Travelers find Alaskan treasure in many forms, whether it’s fantastic fishing and mountain views, an accessible glacier, or even a musk ox farm.
By Judith Karst
The 328-mile Glenn Highway through southeast Alaska yields gold. Well, not nuggets, perhaps, but gold in the form of mountains and fertile valleys; glaciers and lakes and streams; farms and museums; and sled dogs, musk ox, and bears.
The Glenn Highway begins at the town of Tok (pronounced “toke”) and is also known as Alaska Route 1. Tok is the first town travelers on the Alaska Highway reach after they cross the border from Canada.
The Glenn Highway has two sections: a 139-mile portion from Tok to Glennallen known as the Tok Cutoff, and a 189-mile section from Glennallen to Anchorage. Between Glennallen and Anchorage, the Glenn Highway parallels the path carved out by the Matanuska Glacier between two rugged mountain ranges, the Talkeetna and Chugach.
Tok is a rugged Alaskan town that was built in 1942 as a construction camp for workers on the Alcan Highway. Tok presents a great opportunity to stock up on supplies and to gather Alaska travel information. For the latter, visit the Tok Mainstreet Visitor Center, a 17,000-square-foot log lodge built in 1992 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the construction of the Alaska Highway. Tok residents claim it is the largest natural log building in the state.
Locals also claim that Tok is the sled dog capital of Alaska, although several other Alaska towns make the same boast. Sled dog racing truly is the state sport. You can see sled dog demonstrations even in the summer at the Burnt Paw Gift Shop and Mukluk Land, both in Tok. Tok has approximately 1,400 residents and perhaps as many, or more, dogs.
Other area sights include domestic flower gardens and vegetable beds bursting with huge specimens; log homes with roofs made of sod and wildflowers; and old fish wheels and historic mining equipment. You can pan for gold at Mukluk Land, where, for a small price, you’re guaranteed to find a nugget. Gold pans are not expensive, and if you buy one of your own, you can take it home as a souvenir.
The Glenn Highway is paved all the way to Anchorage. Some portions of the road between Tok and Glennallen are narrow and winding and do not have shoulders, so caution should be used. Allow plenty of time for your journey, and be sure you drive with your headlights on at all times.
Watch for wild animals, too, as you travel. As in much of Alaska, they may appear on any part of the highway at the most unexpected moments. The Glenn Highway cuts through the habitat of moose, caribou, wolves, and black and grizzly bears, among other critters. Few wolves are ever seen, but their long howls often break the quiet of many Alaskan nights.
As you continue south of Tok on the Glenn Highway, you’ll cross the Tok River and enter the Mineral Lakes region. Anglers in your company will want to stop along the Tok or the Little Tok rivers in this region to wet a line. A variety of fish, including northern pike, Arctic grayling, salmon, and trout are known to inhabit the waters. Good fishing continues practically all the way along the Glenn Highway.
Non-resident fishing licenses are required and are available from vendors throughout the state. They’re sold in one-day, three-day, seven-day, 14-day, and annual increments. Fees range from $10 for a one-day license to $100 for an annual license. If you plan to fish for king salmon, a separate stamp must be purchased; stamps cost the same as licenses. An office of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is located at Mile 186.3 on the Glenn Highway in Glennallen; phone (907) 822-3309 for more information.
The Glenn Highway briefly joins the Richardson Highway at Gakona Junction. Continue south to Glennallen. When you reach this little town, population 554, you can stock up on rations if necessary, or stop by the Copper River Valley Visitor Information Center.
Glennallen’s unusual name is a combination of the last names of Major Edwin Glenn and Lieutenant Henry Allen, leaders in early exploration of this region. It’s one of the few communities in the area that was not built on the site of a native village. The town is a departure point for Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, the largest of all parks in the United States National Parks system. This is a vast wilderness of glaciers, mountains, and wild animals that has no maintained trails or roads, and no campgrounds. Access is available only by unpaved road, boat, or aircraft. Outfitters in the Glennallen area provide visitor services such as hunting guides, air taxi, and horse packing trips, and private campgrounds edge roads near the park.
For a true up-close glacier experience, much more personal than any you can get on a cruise, continue traveling west on the Glenn Highway to the Matanuska Glacier. This glacier is one of the most accessible in Alaska. The glacier descends from 13,176-foot Mount Marcus Baker and stretches for 27 miles.
At Glacier Park, you can pay a small fee and walk right up onto the glacier. It is a rugged trek — actually, you climb up and down ice. Be sure to wear sturdy shoes and long pants. Caution is important here. You may opt for a guided tour at the park instead. Some people pack a picnic lunch to eat on the glacier, but most are lucky to just get themselves out on the ice. Don’t forget a camera! Phone (888) 253-4480 for more information.
Nearby Long Rifle Lodge offers hearty dining with a great view of the glacier. It is a casual place, with a rugged atmosphere that includes mounted specimens of bears and other local wildlife.
Camping is available at Glacier Park as well as at Matanuska Glacier State Recreation Site, approximately 1 mile farther down the road. The recreation site also has a scenic viewpoint with spotting scopes that afford excellent views of the glacier.
