PALMER -- The first full-fledged free bike park in Southcentral Alaska isn't in Anchorage.
It's in sleepy little Palmer, the city founded as a New Deal farm colony and now trying to leverage its increasingly popular mountain biking trails into a recreation destination.
The Palmer Bike Park is tucked off the Old Glenn Highway at Matanuska River Park, located on a former overflow parking lot just north of a playground and broad grassy picnic area.
Built last fall, the bike park is actually three in one, according to Nate Nicholls, executive director of the 150-member Valley Mountain Bikers and Hikers, the group that's behind the park.
The star feature is an almost 2-acre "pump track" with a jump line to get some air but also packed dirt mounds and undulating short wooden boardwalks -- "Nessie humps" -- that riders are supposed to travel by pumping and gliding instead of pedaling. Beyond are two different quarter-mile tracks that connect to an existing network of mountain bike trails -- a "flow trail" designed to give riders a feel for their bikes on a trail and a technical track to hone technical bike handling skills with a low log ride, rocky sections and tight turns.
The park enticed municipal parks planner Maeve Nevins and her husband to drive north from Anchorage last weekend.
They stopped in at a local bike store to get directions and then rode at the park. Their assessment? Fun and not so challenging it was scary, Nevins said. Then the couple hit the popular single-track trails at Matanuska Lakes State Recreation Area just west of Palmer for a little more riding.
"This is actually a tourism destination because we can get out of the city and it's 45 minutes away," she said. "It's so nice to go down to Palmer."
That's just what the people who created the park like to hear.
The park is the hub of a "loose network" of mountain bike trails springing up in the Palmer area, Nicholls said. "It's helping making the Valley kind of a destination."
It's also the latest symbol of an ongoing local mountain biking boom in the Valley area. Along with miles of established trails at Matanuska Lakes and the Crevasse Moraine Trail System, Valley Mountain Bikers built about 4 miles of new trail last year at Government Peak Recreation Area. Many trails around Palmer are fairly technical, with sinuous curves, steep hills and rocks or logs not welcoming to a beginner.
But the bike park has something for everyone, from children or adults looking to improve their skills to technical riders with specialized bikes, said Ptarmigan Ptrails owner Ed Kessler, who designed and built the trails.
"The way the park is set up, you could hit it on any kind of bike," Kessler said. "Just lower your seat is the best suggestion."
Families are using the park, as are entry-level adults trying to get more comfortable before they head for harder trails. More advanced riders are showing up too. Last week, Kessler spotted a "bunch of 20-somethings from Anchorage" with specialized 26-inch mountain bike dirt jumpers.
"That's kind of the reason we really wanted the park there," he said. "There's infrastructure, it's close to downtown Palmer. People can go to the Alehouse or Palmer Bar and spend money there. It's turned out to really be an asset."
The park, and a smaller one in a pocket park near Palmer's National Tsunami Warning Center, represent the first full-blown bike parks from the Kenai Peninsula to the Mat-Su.
There is an established bike park in Fairbanks, however. And a BMX bike track in Wasilla. A small park is underway in Soldotna, though parks officials in that city said it's not complete. Alyeska Resort in Girdwood charges a fee for a downhill mountain biking course during the summer months.
There are plans for two bike parks in Anchorage -- a larger one proposed for the South Anchorage Sports Park and a smaller one at Davis Park in Mountain View, according to Nevins.
The concept of the Palmer Bike Park surfaced in 2010, Kessler said. A borough planning process also allowed supporters to get the park into a local master plan two years later. Then, in 2013, grant-writing by Valley Mountain Bikers and Hikers began.
The park was built with plentiful volunteer help and grant funding worth $70,000, including $50,000 from the state Recreational Trails Program, $15,000 from Mat-Su Health Foundation and $5,100 from the Mat-Su Trails and Parks Foundation.
The Outdoor Recreation Trails Advisory Board liked the project, said board chair Jeff Budd, a Sitka resident who remembered building temporary BMX tracks on a Ketchikan baseball field more than 20 years ago. One reason for the Palmer park support was the possibility that new bike technology makes winter riding possible too, Budd said. The board also liked the recreation and community benefits.
"There are young people involved, all ages," he said. "It's a family thing."