When people picture Alaska, they imagine the rocky outcroppings of Kenai Fjords National Park, the giant bears of Kodiak, or the plentiful halibut fishing out of Homer. Palmer, Alaska probably doesn’t show up on most people’s top ten lists. A small town with a population of roughly 6,000 people, Palmer sits in the Matanuska-Valley, surrounded by mountains, just a few minutes off the highway that runs from Anchorage to Fairbanks. Most people heading north bypass Palmer, traveling instead through Palmer’s much larger and better-known sister city, Wasilla, on their way to Talkeetna, Denali National Park, or Fairbanks. But skipping Palmer is a rookie mistake. By exiting right and continuing just a few minutes further down the Glenn Highway, you’re opening yourself up to a whole new and much less populated adventure — with the added benefit that it’s all just 45 minutes from Anchorage.
Palmer’s main street is centered around the historic railroad depot, and that’s where you’ll find everything you need to fuel up and explore the surrounding area. Unlike many cities in Alaska, Palmer encourages local businesses to flourish, which means there are tons of opportunities to shop locally. If you’re hungry, your first stop should be Turkey Red Cafe, which serves delicious Mediterranean food that uses locally-grown ingredients whenever possible.
Wildlife and culture
Next, make an appointment to head over to the Musk Ox Farm. What’s a musk ox, you might be wondering? It’s a large Arctic mammal, kind of like a smelly northern buffalo, that was nearly driven extinct by overhunting in the 19th century. They’ve since been reintroduced, and the Musk Ox Farm exists to educate visitors and farm the soft downy wool they produce. A visit to the Musk Ox Farm means an opportunity to interact with these ancient animals close up. It doesn’t hurt that baby Musk Oxen are extremely adorable.
If you’re looking for a boost before you begin your outdoor exertions, head over to Vagabond Blues Café, where you’ll discover the best latte in at least 50 miles. In addition to excellent coffee, they’ve also got wonderful gluten-free treats, usually a challenge to find in The Last Frontier. Vagabond also hosts local and national musicians to entertain visitors and they’ve got board games available if you want to hang out. Alternatively, you can pick up a book from a local author at Fireside Books and bring it over to peruse.
Now that you’re fed, caffeinated, and educated about the life cycle and mating habits of Musk Oxen, you’re in the perfect position to experience the great outdoors!
For people looking to hike, Palmer’s got a number of excellent options. The 900-foot-tall Bodenburg Butte (known to locals as just “The Butte”) offers great views of surrounding mountains and farmland, with a relatively easy 30-minute ascent to the top required. You choose either to scramble up the muddy, rock-strewn southern side or take the more relaxed, maintained northern trail up, depending on your mood and attire. At the top, you’ll find amazing 360-degree views, and occasionally even a yoga class in session.
If The Butte hasn’t thoroughly exhausted you, head up the Glenn Highway to the base of Hatcher Pass State Management Area. 60 miles long, located between the Talkeetna Mountains, it offers visitors the opportunity to explore the Valley’s natural environment, even in winter. Make sure you bring along skis or snowshoes! You can spend a few hours or even the night camping or in a locally-maintained hut (as long as it’s not already occupied when you get there).
A favorite trail of locals is Gold Mint Trail, which travels alongside the clear glacial waters of the Little Susitna River. The trail is stunning from the beginning, so even if you don’t feel up to all eight miles, it’s worth a visit.
If you’re looking for a guide to take you even deeper into the wild, there are a few excellent guide companies based out of Palmer. Alaska Backcountry runs snow machine tours (which start a little further out of town, in Eureka) through valleys and snow-covered mountains to allow visitors to get up close enough to touch — or even walk inside — some of the last glaciers left on earth.
Relax with a local brew
Stop by Arkose Brewery, the first local craft brewery in Palmer. They have brewery tours and lectures on the science of brewing. They also have nine craft beers on tap (Portland who?)!
One of the challenges and charms of Palmer is its complete lack of hotels. Make this work for you by staying in one of the many local B&Bs, like Hatcher Pass B&B, where you can stay in a log cabin of your very own.
There’s no need to drive for hours to experience the culture and beauty of Alaska. Whether you’re a first-time visitor to Alaska, or just never seem to get out of Anchorage, Palmer’s only a short drive away.