Plenty of private campgrounds are open on and along the Glenn Highway. Complete information is available at the Tok, Palmer, and Anchorage visitors centers or in advance using the Web sites and addresses at the end of this article. Facilities offer a range of services with many full hookups and pull-through sites.
The Glenn Highway parallels the Matanuska River as it continues west; the river forms the famed Matanuska Valley.
Wolf Country USA (Mile 52 on the Glenn Highway) offers camping with electric hookups. Campers can tour the farm there, home to wolf hybrids.
Yet even more creatures are located at the Musk Ox Farm (Mile 50), which is home to a large herd of musk ox. These rare animals can be traced back to the Ice Age, when they lived among saber-toothed tigers and other animals that are now extinct.
Musk ox weigh as much as 1,000 pounds. Each spring, their fine under-wool, called qiviut (pronounced “kiv-ee-ute”), is removed and spun into yarn. The fiber is then shipped out to remote villages where Alaskan women use it to knit garments. Qiviut is the world’s most expensive wool, and garments cost from $150 to $600 and up. Each Alaskan village uses a distinctive pattern in its products. Musk ox hats and scarves are sold at the Musk Ox Farm and in other locations in the state. Admission is charged to visit the farm. Phone (907) 745-4151 or visit www.muskoxfarm.org for more information.
If you want to know more about the history of gold in Alaska, head for Independence Mine and State Historical Park, located off the Glenn Highway via Hatcher Pass Road. The turnoff is located at Mile 49.5.
The lure of gold is still alive at this 271-acre state park, which will reopen this summer after being closed last year because of road construction. (Construction is scheduled for Hatcher Pass Road this summer, too.) Independence Mine is a ghost town of sorts, with abandoned buildings and mining machinery. The site was once home to two successful mines: Alaska Free Gold Mine on Skyscraper Mountain, and Independence Mine on Granite Mountain. In the 1930s the two became the giant Alaska-Pacific Consolidated Mining Company (APC). Be aware that this is a gravel road in good condition, but it can be slow going for your motor coach.
Palmer, your next stop, is in the famed Mat-Su Valley, where vegetables are grown to gargantuan size. You can buy cabbage, lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes, and other goods from produce stands and save money, for food is generally very expensive in Alaska. The farming here got under way in earnest during the 1930s when many farmers were offered free land in a program called the Matanuska Valley Colony Project. Descendents of those homesteaders still live here on farms that look much like those found in the Midwest.
The biggest of the biggest vegetables are displayed at the Alaska State Fair, held each August in Palmer. In the year 2000, the record cabbage weighed 105.6 pounds. The state fair is the largest event in Alaska; attendance in 2001 was more than 300,000. It features animal displays and competitions, carnival rides, entertainment, food, and more — all with an Alaska twist. How about a reindeer sausage sandwich for lunch, or souvenirs such as gold nuggets and musk-ox wool scarves and hats? The 2002 fair will be held August 22 to September 2; the Labor Day weekend is expected to be the most crowded. Other events take place at the fairgrounds throughout the year.
The fairgrounds does not have a campground per se, but RV caravans are sometimes accommodated. Electrical hookups are available, but no water or dump station is offered. Overnight parking is permitted in the fairgrounds parking lot for a small fee during the state fair, but no hookups are available during that time. For more information, contact the fair at 2075 Glenn Highway, Palmer, AK 99645; (800) 850-3247, (907) 745-4827, www.alaskastatefair.org.
Palmer is home to 4,300 people. It is the center of commerce in the Mat-Su Valley, and a good place to get oriented and stock up on more travel information. The Palmer Visitor’s Center is a log building brimming with local photos and information, brochures, and souvenirs. Next door is the Matanuska Valley Agricultural Showcase, where gardens offer proof of what happens when flowers and vegetables get so much sunlight each summer.
A reindeer farm is located 7 miles south of Palmer off the Old Glenn Highway. This farm is home to adult and baby reindeer that visitors are encouraged to pet and feed. Some of the creatures are so tame that they have appeared in movies and commercials. Other animals at the farm include a moose, a black-tailed deer, and an elk. Phone (907) 745-4000 for more information.
Jog slightly off course, if you wish, to visit Wasilla, a town west of Palmer. It is accessible by turning east on Alaska Route 3 from the Glenn Highway, or via a 10-mile connector road called the Palmer-Wasilla Highway. The Dorothy G. Page Museum and Old Wasilla Town Site Historical Park, situated behind the museum, both highlight area history. You might want to try a dogsled ride at the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Headquarters, where administrative offices for the 1,000-mile race and a small museum are located. The Knik Museum and Dog Mushers Hall of Fame is also in Wasilla.
After your detour to Wasilla, continue westward on the Glenn Highway toward Anchorage. Be sure to stop at Mile 26 to see a fine example of native traditions at Eklutna Historical Park. Eklutna is a small Indian village that dates to 1650 and is the oldest continually inhabited Athabascan Indian site in the region. The historical park encompasses the Eklutna Village Heritage House, which offers examples of native art, historical displays, and a gift shop. St. Nicholas Church, the oldest standing building in the greater Anchorage area, was first built on this site in the 1830s and reconstructed in the 1970s. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and features original Russian icons. Also on the grounds is a recently built log chapel and a cemetery with colorful “spirit houses,” little structures built atop the graves. This custom comes from a combination of Athabascan and Russian Orthodox traditions.
