Visiting the town of Wasilla, Alaska

Map of Anchorage and Vicinity, Alaska

Anchorage and Vicinity

In 2008 the town of Wasilla vaulted into the big time as the home of Alaska’s then-governor (and vice presidential candidate), Sarah Palin. Her meteoric rise to fame and infamy simultaneously brought international attention to Wasilla. Although widely regarded as the hands-down ugliest town in Alaska, Wasilla does have some redeeming qualities, most notably the gorgeous mountains at nearby Hatcher Pass. You may not be able to see Russia from here, but you can see Alaska from Wasilla.

In 1977, Wasilla consisted of a landing strip and a grocery store that advertised the convenience of flying in from the bush, buying Matanuska Valley produce, and flying out again—without the hassles of Anchorage. Then, when the capital looked like it might be moved to Willow, 25 miles up the highway, Anchorageites began to discover Wasilla’s quiet, beauty, and affordable land, and contractors took advantage of the town’s lax restrictions on development. And develop it did, with a vengeance. During 1980–1982, the town’s population of 1,200 doubled, then doubled again in 1982–1984. Stores, malls, and fast-food chains popped up faster than you could say “We do chicken right.” Teeland’s General Store was jacked up, moved from the corner it had sat on for over 60 years, and unceremoniously dumped in a parking lot around the block to make way for a 7-Eleven. The original airstrip, which had kept Wasilla on the map for so long, was moved out from the middle of all the hustle and bustle of town.

The unbridled growth continues today, as relatively low real estate prices and good roads make the area a favorite of Anchorage commuters wanting a piece of the suburban lifestyle. In the 1990s, Wasilla’s Wal-Mart proved so popular that after just a few years Wal-Mart built a new and much larger version across the highway. It’s been followed by Target and Walgreens stores, plus dozens of strip-type buildings crowding the highway. Driving south into and through Wasilla on the Parks Highway is like passing through a space warp and reemerging in any Southern California suburb. It’s the kind of place where locals give directions in relation to the nearest big-box store: “It’s up the road a half-mile beyond Wal-Mart.”

Historical Sights in Wasilla

Make sure to visit Dorothy Page Museum and Historical Park (907/373-9071, Mon.–Sat. 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Apr.–Sept., Wed.–Sat. 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Oct.– Mar., $3 adults, children under 13 free) on Main Street just off the Parks Highway. The museum houses historical photos, artifacts from early settlers and the Iditarod, plus interesting downstairs exhibits of the mining era, including a diorama of Independence Mine. The adjacent old town-site park contains a schoolhouse, a bunkhouse, a smokehouse, a steam bath, a blacksmith shop, and a cache. Just up the street is Teeland’s Store (1917), one of the oldest buildings in Alaska. Today the beautifully restored structure houses a sandwich shop.

About four miles north of town at Mile 47, take a left at the sign and head 0.75 miles down to the Museum of Alaska Transportation and Industry (907/376-1211, daily 10 a.m.–5 p.m. May–Sept., closed Oct.–Apr., $8 adults, $5 seniors and youths, children under 3 free, $18 families). This museum houses an extensive collection of antiques relating to Alaskan aviation, railroading, fishing, mining, and road transportation. Take a gander at the “Chitina auto railer,” an old car built to run on rail tracks. Outside are wooden boats, farm machinery (much of it still running), ancient snowmobiles, and several rail cars.

Just beyond the museum is Alaska Live Steamers (907/373-6412, $4), a scale-model railroad that takes families through the forest, over bridges, and through tunnels on summer weekends. It’s a good place to meet people living out their model railroad dreams from childhood. Trains run on weekends 10 a.m.–4 p.m. June–mid- September.

Knik Museum (907/376-7755, Thurs.– Sun. 1–6 p.m. June–Aug., $2) is 14 miles from Wasilla out on Knik Road. Housed in a century- old building, it exhibits items from the Knik gold rush of 1897–1917 and the Iditarod Trail.

Other Nearby Sights

Wasilla is the headquarters for the 1,049-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race from Anchorage to Nome. The headquarters (907/376-5155 or 800/545-6874, daily 8 a.m.–7 p.m. mid-May–mid-Sept., Mon.–Fri. 8 a.m.–5 p.m. mid-Sept.–mid-May) includes a log museum containing race memorabilia, Native Alaskan artifacts, videos, and dogmushing equipment. Also here is Togo, the stuffed sled dog who led Leonhard Seppala’s team during the 1925 serum delivery to Nome. Find Togo and friends two miles out on Knik Road. Admission is free, though a fee is charged to go for a ride on a wheeled dogsled.

Lakeshore Park at Wasilla Lake right off the highway has swimming (not too cold), picnic tables, and a view of the craggy Chugach Mountains—a great place to set up your tripod. A less crowded day-use lake area is at Kepler-Bradley Lakes just beyond the junction of the Parks and Glenn Highways, on the Glenn Highway toward Palmer.

Accommodations

Several motels are strung along the Parks Highway. On the south end of Wasilla is Trout’s Place Hotel (907/376-4209, $70 d) with 10 budget guest rooms.

Alaskan View Motel (2650 E. Parks Hwy., 907/376-6787, $105–125 d) is a modern two-story log building across from Nye Ford. It’s convenient for shopping and dining, and windows frame the Chugach Range.

