Guest Author - Deb Frost
The “Mat-Su”, as this large, activity-filled valley in south central Alaska is called by locals, is a thriving residential, business and agricultural community only an hour’s drive from Anchorage. The valley holds some of Alaska’s most spectacular scenery, exciting summer and winter activities and historic sites of interest to visitors and residents alike.
Surrounded by no less than three towering mountain ranges; the Alaska Range, the Talkeetna Mountains and the Chugach Mountains, the Mat-Su valley was given this name because it contains the entirety of the Matanuska and Susitna rivers, from river heads spouting from their mother glaciers all the way to the mouths of the rivers where they flow into Cook Inlet and the Pacific Ocean. From start to finish, these spectacular rivers are entirely within the bounds of the Mat-Su Valley.
The Mat-Su has the fastest growing population of any geographic area in the entire state. In spite of this, visitors can still experience a very real “back to nature” atmosphere once they are off of the main highway. Like so much of Alaska, it’s a BIG valley.
The verdant green valley floor is criss-crossed by rivers and streams of all sizes. Fast flowing glacial rivers from both the Knik and Matanuska glaciers carry massive loads of glacial silt down river each spring; ice cracking and booming as the rivers break free, sending muddy flood waters to temporarily widen and alter river beds across the valley. The rich silt contributes to the fertility of the valley where wild flowers and wild life abound each summer.
Once the spring “break-up” is over and the brown, roiling rivers settle back into their banks, visitors can recognize true glacial rivers by their unique milky, opaque greenish-white water color and boulder strewn river bottoms. The color is reminiscent of opals or perhaps a pale shade of jade. It’s difficult to describe but easy to recognize when you see it.
Follow the wide, meandering Matanuska River up into the mountains above Palmer by car and you will find the largest single glacier actually accessible by land vehicle. The Matanuska Glacier is 27 miles long and 1300 feet high, with the main entrance at Glacier Park at Mile 102 of the Glenn Highway. Here you can camp or park within view of the glacier and then hike or drive to the very edge of the ice. The park offers a choice of short, medium or day-long guided hikes right up onto the glacier – or the more challenging experience of a full day of ice climbing!
If hiking is not your cup of tea, go the opposite direction and take a quiet, peaceful float trip down a lovely, scenic stretch of the Matanuska River, surrounded on both sides by lovely forests and towering mountains. Bald eagles, moose and other wildlife are not uncommon sights along the rivers edge. Looking for a little more excitement? There are various levels of white-water rafting adventures available as well. The Matanuska is a long, winding river with many faces, not all of them gentle.
Take a slightly different route out of Palmer and you will find Knik Glacier not far off, peeking out from the edge of the massive ice fields on the back side of the Chugach mountain range. This slightly more off the road glacier can be accessed only by jet-boat or by guided ATV tours that go splashing through the braided shallows of the Knik River and offer a picnic lunch at the base of the glacier.
Want to experience the wonder of it all in one day without all the driving or hiking? A flight-seeing trip by float plane is the perfect way to visit all of the Mat-Su Valley’s glaciers, rivers and mountains. Some tours will actually land you on top of a glacier for an exciting, awe-inspiring photo op.
There are also a large number of carefully monitored, active salmon and trout rivers, streams and lakes throughout the Mat-Su valley, offering excellent fishing opportunities in season. Between sight-seeing, hiking, fishing, kayaking and river rafting, the rivers and glaciers of the Mat-Su are a draw for tourists and locals alike.