Got an extra couple nights in Anchorage or just a free afternoon? Go to the North, there are plenty of places very worth to checking out. Native Alaskan history, gold mining history, up-close animal encounters, real gigantic veggies, and other natural wonders located in just 0.5 – 1.5-hour drive from Anchorage. You can explore some of them on the way to Denali National Park if you don’t mind to add up a few hours to your trip or make separate trips, as we did.
All places are family-friendly, tested by us and our 7 and 2 years old children.

Hatcher Pass, scenic drive North of Anchorage, Alaska

Eagle River Nature Center

Located in a short 40 minutes from downtown, Eagle River Nature Center is one of the most fascinating places in the Anchorage area. It is perfect to visit if you are short on time or with little kids: hike to viewing decks and way back will take less then an hour.

Eagle River Nature Center

Coming from the US East Coast, it was our first place after landing in Anchorage where we saw “raw Alaskan beauty”. I was wondering how fortunate locals might be, to live right across the road from such wild and beautiful place. 3 weeks later we actually met one of them – our pilot from K2 aviation lives exact near this place.

Mold of Kodiak bear paw at Eagle River Nature Center

Make a stop at Nature Center first thing upon arrival, to check out the trail conditions and ask the staff about wildlife presence before the hike. Bears were spotted nearby during our visit, but I was glad we didn’t come across it. Might sound silly, but once were in the deep forest (3 miles Albert loop trail) I was feeling their presence and continued singing loud and clapping until we came back. Don’t rely on bear spray: it works only at a very close distance. Making noise is the best way to let animals know you are at their territory.

Eagle River Nature Center

Nature Center also has a cool exhibition about local landscape and animals. We learned there about Kodiak bear, largest bears in the world, who live isolated in Kodiak Archipelago in Alaska for more than 12 000 years. A large male can stand over 5′ when on all four legs! Check the short video from National Geographic here.

Eklutna Lake

Eklutna Lake is in 1-hour drive from Anchorage and promotes plenty of recreational opportunities: fishing, hiking, camping. Ideal for kayak trip: serene, secluded, easy to launch. On the way back from the lake we drove 40 min to Thunderbird Falls trailhead, this easy 2-mile out-and-back hike through the forest ends at a lovely waterfall.

Thunderbird Falls trail

Although both places are nice and adored by locals, I would skip them if you are short on time and go straight to the Hatcher Pass/Independence Mine/Reindeer Farm.

Eklutna Lake

Eklutna Historical Park

At Eklutna Historical Park take a quick 15 min stop to look at the unique blend of Russian Orthodox and Athabascan Native People traditions. The small churchyard gravesites are marked with an Orthodox Cristian crosses and spirit houses: miniature house-like structures, all in different colors and design. We were late for a tour, I wish we could talk to a guide to learn more about Russian influence on local history.

Spirit house. Eklutna Historical Park
Full-functional Russian Orthodox Church at Eklutna Historical Park

Iditarod Headquarters museum

Wish you could go on a sled dog kennel tour but not ready to pay a fortune? Make a stop at the Iditarod Headquarters and museum in Wasilla, they offer pretty much the same as other kennels but at the lowest price. Play with puppies, go on a sled dog ride and learn about husky’s legendary stamina, speed, and adaptation for brutal weather.

Iditarod Trail Race
photo credit: Bureau of Land Management

The museum is dedicated to the history and development of Iditarod Trail Race – the most famous Alaskan tradition now. The most interesting for me was the stuffed dog Togo, who now lives in the museum. Boy, you have to learn his story! Pretty small for average husky, he was an outstanding dog and did the great share of work in the Great Race of Mercy, race that saved kids in the remote town of Nome from a raging diphtheria epidemic.

Reindeer farm

Reindeer Farm. Palmer, Alaska

Disclaimer: more likely, every other reindeer tour after this one will feel pretty ordinary.

This Palmer farm is an amazing place to bring the entire family. If you have ever dreamed of getting nose to nose with a herd of reindeer, feed them from the palm and get the inside scoop on Santa guides – save couple hours for a tour. Caring and knowledgable staff, so passionate about the animals. Our guide told us many interesting stories I still remember.

My one of my favorite is about Dolly the bison who looks shy and childish although weight near 1400 lb and 14 years old. She was unlucky to be born in November (usually calves are born in summer), mom couldn’t care about her and Dolly became abandoned in a wild, faced inevitable death. Reindeer Farm decided to take her in, nursed from the bottle and saved Dolly’s life. When she was big enough, she was introduced to her herd, but they didn’t accept her. From then she lives on a farm, farmers and reindeer became her family.

Reindeer nursing her calf. Palmer, Alaska

There are also picnic tables, farm animals and bunnies to pet. On the time of our visit before the entrance of reindeer pen were many rain boots to borrow if you don’t have one, like us. This tour was a “special event” on Erika’s 2d birthday, she did her first and so dreamed of horse ride there too.

