This is one of the most beautiful parts of the Mat-Su Valley region  and a wonderful side trip from either the Parks Highway north of Wasilla  or the Glenn Highway at Palmer . It’s a 49-mile drive, starting in Palmer and ending at Mile 71 on the Parks Highway (30 miles north of Wasilla).
Most folks get to Hatcher Pass from the Palmer end. Hatcher Pass Road (also called Fishhook-Willow Rd.) begins in rolling forest-and-farm country and then climbs along the beautiful Little Susitna River, which is popular with experienced kayakers who enjoy Class V white water.
After passing Motherlode Lodge, the road climbs steeply uphill to Independence Mine State Historical Park at Mile 17, where the pavement ends, before topping out at 3,886-foot Hatcher Pass and Summit Lake in an area of vast vistas, high tundra, excellent hiking, and backcountry camping. Then it’s downhill through pretty forests along Willow Creek all the way to the Parks Highway; this route was originally a wagon road built to serve the gold mines.
The road is paved from Palmer  all the way to Independence Mine, and for 10 miles from the Willow  side; the rest is gravel. A bike path follows the road along the Little Susitna River section, and campsites can be found at Deception Creek, two miles from the Parks Highway.
It’s hard to imagine a park that better combines the elements of the Alaska  experience: scenery, history and lore, and that noble yellow metal, gold. Independence Mine is very different from the panning, sluicing, deep-placer, and dredging operations seen in Interior Alaska .
This was “hard-rock” mining, with an intricate 21-mile network of tunnels under Granite Mountain. The miners drilled into the rock, inserted explosives (which they set off at the end of shifts to give the fumes time to dissipate before the next crew went in), then “mucked” the debris out by hand, to be sorted, crushed, amalgamated, and assayed.
Hard-rock or “lode” mining is often preceded by panning and placer mining. Prospectors who first took gold from Grubstake Gulch, a tributary of Willow Creek, in 1897 noticed the gold’s rough unweathered nature, which indicated a possible lode of unexposed gold nearby. In 1906, Robert Lee Hatcher staked the first lode claim, and his Alaska Free Gold Mine operated until 1924. In 1908 the Independence Mine opened on the mountain’s east slope, and over the next 25 years it produced several million dollars’ worth of gold.
In 1937 the two mines merged into the Alaska Pacific Consolidated Mining Company, which operated Independence Mine at peak production through 1942, when World War II shut it down. A series of private sales and public deals with the Alaska Division of Parks culminated in 1980, leaving the state with 271 acres, including the whole mining camp, and deeding 1,000 acres to the Coronado Mining Corporation, which has active operations in the area.
A couple of dozen camp buildings are in various stages of ruin and refurbishing. Start at the visitors center in the rehabilitated house of the camp manager. Take some time to enjoy the excellent displays: historic charts, an overview of gold mining, a “touch tunnel” complete with sound effects, and wage summaries for workers and management.
Guided tours ($5) are given daily at 1 and 3 p.m. by park personnel. At other times, just wander the site on your own; interpretive signs describe the various buildings. Independence Mine State Historical Park is a must-see on any Alaskan itinerary.
The visitors center (907/745-2827 summer only or 907/745-3975, www.alaskastateparks.org , parking $5) is open daily 11 a.m.–6 p.m. late May–early September, and closed the rest of the year.
A number of lodging options are scattered along the southern section of Hatcher Pass Road north of Palmer . Hatcher Pass B&B (907/745-6788, www.hatcherpassbb.com ) has delightful log cabins with kitchenettes and private baths. Small “sourdough” cabins cost $109 d, and large two-bedroom chalets sleep two for $149; add $15 per person for additional guests (up to 6). Cabins are fully stocked for make-it-yourself breakfasts.
Just downhill from Independence Mine is Hatcher Pass Lodge (907/745-5897, www.hatcherpasslodge.com , daily 11 a.m.–7:30 p.m. summer, Fri.–Sun. 11 a.m.–6:30 p.m. Oct.–May, dinner entrées $19–33). This A-frame lodge is a great spot for sandwiches, pizza, steaks, and halibut, with a sunset view to die for. Be sure to try the house specialty, fondue made with Swiss Gruyère and Emmentaler cheeses, Kirschwasser, and French bread.
Nine cozy cabins cost $100–165 d, and three tiny upstairs guest rooms are $95 d each; breakfast is available for guests. Also on the grounds is a creek-side sauna for guests. The lodge is open daily all year. Speaking from personal experience, this is the perfect place for a summer wedding.
The lodge also maintains 6 miles of groomed ski trails in the winter, and more adventurous backcountry skiers and snowboarders head up the steep (and avalanche-prone) slopes that rise on three sides. In winter the road isn’t plowed beyond Independence Mine State Park, but you can park here to play; it’s a special favorite of snowmobilers.