The Matanuska-Susitna Borough, a place the size of Ireland that's home to three mountain ranges located within an hour's drive of Anchorage, is a distinctly Alaska destination that offers world-class fishing and exploring with shops, restaurants and the occasional oddity in between. Cities include Palmer — an old-fashioned farm town with a contemporary main street — and Wasilla, the city known for former mayor Sarah Palin, big-box stores at which to stock up on supplies, and four-wheelers rolling through a small but historic downtown.
The borough's size and relative wildness make for adventurous outings: dog mushing in the birch-and-spruce flats of Willow, and Alaska Range peaks on display from a zipline in the funky town of Talkeetna, the base camp for climbers trying for the highest peak in North America, Mt. McKinley (Alaskans call it "Denali"). Don't worry: there are plenty of tasty or quirky places to shop and eat along the way — not to mention a herd of friendly reindeer and a town's "mayor" cat.
8 a.m. - Breakfast in Palmer
Fuel up for the day in this quaint city founded by families drawn to the area's rich glacial soils as part of a 1930s New Deal farm colony. The tidy and very walkable downtown offers several options, all in walking distance. Dig into some sausage gravy, poached eggs and polenta or the wide array of baked goods at Turkey Red (550 S Alaska St.), where the owner honed her skills as a baker in Antarctica. Light eaters can grab a quick coffee and fresh-baked banana bread at Vagabond Blues (642 S. Alaska St.), just down the street.
10 a.m. - Hiking with reindeer in Butte
Head out the Old Glenn Highway and across the Matanuska River for a morning hike up Bodenburg Butte. The glacial remnant looks like a misshapen potato, but the relatively quick, steep trip up to the summit offers incredible views of the Chugach and Talkeetna mountains, as well as the shining snowfields of the Knik River. If fishing is on the agenda, grab a license at a local store (the Fred Meyer in Palmer sells them, 650 S Cobb St.) and pull up to the Eklutna Tailrace, where bank anglers routinely hook into chinook salmon. There are plenty of more remote spots to catch chinook, coho or sockeye salmon — check in with a local tackle shop like Three Rivers in Wasilla for info and gear. Time allowing, stop in at the Reindeer Farm below the Butte and get up close and personal with a domesticated herd of caribou hand-raised by the Williams family.
1 p.m. - Sled dogs and Italian subs in Wasilla
Up the Parks Highway, about 15 minutes from Palmer, is the city of Wasilla. The highway, one of the state's few arteries, runs clear to Fairbanks and cuts right through town. A locally notorious bumper sticker implores "Lord help me get through Wasilla" — a reflection on summer traffic and construction congestion. But there are plenty of things to see and eat, starting with a stop at Krazy Moose Subs (405 E. Herning Ave.) a few blocks off the main drag with ample seating in an open, two-floor historic building. The Dorothy G. Page Museum across the alley is a walk into the railroad and mining past of the area. Wasilla's dog mushing traditions are revealed a few miles up Knik-Goose Bay Road at the Iditarod Trail Committee headquarters, home to the people who run the longest sled dog race in the world, the 1,000-mile Iditarod.
3 p.m. - Gee and haw in Willow
From Wasilla, the Parks Highway continues north to the third city in the borough, Houston. Stop in at Miller's Market and continue north to Willow. This unincorporated community tucked into the forest along the highway flirted with fame back in the 1970s with a failed campaign to move the state's capital here. Willow today is still wild enough to draw dozens of dog mushers attracted to its woodsy terrain, including big names like DeeDee Jonrowe and Dallas Seavey (an Iditarod champ and one of the stars of the "Ultimate Survival Alaska" reality show on National Geographic Channel). Grab some time on the runners for yourself with a dog sled tour at Dream a Dream kennel. Owner Vern Halter is an Iditarod veteran who also happens to serve as a local politician.
5 p.m. - Soaring in the shadow of Denali
Further up the Parks you'll come to the roughly 14-mile spur road to Talkeetna, a one-of-a-kind hamlet at the confluence of two rivers with views to the highest peak on the continent right off the beach. Stroll down to that beach, Talkeetna Riverfront Park at road's end, once you get to town (widely considered the model for the remote and quirky television town of Cicely on "Northern Exposure"). Grab a slice at Mountain High Pizza Pie (22165 C St.) to tide you over until a late dinner. To get the view from the air, try Denali Zipline Tours, offering a three-hour early evening expedition with panoramic views of the Alaska Range from a treetop platform with the boreal forest below and Denali ahead.
