Presented by Travel Alaska
This year, travelers everywhere put their plans on hold, presenting Alaskans with a unique opportunity to get out and explore the state’s incredible destinations while supporting Alaska small businesses. Travel Alaska is encouraging residents to “Show Up For Alaska” by exploring new places and taking advantage of deals just for locals. Read on to learn about the adventures that await!
If you live in Anchorage, there are two easy, popular ways to get out of town: Drive south on the Seward Highway toward the seaside towns of the Kenai Peninsula, or head north on the Glenn Highway and then the Parks Highway toward the inland treasures of Alaska’s Interior.
But there’s a third option, sometimes overlooked but just as accessible and packed with opportunities for family fun: Keep heading east on the Glenn Highway to seek out glaciers, mountains, and adventure for all ages -- all within easy driving distance from Anchorage along a road recognized as a National Scenic Byway.
Hiking through history
The name Hatcher Pass might conjure images of backcountry snowboarding, ice climbing and other extreme sports, but the recreation area has opportunities for visitors of every age and ability, along with a healthy dose of hands-on Alaska history.
Just off the Parks Highway junction, you can follow Palmer-Fishhook Road up to Independence Mine State Historical Park, where a journey back in time is an easy morning jaunt from Anchorage. The former gold mining camp is now open to the public as a museum, surrounded by trails, wildflowers and opportunities for outdoor fun.
“We even have people who come up here twice a week,” said Mandy Garcia, co-owner of Salmon Berry Travel and Tours, which is managing the mine this summer. “They just walk the loop and enjoy the mountains and go home.”
Three buildings can be toured this year -- the manager’s house, Bunkhouse No. 2, and the assay office -- while others can be explored from the outside. Guided tours start on the hour, but true to the mine’s name, visitors are also free to wander independently.
“Families can come up here and really get a good look at what a miner’s life would be like,” Garcia said.
Younger children like to splash in the pond, while older kids get a kick out of learning to pan for gold. Visitors also have the option to buy out a private tour, which can then be tailored to the group’s particular interests. Garcia recommends packing a picnic lunch and planning to explore the Hatcher Pass area trails after visiting the mine. The park and its surroundings offer opportunities for hikers at every level, from accessible, paved trails to steep climbs.
“We have three easy (hikes) right from here,” she said. “If you have older kids, you could pair it up with kayaking at Eklutna with Lifetime Adventures, or biking in Eklutna.” Or plan your visit for a Friday, she suggested, and stop in Palmer for food trucks, local vendors and fresh produce at a Friday Fling event. And plan to return in the fall for berry picking.
With travel options limited, she said, more locals have been revisiting places like Hatcher Pass that they may not have seen in decades, or ever.
“This year, people can really explore their backyard,” Garcia said. “This was always a local gem, and it will always be a local gem.”
Adventure at a glacial pace
Is there anything more impressive than standing on the deck of a boat, just yards away from a glacier as it calves?
How about standing on the glacier itself?
About an hour past the Parks Highway junction, the Glenn Highway runs right through a tiny community called Glacier View with direct access to Matanuska Glacier. And yes -- you can actually get on the glacier itself.
“It’s one of the few glaciers that you can literally get out of your car and walk onto the ice,” said Don Wray, owner of MICA Guides, which operates out of Glacier View. “It’s a pretty rare opportunity for locals and visitors.”
Wray’s company is in its 22nd year of guiding visitors on the glacier, where whole families can experience the ice together. Kids as young as 8 can participate in guided glacier treks, while adventurous teens may be up for an ice climbing outing with one of MICA’s experienced guides, all of whom are well-versed in the glacier’s nooks and crannies.
“They know where all the coolest features are,” Wray said.
A MICA glacier trek lasts about three hours and can be tailored to interests ranging from the science of ice to just plain old fun.
“We can kind of cater it to the group,” Wray said. “If you’ve got kids in the group, they might be interested in checking out the really cool mud toward the front of the glacier, which is more like Jell-O.”
Other favorites among kids: tossing rocks into “bottomless” crevasses and drinking fresh glacier water.
“You find a nice, flowing stream that’s just beautiful, and people can sample that,” Wray said.
