The unpaved road up to Hatcher Pass usually doesn’t open until July, but it’s well worth the wait. Hatcher Pass is not a community, but rather exactly what the name suggests: a pass or low point that allows easy passage between two mountain peaks, and one of very few places in Alaska where you can get sweeping views over tundra-clad peaks—seemingly into infinity—while standing right beside your car. For the most part there are no services, and part of the road to the pass is unpaved, with switchbacks, occasional potholes, and no guardrail. However, passenger cars can make the drive with no problem, and you just can’t beat Hatcher Pass when it comes to a scenic Alaska road trip.
Along the way to the pass you’ll drive past Independence Mine State Historical Park (907/745-2827 for the seasonal visitor center, mid-June to Labor Day as weather allows, $5 day use parking fee), where you can wander a winding footpath among the historical mining camp, where the buildings are all decked out with interpretive signs to help you understand what you’re looking at. If you’re at all a fan of mining history, this is well worth a stop. A small visitor center and museum just before you start down the trail between buildings has displays on mining in this area (which began more than a decade before the Klondike Gold Rush). This mine produced almost $6 million worth of gold (in early 1900s dollars; it would be more than quadruple that in today’s dollars) before gold mining was halted by World War II.
Also obvious from the road will be the A-frame cabins of Hatcher Pass Lodge (907/745-1200, from $135 for a private cabin; you’ll have to go to the main lodge to use the bathroom). The cabins are very quaint but adequate; it’s the location that’s the real draw, both for summer sightseeing and winter skiing. In fact the entire region is very popular for sledding, snowboarding, and cross-country skiing, although parts of Hatcher Pass are subject to avalanche hazard, and this is a completely unmaintained area, so you shouldn’t recreate here unless you know how to evaluate conditions for avalanche safety.
While driving to the pass you’ll also go by the trailheads for several excellent hikes, including the charming and family-friendly two-mile round-trip trek to Gold Cord Lake, where you might see marmots, grounds squirrels, and of course other wildlife including bears, and the turnoff to Reed Lakes, an 11-mile round-trip hike that rewards those willing to hop car-sized boulders with pristine blue-green lakes set against glacier-sculpted granite peaks.
To get to Hatcher Pass, take Fishhook Road out of either Palmer or Wasilla (the pass lies between them), or take Trunk Road north from the Parks Highway (before you reach Wasilla) and then follow signs onto Fishhook Road from there. There’s limited but adequate parking at the summit, with sweeping views out over Palmer behind you.
A moderately challenging 2.5-mile round-trip hiking trail called April Bowl starts just across the road, taking you up a series of switchbacks to a short ridgewalk to the top of Hatch Peak, which only magnifies the lovely views. This hike gives one of the biggest returns on effort in terms of views, but there’s an easier outing at the next parking lot, just down the road, where you can take an easy, mostly level stroll around a small lake.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Alaska.