bay Road from its intersection at Parks Highway.

Another great fishing adventure is to turn off the Parks Highway for the 14-mile drive to Talkeetna and have Mahay’s Riverboat Service run you a few miles up the silty Talkeetna River to the mouth of Clear Creek.  

Talkeetna

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Talkeetna is also the staging area for Mount McKinley climbing expeditions and Mount McKinley flight-seeing adventures. The climbing season begins in late April and runs through the middle of July. By all means go out to the airport and have a look if you’re in town during that time. Watching the mountaineers coming and going from North America’s highest peak, and maybe talking with some of them, is an adventure in itself.

Flight-seeing, run by the same companies that ferry climbers to the mountain, runs daily throughout the season and even in the winter (weather permitting). If you want to get up close and personal with Mount McKinley and other peaks in the Alaska Range, this is the way to do it. A number of operators will also land on Ruth Glacier and allow you to get out and explore. It’s easy to see why a flight-seeing tour from Talkeetna is considered one of the Valley’s premier attractions. 

Talkeetna is fun for a lot of other reasons, too, some less obvious than others. For instance, the biggest summer party in this eclectic community is the Moose Dropping Festival. Yes, there really is a two-day celebration in mid-July centered around moose droppings. At the festival, you can explore the many uses one can find for it: made into jewelry, fashioned into lapel pins and painted and numbered for an actual moose-dropping drop contest with a substantial cash prize if your nugget is closest to the target are among just a few.

Talkeetna has a small RV park and a number of opportunities for boondocking in and around the town. If you go for the Moose Dropping Festival, you’ll probably have to boondock because a caravan company generally reserves most of the sites in the RV park for the festival weekend.

The Big City

South of Talkeetna the Parks Highway runs through a couple of small settlements and then into Wasilla, the shopping hub for the region and a town that has been described as two miles long and a block deep. Most of the Valley’s larger stores are in Wasilla, making it a great place to stop for groceries and other supplies. Anglers should stop in at 3 Rivers Fly and Tackle for the latest information on where the big ones are biting.  

While stopping in Wasilla, be sure to visit the museums, particularly the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Headquarters and Museum and the Museum of Alaska Transportation and Industry, which offers a fun look at everything from dog sleds to airplanes. Both are located a few miles north of town and have large, circular driveways that can handle any size motorhome.

A short distance east of Wasilla is Palmer, sort of a Midwest farming town dropped between a couple of Alaska mountain ranges. The farms in the area were created by the Franklin Roosevelt administration in the 1930s in an effort to make Alaska self-sufficient in terms of food production. It didn’t work and Alaska still imports most of its edibles from other states. The best of the local farming efforts come together in late summer every year with the Alaska State Fair in Palmer – 12 big days ending on Labor Day in early September. There is plenty of RV parking; you can even stay overnight in your rig.

For RVers, a big plus for Palmer is the number of RV parks near town. Anchorage, about 40 minutes away by car, has relatively few RV parks. Many RVers wanting to explore Anchorage find it easier to camp in Palmer and use their dinghy. Other than during standard rush-hour traffic times, you should have no trouble getting back and forth to Anchorage for shopping, dining and other adventures.2052829_alaska_3.jpg  

Two unusual key attractions near Palmer are the Musk Ox Farm and the Reindeer Farm. The first holds a reproducing population of the woolly northern beasts and provides raw material – qiviut (musk ox wool) – for knitted garments as well as facility tours for a small fee. Items made from qiviut, probably the warmest wool you’ll ever find, are available at the farm’s gift shop for a fairly steep price.

The Reindeer Farm is always extra popular at Christmastime for obvious reasons though it actually sees most of its visitors in the summer months. Be sure you have a camera in hand when you visit either farm.

The Glenn Highway

Two of Alaska’s three major roads, the Parks Highway from Fairbanks and the Glenn Highway from Tok, come together just outside of Palmer. In fact, many visitors tend to first enter the Valley by one of these roads.

The drive along the Glenn Highway qualifies as one of the most spectacular drives on the continent, and is recognized as a National Scenic Byway. In early September, as the fall colors begin to dominate, the Chugach Mountains along this route must be seen to be believed.

Then there is the glacier – Matanuska Glacier, to be specific. This is the largest accessible glacier along Alaska’s road system where you can park your rig and dry camp right in front of an active, flowing glacier. The land in front of the glacier is privately held so there is a per-person fee for driving in and camping here, but if the weather is halfway decent this is one of those things you do just so you can say you have done it. From where you park your rig, the glacier is just a couple of minutes’ walk away.

It’s easy to see why native Alaskans believe that, along with being very RV friendly, the Matanuska-Susitna Valley – with its abundance of mountains, glaciers and wildlife – offers much of what visitors want to experience. In this respect, Alaska, I think, exceeds most people’s expectations.

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