On more intense outings for older teens and adults, the extra-daring can volunteer to be lowered into a crevasse on a rope. MICA also operates a half-mile-long zipline that Wray says is the fastest in Alaska, hitting speeds over 60 miles per hour.
“It’s really easy for a family to stay pretty busy out here for a weekend,” Wray said.
Wray also recommends rafting trips with nearby Nova Alaska Guides and the accommodations at Sheep Mountain Lodge, which now offers helicopter tours in addition to lodging and rentals. As in Hatcher Pass, late summer brings berry picking, a highlight of any kid’s hiking trip.
“I really like when you can get out a little further away than just a day trip,” Wray said. “It’s so quiet and just, like, that Alaska vastness. It’s that humbling effect of being in something that is just so much bigger than yourself.”
Go into the wild in McCarthy
The Glenn Highway originates in the heart of Alaska’s largest city. But drive it all the way to the end and you’ll find yourself on the edge of the wilderness.
Make a right at the T just past Glennallen, head south a bit on the Richardson Highway, and you’ll soon encounter the Edgerton Highway and finally the road to McCarthy, at the gateway to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.
The Wrangell-St. Elias area is a great destination to let kids simply explore and get dirty, with water, rocks and mud galore. You can also explore another piece of Alaska’s mining history -- Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark, the site of what was once a bustling copper mining town.
“You can take kids up to Kennecott and look at the old buildings and crawl around behind some of them looking for green ore,” said McCarthy resident Andy Shidner. “If they’re a little more capable hiker, (Root) Glacier is about two miles.” Kennicott Wilderness Guides, which leads guided excursions on the glacier, offers a discount for children 12 and under on private day hikes.
Shidner owns Currant Ridge, one of the McCarthy-area spots where families can set up a home base from which to explore Wrangell-St. Elias. Currant Ridge has six log guesthouses, open from mid-May to mid-September and accessible from a driveway located at Mile 56.7 of McCarthy Road.
“We like to have families here,” Shidner said. “We have a big yard, a big flat grassy play area.”
Young visitors to Currant Ridge can pick their own salad greens in the greenhouses and interact with the resident chickens, which dine on guests’ food waste. The property is off-grid for electricity, powered by a solar battery bank system. Guesthouses are equipped with kitchens so guests can cook their own meals and are spaced out enough to give every group some privacy.
“With this season in particular, that reduces people’s exposure to other people,” Shidner said. “People have their own space that’s nice and bright and clean.” This spring, he even welcomed some tech professionals who came out for long-term remote work. They spent their days connected to Currant Ridge’s wi-fi for work, then fit in hikes on their personal time.
Hiking is only one of the draws in the Wrangell-St. Elias area, which offers everything from ziplining in the boreal canopy and rafting on glacier lakes to flightseeing tours with Wrangell Mountain Air. (As with other destinations in Alaska, some businesses and attractions are operating with modified procedures or limited to private appointments -- buildings at Kennecott Mine, for example, can currently be accessed only by guided tour -- so be sure to call ahead.) At 13.2 million acres -- “the same size as Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park, and Switzerland combined,” according to the National Park Service -- the park holds boundless opportunities for young adventurers.
“It’s just drop-dead gorgeous out here,” Shidner said. “I have access to hiking trails that often have nobody on them but me.”
Although it’s accessible from the road system, McCarthy is remote and sparsely populated enough that when Shidner signed up to work on the census this year, he tested himself by sitting down and listing almost every resident from memory. Between the small population, the wide-open spaces and the off-the-beaten-path location, it’s the perfect spot to take the family to run off some of that energy from being cooped up all spring.
“There’s a lot of room,” Shidner said. “There’s plenty of places to get away from anybody at all.”
Presented by Travel Alaska, encouraging you to Show Up for Alaska this summer! Whether it’s a quick trip to your favorite fishing spot or a new adventure in a corner of the state you’ve never explored, Alaska’s small tourism businesses offer something for everyone -- and every budget. Browse summer travel opportunities and specials for Alaska residents at ShowUpForAlaska.com.
This story was produced by the creative services department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with Travel Alaska. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.