North to Denali
It’s a long 195-mile drive from Wasilla (237 miles from Anchorage) to Denali National Park on the Parks Highway. After the first few miles, the developments peter out and roadside attractions shift from fast food, gun shops, and video stores to the real Alaska of forests and mountains. The land is a seemingly endless birch and spruce forest, with a smattering of half-finished plywood homesteads covered in blue tarps, their yards piled high with firewood. The road follows a gradual climb toward the magnificent Alaska Range that seems to grow in magnitude the farther north you get. Mile after mile of pink fireweed flowers brighten the roadside in midsummer.
The Big Lake area (907/892-6109, www.biglakechamber.org) is a popular recreation destination, especially on summer weekends when many Anchorageites head to summer homes here. Access is via nine-mile-long Big Lake Road, which splits off the Parks Highway at Mile 52 (10 miles north of Wasilla).
Don’t expect quiet along this large and scenic lake. In summer, Big Lake is Jet Ski central 24 hours a day, and when winter arrives the snowmobile crowd comes out for more motorized mayhem. Big Lake was near the center of the 1996 Miller’s Reach Fire that blackened 37,500 acres and destroyed over 400 buildings.
Three state park campgrounds (www.lifetimeadventures.net, $15) are in the area: Rocky Lake State Recreation Site, Big Lake North State Recreation Site, and Big Lake South State Recreation Site. Big Lake Motel (907/892-7976) has rooms for $85 d.
Operated by four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser, Happy Trails Kennels (Mile 4.5, West Lakes Blvd., 907/892-7899, www.buserdog.com) has $35 kennel tours and demonstrations all summer.
This Podunk gathering of 900 or so souls 58 miles from Anchorage includes the usual lineup of suspects: gas, groceries, cafés, lodging, an RV park, a coin laundry, and air-taxi operators, but it is best known for its fireworks stands. Four of these giant eyesores—it’s especially hard to miss Gorilla Fireworks—sit on the edges of town, pulling families from Anchorage looking for fun on the 4th of July.
It is illegal to shoot off fireworks almost anywhere in Alaska. Of course, this is one of those legal niceties that is widely ignored. Little Susitna River Campground ($10) is an Alaska Department of Fish and Game facility on the south side of Houston.
Nancy Lake State Recreation Area
Access to Nancy Lake is from Mile 67 of the Parks Highway, just south of Willow and 25 miles north of Wasilla. This flat, heavily forested terrain is dotted with over 100 lakes, some interconnected by creeks. As you might imagine, the popular activities here are fishing, boating, and canoeing, plus a comfortable campground and a couple of hiking trails. As you might also suspect, the skeeters here are thick in early summer.
Follow Nancy Lake Road a little more than a mile to Nancy Lake State Recreation Site Campground (reservations at www.lifetimeadventures.net, $10). A half-mile past the kiosk is the trailhead to several public-use cabins (907/745-3975, www.alaskastateparks.org, $60). Reserve well ahead to be sure of getting one of these exceptionally popular cabins. Just under a mile beyond this trailhead is the Tulik Nature Trail, an easy walk that takes about an hour. Keep an eye out for loons, beavers, and terns, and watch for that prickly devil’s club.
The Tanaina Lake Canoe Route begins at Mile 4.5 on Nancy Lakes Road. This leisurely 12-mile two-day trip hits 14 lakes, between most of which are well-marked portages, some upgraded with boardwalks over the muskeg. Hunker down for the night at any one of 10 primitive campsites (campfires allowed in fireplaces only). Another possibility, though it requires a long portage, is to put in to the Little Susitna River at Mile 57 on the Parks Highway and portage to Skeetna Lake, where you connect to the southern leg of the loop trail. Tippecanoe (907/495-6688, www.paddlealaska.com), at South Rolly Campground, rents canoes for the Nancy Lake canoe trails.
At Mile 69 is Willow (pop. 400), a roadside town that you’ll miss if you sneeze. It has gas, groceries, hardware, a café, and air service. Back in 1980, Alaskans voted to move the state capital here. A multibillion-dollar city was planned, and real estate speculation went wild. When a second vote was held in 1982 to decide whether to actually spend the billions, however, the plan was soundly defeated.
Willow’s big event comes in early March, as the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race slides through town. The race officially begins in Anchorage, but after a 25-mile run to Eagle River, the dogs are trucked north for the “restart” at Willow Lake. Just west of here the teams move completely away from the road system and are in wilderness all the way to Nome.
Stay at Pioneer Lodge & RV Park (907/495-1000), right on the creek with rustic motel units ($60 d), newer cabins ($125 d) with kitchenettes, camping (RVs $25, tents $12), plus a bar, a liquor store, and a full-service restaurant with good homemade pizzas, burgers, and smoked prime rib. Boaters launch here for trips down Willow Creek to the mouth of the Big Susitna River.
Willow Creek Resort (907/495-6343) has spaces for RVs ($30) and tents ($20) on the opposite bank, plus raft rentals and guided fishing.
Operated by Iditarod veteran Vern Halter, Dream a Dream Dog Farm (907/495-1197 or 866/425-6874, www.vernhalter.com) has summertime kennel tours and demonstrations in Willow.
Both Willow Air Service (907/495-6370 or 800/478-6370, www.willowair.com) and Denali Flying Service (907/495-5899) offer scenic flights over Knik Glacier, Hatcher Pass, and Mt. McKinley in Denali from Willow.
© Don Pitcher from Moon Alaska, 10th Edition