A very close encounter with reindeer. Palmer, Alaska

Musk ox farm

The musk ox farm is a cool place to visit and it would be extremely hard to find another one somewhere else. Well adapted for harsh arctic climate, musk oxen roamed Earth for thousands of years, lived alongside wooly Mammoths and were completely overhunted in Alaska in 1920th.

Musk oxen at the Musk Ox Farm indoor exhibition, Palmer

So-called Musk Ox Domestication Project started back in 1964 by John Teal to reach two goals: support Native Alaskans and bring back these arctic mammals to Alaska. Sustainable fiber-farming operation lets Native Alaskans gain some economic independence by selling luxurious qiviut garments and restore the musk ox population.

Musk oxen at the farm in Palmer

Rare and highly desirable, Qiviut is an underwool of the arctic musk ox. Naturally soft and super thin, its fiber is light as a feather, 8 times warmer than sheep wool, doesn’t scratch and won’t shrink when washing. It’s also expensive. Scarf made from qiviut would cost around $300, while the sweater around $900. But once you learned how difficult just to harvest qiviut fiber, it seems reasonable to pay that high.

Musk oxen mama with her calf

Watch short video about these wonderful creatures from National Geographic.

Mat-Su Valley

In one of our family movie nights, we watched with little one’s
hilarious British movie “The Curse of the Were-Rabbit“. We love all Wallace & Gromit movies but didn’t realize something similar about this one might be in real.

Youth Giant Cabbage. Palmer, Alaska
photo credit: alaskastatefair.org

Going to Alaska at the end of August? Visit Mat-Su Valley, where locals able to grow gigantic veggies, just like in the movie. Even 138-pound cabbage or 18.9-pound carrot is not the limit when you have such long daylight hours as in Alaska. We would be thrilled to see them in real!
The easiest and (cheapest) way possible is to go to Alaska State Fair: from August 22-September 2 in Palmer in 2019.

If you can’t get to the State Fair but are interesting in Alaskan farming, you can visit Pyrah Pioneer veggie farm in Palmer.

Hatcher Pass

Hatcher Pass, Alaska

Hatcher Pass is a local recreation mecca in Talkeetna mountains and one of the best places to enjoy nature in the Anchorage area. The scenic road running through the pass connects small towns Willow and Palmer and is usually open around the first week of July when it cleared from the snow. Note, the only paved part is between Palmer and Independence Mine. If you want to make all the way down to the Willow, be ready for the gravel road. Besides being wet, steep and narrow it was in pretty good condition during our visit, even for the non 4*4 vehicle.

Local favourite photoshoot location: Little Susitna River, Hatcher Pass road

Alaska fascinated me by its moss and the shades of the green variety. So deep, bright and different! And although we weren’t in Iceland during the summer, something tells me, it looks similar there.

At Hatcher Pass summit, Alaska

Be prepared for a trip: in the mountains, the weather tends to change very quickly. Warm layers, hat, mittens, and proper shoes are a must. Be ready for the rain as well. Plenty of water (hot beverages) and snacks also essential on a trip to Hatcher Pass.

Artem walking on watermelon or red snow, Hatcher Pass, Alaska

You can visit Musk ox farm or Reindeer Farm on the way to Hatcher Pass, both places are pretty close. We wouldn’t visit it on the way to Denali unless you get an early start. Hatcher Pass and Independence Mine will take a full afternoon to enjoy.
Once known mostly by locals, Hatcher Pass gained huge popularity among travelers in the last years. Don’t miss it!

Summit Lake: stop here to take some great pictures. Two parking areas near by.
Hatcher Pass, Alaska

Independence Gold Mine

While exploring Hatcher Pass, make sure to stop at Independence Gold Mine – great, well-restored state historical landmark. We visited it on the way to Summit Lake, at that time the rain was pouring so hard we thought an entire trip to Hatcher Pass is going to be ruined.

Independence Gold Mine, Hatcher Pass

Once a highly producing gold mine, Independence Mine was closed in 1951 and much later became a state historical park. Some buildings collapsed over time (at first sight seemed like they are burned), but many structures from 1930-40th still remain. The most interesting part is to get to know the process of mining and everyday life of the team. 206 workers, 16 families, and some kids called this high-elevated and remote place home. They had an exceptional manager, who cared well about the production process and well-being of his people.

Independence Mine 1938 cost of living

We did just a part of the hike along the stream (below), its steep for the little legs, but sweeping views of tundra and surrounding mountains are very worth to try.

Collapsed buildings at Independence Gold Mine State Historical Park

Destinations on a Map

Thanks for reading and happy traveling!


Categories: Alaska, USAFeatured