Once your feet return to solid ground, rub elbows with mountain climbers at the West Rib Cafe and Pub (100 Main St.) for a crab sandwich or make a go of it with the Seward's Folly–"the biggest burger in Alaska!" Stroll next door to Nagley's Store for a glimpse of Stubbs, a red-brown feline known as the town's honorary mayor despite the fact that Talkeetna doesn't even offer that elected position to humans. For a little more local color in the long night of summer, cross over to the Fairview Inn, a fun-loving bar set in a 1920s building. As one local puts it: "There's a lot of late-night going on in Talkeetna."
This is the place to begin your adventure in the Wasilla, Palmer, Houston, Willow or Sutton communities. It offers information, brochures and tips from locals on hiking trails, rafting excursions, fishing guides, restaurants, hotels, bed and breakfast accommodations, flightseeing, camping and canoeing.
WHERE: 7744 E. Visitors View Ct., Palmer, at Mile 35.5 Parks Hwy.; access from Trunk Road exit by hospital
WHEN: 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. daily, May to Sept.
This picturesque 1930s Colony-era farm sits just north of Palmer with beautiful views of the mountains. Musk oxen are often called "the bearded ones" in honor of the long, dense hair on their faces and necks. Alaska Natives harvest their hair to make a yarn called qiviut that's used to make hats, scarves and blanket throws. On Mother's Day, the farm offers free admission for all moms and sponsors a barbecue while showing off the newly-born calves.
WHERE: Mile 50 Glenn Hwy. north of Palmer; follow signage to 12850 E. Archie Rd.
WHEN: Summer hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; winter season: by reservation only
Children of all ages can get upclose and personal with some of Rudolph's cousins at this farm, which includes more than 150 domesticated caribou or reindeer, elk, horses, a bull moose and a bison. Visitors can purchase cups of grain to hand-feed the reindeer. Spring and early summer visitors are sure to see the new calves.
WHERE: 5561 Bodenburg Lp., Palmer
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, May 1 through mid-Sept.
This museum offers an in-depth look at the Colonial era in which President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal brought 204 families to the Matanuska Valley to begin a dairy farming community. The Palmer Historical Society led the restoration of this home, once owned by New Deal participants Oscar and Irene Beylund.
WHERE: 316 E. Elmwood Ave., Palmer
WHEN: Summer hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tues.-Sat.; winter: by appointment only
The drive itself to the Independence Mine State Historical Park in Hatcher Pass is worth the time. Drive north of Palmer on Palmer-Fishhook Road to Hatcher Pass Road. The mine is located 17 miles up this road, which is paved for only a short distance and then becomes almost as rugged as the mountainous terrain through which you are passing. The state park offers self-guided tours of what was once owned by the Alaska-Pacific Consolidated Mining Co. prior to World War II.
WHERE: Mile 17 Hatcher Pass Rd.
This summer outdoor market features distinctive and original handcrafted art by Alaska artists.
WHERE: Next to the Sheldon Community Arts Hangar
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sat.-Mon., May to Sept.
This family-friendly event is a great way to spend a Friday evening in the summer. Bring a blanket or lawn chair and enjoy the sounds of musicians from Talkeetna and all over Alaska.
WHERE: Talkeetna Village Park
WHEN: 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Fridays, Memorial Day to Labor Day
Local artists decorate large wooden moose, which are displayed around town. Each moose statue participates in the Fourth of July parade and afterward is auctioned off. Proceeds will go to three local nonprofit organizations: Talkeetna Artists Guild, Talkeetna Chamber of Commerce and the Talkeetna Historical Society.
WHERE: Parade held on Main Street. Maps identify the moose placed around town. Smaller art moose will be displayed at the Sheldon Community Arts Hangar, where the auction is held.
WHEN: July 4 for parade; entry forms, fees and completed artwork due June 15
PHONE: 907-733-7929, 907-733-1000
WEB: talkeetnahistoricalsociety.org, talkeetnachamber.org, denaliartscouncil.org
This museum is located on the outskirts of Wasilla on the way to Houston and Willow. It features planes, trains, automobiles, tractors, farm implements and other equipment of bygone eras that were used as the state of Alaska developed its infrastructure.
WHERE: 3800 W. Museum Dr., Wasilla
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, Mother's Day to Labor Day
Opened in 1967, this is Wasilla's first museum and most comprehensive documentation of life in Wasilla, Knik and Willow Creek. The grounds outside the museum feature models of early-era homes.
WHERE: 323 N. Main St., Wasilla
WHEN: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tues.-Fri., year-round
The center is located in a log cabin in downtown Palmer and features displays and information regarding the Alaska Native peoples indigenous to the area, as well as the history of the local colonial establishment and trapping activities.