Alaska’s Select Inn (3451 Palmdale Dr., 907/357-4768 or 888/357-4768) is a newly built place with spacious guest rooms ($116 d) and suites ($137 d), all with full kitchens and Wi-Fi.

Best Western Lake Lucille Inn (1300 W. Lake Lucille Dr., 907/373-1776 or 800/897- 1776, $169–199 d) has 54 roomy guest rooms ($169– 199 d) and suites ($279–299 d), many with private balconies overlooking the lake. Guests will also appreciate the fitness center, sauna, hot tub, business center, Wi-Fi, and continental breakfasts.

Agate Inn (907/373-2290 or 800/770-2290), three miles from Wasilla on the Palmer-Wasilla Highway, has a variety of lodging options scattered over four buildings: motel-type rooms with king beds ($135–155 d), apartment suites with kitchens ($195–275), and two guest houses ($225–375 for up to 6 people). A continental breakfast is provided. The six pet reindeer on the grounds are a favorite of guests.

Mat-Su Lodge (1850 Bogard Rd., 907/376-3228) charges $104 d for standard guest rooms or cabins. The resort sits on the quiet north side of Lake Wasilla and has paddleboats for rent.

Lake Lucille B&B<= (907/357-0353 or 888/353-0352) is a gracious home right on the shore of Lake Lucille, just a short distance from Wasilla. The four guest rooms (with shared baths) are a reasonable $79–89 d; a family suite is $99. A light breakfast starts each day.

For something more uniquely Alaskan, stay at Pioneer Ridge B&B (1830 E. Parks Hwy., 907/376-7472 or 800/478-7472, $99–159 d). This distinctive former barn sits on a hill in the country south of Wasilla. Six guest rooms with shared or private baths are available. A buffet breakfast is served in the common room, where you can also play a game of pool, watch a video, listen to the player piano, surf the Web, or simply relax. On top of the house is a unique glass-enclosed room with a fireplace and 360-degree views.

Visit the Mat-Su Bed & Breakfast Association’s website for links to local B&Bs, including a daily vacancy listing in the summer.

Camping

The city-run Lake Lucille Park (907/373- 9014, $10, no RV hookups) is an 80-acre natural area with trails and campsites two miles south of Wasilla off Knik–Goose Bay Road. There’s another public campground (907/746-4644 or 800/952-8624, $15) at Finger Lake State Recreation Site, six miles east of Wasilla on Bogard Road.

Big Bear RV Park (2010 S. Church St., 907/745-7445) has RV and tent sites, but many RVers park for free in local shopping mall lots.

Food

Perhaps because of all the early-morning commuters to Anchorage, Wasilla seems to have an espresso stand on almost every corner—along with an equal number of gun shops. It sounds like a dangerous combination, especially with all those folks listening to Rush Limbaugh each morning.

Windbreak Café (907/376-4484, daily 6 a.m.–11 p.m.) is a good choice for home-cooked meals, prime rib, and seafood. Breakfast is served all day.

International tastes include Chepo’s Fiesta (731 W. Parks Hwy., 907/373-5656) for Mexican food in a fun setting, Mekong Thai Cuisine (473 W. Parks Hwy., 907/373-7690), and Bombay Valley Indian Food (991 S. Hermon Rd., 907/376-9565).

Near Lowe’s, Pandemonium Booksellers & Café (907/376-3939) is a fine bookstore with espresso, live tunes on Saturday evenings, and free Wi-Fi.

Mat-Su Lodge (1850 Bogard Rd., 907/376- 3228, daily 3–10 p.m., $18–30) has a lakeside dining room specializing in angus steaks. The lounge has live bands Monday–Saturday nights.

Across from the museum in “old town” Wasilla, The Grape Tap (322 N. Boundary St., 907/376-8466, Tues.–Sat. 5–10 p.m., closed Sun.–Mon. tapas $12–15) is the town’s fine-dining establishment, with a pleasant downstairs wine lounge and an upstairs menu featuring small tapas-style dishes of seared ahi, saffron chicken skewers, tenderloin, blue crab, and cheeses. Everything is homemade at this slow-food eatery. Sunday brunch includes apple pancakes and eggs Florentine.

Located near Settlers Bay Golf Course eight miles out Knik-Goose Bay Road, Settlers Bay Lodge (907/357-5678, daily 5–10 p.m., entrées $22–26) is a destination spot for locals who appreciate the towering windows, deck-with-a-vista dining, and menu of steaks, seafood, and pasta along with daily specials.

Wasilla’s Farmers Market (907/376-5679, Wed. 11 a.m.–6 p.m. June–mid-Sept.) takes place at the old Wasilla town site.

Services

Adjacent to the museum, the Wasilla Public Library (391 N. Main St., 907/376-5913) is a good place to stop and check your email or play on the Web. If you don’t want to wait, head to The Digital Cup (545 S. Knik–Goose Bay Rd., 907/373-2727) next to Fred Meyer. Swim at Wasilla High School’s pool (701 W. Bogard Rd., 907/376-4222).

Mat-Su Community Transit, better known as MASCOT (907/376-5000), has weekday service throughout the valley ($2.50) and commuter runs to Anchorage ($3).


Excerpted from the Tenth Edition of Moon Alaska.

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