Exploring Alaska’s Mat-Su Valley

by Roger A. Ward | Photo © Roger A. Ward

Waters of the Matanuska and the Susitna Rivers cascade from ancient glaciers on the tallest mountains in North America to nourish the valley between these formidable ranges. Those forces create a perfect hub for Alaska-style adventure. The two largest towns in the Mat-Su—Palmer and Wasilla—serve as gateways to exploring this magnificent region.

Palmer’s Colony House Museum showcases a surprising, almost-forgotten history of economic chaos and 1930s New Deal resettlement from the Lower 48: the Matanuska Colony. Palmer remembers this history with the entire town celebrating Colony Days in June with small-town exuberance. One of the original homesteads in the 1930’s Matanuska Colony has been re-purposed into another agricultural experiment and a treat for visitors, the Musk Ox Farm. This nonprofit strives to domesticate the wild musk ox to allow commercial production of the ultra soft and warm qiviut fiber.

The Glenn Highway National Scenic Byway continues north from Palmer and is a spectacular drive through the glacial valley. About an hour and a half from Palmer on this highway, the river turns to walls of ice at the Matanuska Glacier, Alaska’s most accessible. With boots and crampons, most moderately mobile people can trek out on their own or rent gear and take a guided tour. An overnight in a comfy lodge or a campsite along this highway is a welcome respite after glacier trekking.

Beyond Wasilla, the George Parks Highway to Denali National Park goes near the village of Talkeetna, a National Historic Site and an important stop on the Alaska Railroad. Talkeetna epitomizes the rustic and quirky Alaska village. As a staging area for ascents of nearby Mount Denali, the town’s services honor both tourists and climbers, including plenty of great local craft beer from the Denali Brewing Company.

Hiking, mountain biking, jet-boat tours into wild canyons and more offer exciting excursions into wild Alaska from here. Talkeetna is also the center for air taxi tours around Denali and the Alaska Range. Thrilling views abound, and a landing on a glacier, surrounded by mile-high teeth of sheer granite, lends “awe-inspiring” its true meaning.  For more about visiting the Mat-Su Valley, go to alaskavisit.com.