WHERE: 723 S. Valley Way, Palmer
WHEN: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, May 1 to Sept. 30; winter: by appointment only
Weather permitting, sled dog teams provide rides during summer months. The center is staffed by knowledgeable locals.
WHERE: Mile 2.2 Knik-Goose Bay Rd.
WHEN: 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, mid-May to mid-Sept.
Valley residents take their local baseball very seriously, as visitors find out when they drop by the games played by the Palmer-based team during the summer. The Miners are one of six Alaska Baseball League teams.
WHERE: Hermon Brothers Field, 2075 Glenn Hwy., Palmer
WHEN: June and July; check website for schedule
A mountaintop near Palmer, most of the trail is a medium difficulty level, although the steps may be more challenging. The top offers a view of Matanuska Peak, Lazy Mountain, the Knik Glacier, Pioneer Peak, Twin Peaks, and the Matanuska Valley.
WHERE: From Anchorage, head north on the Glenn Highway. Take the exit onto the Old Glenn before reaching the Knik River. Follow this route until reaching the bridge; cross it, and continue for roughly 4 miles. Turn left onto Bodenburg loop road after passing the butte, not before (see below). After half a mile, turn left again onto "Mothershead Lane"; you will see the parking area on your right shortly afterwards. Take the road around to the left after parking. The trailhead is on the right.
WHEN: Best hiking months are May through November
Walk around and fish at the Eklutna Trailrace, where you can catch coho, sockeye, and chum. The sport fishery is restricted to only a half-mile area from the Old Glenn Highway to the Knik River.
WHERE: Near mile 3.5 of the Old Glenn Highway
WHEN: Visit year-round, fish during legal seasons
You can buy everything you could ever want and more at this tackle and fly fishing shop in downtown Wasilla.
WHERE: 390 E. Railroad Ave.
WHEN: 9:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.
Miller's is the perfect stop for all your basic grocery, personal and postal needs.
WHERE: 17152 W. Parks Hwy.
WHEN: 7 a.m. to 11p.m.
Owner Vern Halter is an Iditarod veteran who is also a local politician. Here you can take a tour, meet all of his pups, stay in his bed and breakfast and learn what it's really like to be an Iditarod musher.
WHERE: Mile 64.7 Parks Hwy.
WHEN: Tours are at 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.; book in advance
These three days of small-town fun include home-baked goods, homespun crafts, local music and live entertainment. Events include a bed race, parade, tractor pull, egg toss, family games and a fun run.
WHERE: Downtown Palmer
WHEN: June 6-8
This small store's motto is "Established before Most of You Were Born," and it is "Mayor" Stubbs' home and hangout.
WHERE: Main Street
WHEN: 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays; 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekends.
The Hangar was built in the 1950s by legendary glacier pilot Don Sheldon for his business, Talkeetna Air Service. The hangar, which contains a small art gallery and is used for various events, was donated to the Denali Arts Council by Sheldon's wife.
WHERE: 22249 S. D St.
WHEN: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mon.-Fri. with event openings varying by season.
Visitors can take a walking tour of the museum and its historical buildings. Or meet up with the ranger who comes over from the Talkeetna ranger station at 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. to speak on mountaineering; past and present.
WHERE: Little Red Schoolhouse, downtown Talkeetna
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, May 15 through Sept. 15
A memorial to those who have lost their lives climbing Denali, the highest peak in America.
WHERE: Talkeetna town cemetery, near the airstrip
About 70 miles southeast of Talkeetna, this recreational area provides parking and camping facilities. Great for hiking, fishing, camping and wildlife viewing.
WHERE: Milepost 70.8 Parks Hwy.
Take a stroll down the park, see three rivers and overlook a 20,000-foot peak. It's close to downtown and offers a view of the Alaska Range and an unclose look at the Talkeetna, Sustina and Chulitna rivers.
WHERE: Walk a full loop around town by strolling downstream, along the Susitna River, until you come to the end of the village airstrip. Then walk up D St., which will bring you right back to Main St.
WHEN: Year-round, weather permitting
Book as an individual or a private group. Fly through boreal forests and view the Alaska Range.
WHERE: 13764 E. 2nd St., Talkeetna
WHEN: Call for reservations.
The Fairview Inn
The Fairview Inn and Bar is the perfect stop for anyone needing a warm and cozy place to cuddle up at night or just grab a night cap.
WHERE: 101 Main St.
WHEN: Bar open 12 p.m. to 2:30 a.m., weekdays, and until 3:30 a.m. weekends.