PALMER — Every time I cross the concrete bridge spanning Knik River, I say to myself, "Next time. Next time I'll stop here."
"Here" is little Reflections Lake, on the fringe of the Palmer Hay Flats State Game Refuge, or simply "Palmer Hay Flats." Easily accessed and featuring the comforts of regular patrolling and maintenance after years of abuse, the lake is becoming popular with both Anchorage and Mat-Su Valley families.
Managed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the citizens' group Alaskans for Palmer Hay Flats, Reflections Lake has emerged as the perfect spot for kid-friendly frolicking in an area most people view from the confines of cars whizzing by on the Glenn Highway.
I visited once, in the summer, shortly after the Reflections Lake trail was upgraded in 2008. Consisting of a 1-mile loop crossing marshy land and a shady grove of birch and cottonwood trees, the trail was a lifesaver after a long day of driving with a preschooler between Anchorage and Talkeetna. Dragonflies buzzed, birds twittered, and despite the ever-present noise of traffic, we appreciated our brief, nature-filled respite.
But, winter? Would Reflections Lake and, to a larger extent, the refuge, be worth a day trip from Anchorage for recreation now that our son, 11, has his own ideas of what constitutes "family fun?" Reconnaissance was in order.
Located at Mile 30.6 of the Glenn Highway, Reflections Lake provides the easiest and most convenient access to Palmer Hay Flats. A quick 30-minute drive from Anchorage landed my husband and I at the trail head on a quiet weekday morning, coffee in hand.
With more snow and less ice than most of Anchorage, our boots made little noise as we hiked to the trail that swings through brackish marshland, trees, and along wetlands bordering Knik River, with Reflections Lake at the center. Much work has been done to the trail since my first visit seven years ago. A metal walkway connects the wetland to an upland birch forest, and stunning views of Knik River, with icy patches beginning to appear, are just feet from thoughtfully-provided overlooks.
The lake is a placid reminder of winter in Alaska. Quietly accepting a recent snowfall but not yet ready to surrender to solid ice in the middle, the lake still supported a pair of ducks that tottered around the soft slush before giving up and flying away. The lake and refuge are home to thousands of birds; some stay year-round, but many more use the flats as a resting point before migrating north or south, depending on the season. For visitors, particularly those with an interest in birding and hiking, it's an excellent starting point for further adventures. For kids, it's flat, scenic, and always changing.
The entire expanse of Palmer Hay Flats stretches across 28,000 acres of coastal and freshwater wetlands — tidal sloughs and waterways that practically beg for exploration. They are rich in history too. I discovered that the Historic Iditarod Trail runs through the western section, a testament to the fortitude of early supply "trains" of dog teams delivering goods to gold mining camps and remote settlements. When colonists arrived in the 1930s to eke out an existence in the Matanuska-Susitna region, the flats provided slough grass to feed livestock, and many farmers relied upon this level land to cut and bind tons of the rough, sedgy hay. It is worth noting, however, that when the land shifted and dropped nearly 2 feet during the 1964 earthquake, resulting in wetland landscape we see, today, much of the hayfields' value dropped as well.
It's easier to get a sense of just how large the refuge is from atop the newest feature of Reflections Lake trail. A viewing tower, dedicated earlier this year, offers a two-story, 360-degree view of the refuge, river, and surrounding mountain ranges for which Southcentral Alaska is famous. While we didn't see any wildlife during our visit, moose often wander by, and the occasional muskrat or beaver might grace your camera's viewfinder.
For children, the tower makes a perfect destination reward after hiking. Climb the stairs, relax on the benches at the top, and, as the interpretive sign says, enjoy the surrounding "Rest-uary."
If a 1-mile loop isn't enough for your family (and it likely won't be for mine), take one of the side trails branching out from Reflections Lake. A wetlands trail winds along Knik River, and, while visitors should be careful to avoid sudden tidal shifts, the route is a great way to introduce kids to this confluence of salty Upper Cook Inlet and the freshwater of Knik River. With snow covering the ground, it won't be long until the refuge is accessible for skiers and snowshoe enthusiasts too. For a simple ski, take Reflections Lake trail to the viewing tower, then travel past it along the open spaces between Knik and Matanuska rivers. On a clear day, views of Pioneer Peak, Mount Susitna (Sleeping Lady), and the Talkeetna mountains are crisp and seem to pop out from the flatlands, below.
Next time, stop the car. Get out and discover why this Mat-Su treasure is, indeed, a refuge.
Visiting Reflections Lake and Palmer Hay Flats State Game Refuge
• The Alaska Department of Fish and Game provides oversight and management of the refuge, and publishes visitor information on its website. Use the site for access maps, driving directions, and a list of activities allowed within the boundaries.
• Reflections Lake is 32 miles from Anchorage at Mile 30.6 Glenn Highway. Take the Knik River Access exit, and turn left under the road until you come to a small parking lot. Do not leave anything of value in your car. Restrooms, a picnic pavilion, accessible routing around the lake, and benches are available along the trail. It is jog stroller-accessible.
• Other access points for the refuge include Cottonwood Creek near Fairview Loop Road, and Rabbit Slough and Wasilla Creek, located near the Trunk Road exit. Visit the Fish and Game website for detailed maps. Neither of these access points are plowed in the winter.