Saturday, May 23, 2009

Change of Plans

We woke up this morning with a plan. Today we were driving up into the Matsu Valley past Wasilla and Palmer, through Hatcher Pass stopping at Independence Mine, and heading over to Talkeetna (#'s 64-66). We were going to leave early...around 8 am and have a nice relaxing day, taking our time along the back road.

Things started going badly before we even left. The weather forecast declared that it would start raining around noon. And with us being a two hour drive away that gave us only a two hour window of nice weather for the day. But, we stayed positive and headed off only a few minutes behind schedule.

The scenery as you approach Hatcher Pass is gorgeous. The road runs along Little Susitna River, which you can see above. The drive starts to turn upwards as you head closer to the pass and there are some spectacular views of the valley below opening up into the Matsu Valley with another range of mountains in the distance.
We continued to climb and were approaching the entrance to the pass and the Independence Mine area when we encountered our next problem...the pass doesn't open until June 20th. So, after the two hour drive up there we had to head back. However, just down the road from the turn off for the pass is the Musk Ox Farm (new item #88), so we decided to make a side trip there.
If you remember from a previous post, this is the animal that produces qiviut that is sold at the Oomingmak Musk Ox Producers Co-op in Anchorage that we had already visited. There are only 54 animals in the herd to produce this material, which is why it is so rare and expensive. The animals were interesting looking to say the least, but they seemed to like the attention.
After that we had a decision to make. It was already 11 and it was supposed to start raining around noon. Should we drive around the non-scenic route to Talkeetna or should we do some things around Anchorage for the rest of the day. We decided to head Northwest from Wasilla up Parks Highway to Talkeetna.

The drive is pretty boring once you get outside of Wasilla. It was still pretty, just nothing compared with the other drives we had done in Alaska. After another couple of hours we stopped to have lunch at Sheep Creek Lodge, and got to sit outside as the weather was still nice. The food was prety good and the location was nice, just south of the turn off for Talkeetna.
We left and continued along to Talkeetna (#66), which with under 900 residents was smaller than we expected. It was a quaint little town that seemed mostly like a tourist destination. If you walk down one of the gravel roads from downtown there is access to the shore of the Susitna River, and from there we got our first glimpses of Denali. At 20,32o feet it is the tallest mountain in North America. And it is the highest mountain rising from it's own base in the world (beating even Mt. Everest). It is the large one in the distance right behind our heads.
We then headed back from Talkeetna, as there was not much to do in the town itself. We passed Fish Lake on the way back to the Parks Highway and got a great view of a floater plane in the mountain lake.
When we reached the junction to the highway we had yet another decision to make. Turn back towards Anchorage as it was already around 3 or continue on the additional hundred miles or so to Denali State Park (#41). Since we had already come all this way and the weather was still nice we decided to continue on....
Although the state park does not actual contain the mountain (the national park does), it has some of the best views of Denali and travels right along the Parks Highway. However, it is not an exceptional hiking park (as far as I could find just a few trails with none of them shorter than 9 or so miles).
The mountain was actually out today (although wrapped in some clouds), which from talking to other visitors and park employees/volunteers is quite unusual. This was apparently the best day to view the mountain all month. And in some years, such as last summer which was very rainy, Denali never comes out. Locals say that 85% of visitors to the area never actually see the mountain that they traveled all the way to see.
The park also contains an Alaska Veterans Memorial, which we thought was as appropriate stop on Memorial weekend.

In the end, it was good the pass was closed. It made for a boring morning, but we got to actually see Denali in the afternoon. And we timed it perfectly. As we turned around to head South the rain was just starting to roll into the area, and we even dodged it the entire drive home.

Well this was a long post and a long day, and just imagine...there are still two more days in this holiday weekend. So expect a couple more posts.


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