The Hatcher Pass Road
Published 10:37 am Monday, January 23, 2017
by James D. Howell
We finish breakfast, grab the maps, load the car and head out. We turn north on the Glenn Highway. It’s the main route north and east from Anchorage. The road is a multilane, controlled-access highway, used daily by thousands of locals, military and tourists alike. I’ve been told in idle conversation that this pavement is carefully monitored and I should not speed. I pay attention.
There are several major intersections; it’s obvious that this pavement bisects the larger part of the valley floor between a mountain range to the south and the outflow of the Knik glacial waters on the north.
Some valleys between small hills to the south are popular housing areas for those that wish a more primitive experience. Most access roads are attached somehow to the Glenn Highway.
The side road marker reads “Mirror Lake”; I slow and turn right twice onto the narrow, paved access to a small park and, further along, a small parking lot with lake views and access. It’s a splendid, quiet, early morning view of imagined paradise. There, nestled on the far shore are lake houses, many with floatplanes tied up to a dock. We spend a few moments taking in the heady atmosphere of utopia.
The mountain road to Hatcher Pass calls and we continue on the road north. A couple of miles later, a signpost marks the Eklutna native village and cemetery. I make a mental note to put it on the “possible” list.
We pass the turnoff to the old Glenn highway; we will come back to Anchorage via that road from Palmer. The road crosses the wide tidal flats and the Knik River. On either side, the semi-forested flatlands are moose and other wildlife heaven. We give it our best hopeful scan, but see no massive beasts today.
The road splits: to the left is Wasilla and the Susitna River Valley, to the right is Palmer and the Matanuska River Valley. We turn right and stop at a Fred Meyer grocery store at the corner of the Palmer – Wasilla road.
These stores are part of the Alaska experience. It’s the place for a quick cup of coffee or a month’s worth of groceries and other supplies. We stop for a cup and snacks for the road ahead.
We also stop at a pullout for an overlook for the huge Matanuska river, mostly slow flowing this time of the year. With spring snowmelt, the waters are deep and tumultuous. The overlook is almost directly across from the Fishhook turnoff, our pathway to Hatcher Pass. We make it a quick look see and head toward the mountains.
The road passes obvious small acreage home sites and starts a slow climb through heavy woods. Fireweed becomes more prevalent along the woods edge. We stop at a turn in the road where countless others have stopped before. The Little Susitna River makes its final turn out of the mountains here. The icy waters have moved boulders from mountainsides to this last resting place. Water flow in the summer is greater in the afternoon. It takes some time for the water to get here from far up its valley.
We return to the car and move along a recently paved road. My last visit here was on crushed rock.
Camping and picnic areas have been graded for better car access. The road makes its first switchback close by a gold mining tourist attraction offering fun sport and (maybe) native gold, panned from this river.
Overlooks from the road have been paved in some spots also. We pause at several, get out and enjoy looking across a wide valley toward Palmer. It’s a beautiful day; some fall color is already in the bracken.
We jog left at Hatcher Pass Lodge and our tires crunch on the crushed rock of Hatcher Pass road. The pass is a link between the Susitna valley on the far side and the Matanuska Valley behind us. Miners moved supplies over this road both directions in the more robust days of hard rock mines. A few active mines still dot the landscape, but the thrill is gone for most.
Independence Gold Mine State park is past the lodge in another direction. We’ll make it there another day.
For now, the road steepens, and what little traffic there is slows. We reach the top, cross over to the other side and stop at Summit Lake, a well marked stopping, outdoor hiking, hang gliding and picnicking spot. Several cars and recreation vehicles are stopped as well.
A few patches of fireweed still cling to their blossoms this late in the season. We walk around, breathe the clean air of altitude, and, a little reluctantly, head back to the valley floor. Old Glenn Highway is waiting for our return trip.
JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.