Nearby is Chugach State Park, a half-million-acre preserve that is the third-largest state park in the United States. It extends north and south of Anchorage and is accessible in the north from the Glenn Highway. Seasonal and day permits are available to visitors. Two Chugach State Park campgrounds are located in the Glenn Highway area: Eklutna Lake Campground (at Mile 26), with 50 sites, and Eagle River (at mile 12), with 57 sites. Eagle River, operated as a concession, is the only state park campground that takes reservations for up to half of its sites as far as one year in advance. Phone (907) 694-7982.
Eklutna Lake is the largest lake in Chugach State Park — 7 miles long and 1 mile wide. Fishing poles and boats can be put to good use here. Aside from fish, you can help yourself to another form of free food: berries. The list of different varieties includes high-bush and low-bush cranberries, currants, raspberries, watermelon berries, blueberries, bearberries, and crowberries. But watch out. Bears are fond of berries, too!
You can even pan for gold in some parts of the park. But don’t be too disappointed if your search for nuggets comes up empty. Plenty of gold may be found all along the Glenn Highway, and you don’t have to search for it. It is waiting for you.
Many private campgrounds can be found on and along the Glenn Highway; check your campground directory or FMC’s “Business Service Directory” for listings. Local campgrounds are sometimes listed at individual Web sites or in brochures from the visitors centers below.
Anchorage Convention & Visitors Bureau
524 W. Fourth Ave.
Anchorage, AK 99501-2212
Greater Copper Valley Chamber of Commerce
P.O. Box 469
Glennallen, AK 99588
Greater Palmer Chamber of Commerce
P.O. Box 45
Palmer, AK 99645
Tok Chamber of Commerce
P.O. Box 389
Tok, AK 99780
Greater Wasilla Chamber of Commerce
415 E. Railroad Ave.
Wasilla, AK 99654
Fax: (907) 373-2560
The Milepost Editor Discusses Alaska Roads
Are all roads in Alaska paved? Can motorhomers expect to travel on them without damaging their vehicles? We decided to ask Kris Graef, the editor of The Milepost these questions and more.
The Milepost is the definitive travel publication for travelers in northwestern North America, and has been so since 1949. The guide is updated each year as a team of reporters travels the roads in Alaska, Alberta, British Columbia, Yukon Territory, and the Northwest Territories. The book includes maps; lists attractions, services, and campgrounds; and provides important travel advice.
We asked Ms. Graef, who lives in Anchorage, about the roads in her home state.
Are all Alaska roads paved?
Almost all of Alaska’s major roads are paved. Even the Alaska Highway is paved. The few scenic highways that are still considered gravel roads — such as the Denali, Elliott, Steese, and Taylor highways — have sections of pavement. If RVers want to avoid gravel roads, they can stick to the main routes and still see almost all of Alaska without worrying about driving their motorhomes over rough road.
The Dalton Highway is probably the most challenging road. It’s just more than 400 miles in length and almost entirely gravel. If you drive up it, you have to drive back, which means 800 miles of gravel. It has a few improved sections. It also has some rough road (potholes, washboard) and can be real dusty in dry weather and muddy in wet weather. But I’ve seen people drive up the Dalton in 30-foot motorhomes.
Are mud and dust a frequent problem?
Not really. Gravel roads can deteriorate rather quickly in heavy rain, developing some memorable potholes. But generally, the roadbeds on gravel highways are pretty solid, and if the Department of Transportation road crews get out there, they can fix the holes in a hurry. You may end up with some mud on your vehicle if you’re traveling a gravel road in the rain, but those images of vehicles stuck in mud up to their hubcaps are from the past.
Driving gravel roads in dry weather means you have to contend with the dust kicked up by passing trucks and other vehicles.
What about frost heaves on paved roads?
The Alaska Department of Transportation has done a lot of work in the past few years on frost heave problem areas along the highways. New techniques have been used in road reconstruction that have helped minimize this problem in the few areas where it did exist.
Would you recommend towing a car behind a motorhome when traveling to Alaska?
I wouldn’t recommend towing on the Dalton Highway, but I have certainly seen people doing so on the paved highways.
Overall, is Alaska travel okay for motorhomes?
Motorhome travel is common in Alaska. Hey, lots of Alaskans own and drive motorhomes, too! Driving the main paved highways in Alaska is no different from driving a paved highway in the Lower 48. For the more remote gravel routes, we always suggest to visiting RVers that they read the highway descriptions given in The Milepost and make their own decision. I’ve met many people in my travels around Alaska who have driven their motorhomes to places someone else might hesitate to take their car.
The 2002 version of The Milepost is available for $24.95 ($39.95 Canadian) in bookstores or by calling (800) 726-4707; or by visiting www.themilepost.com.