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dhb

Alaska: A Taste of the Talkeetnas

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dhb

It's hard to really SEE Alaska as there's so much of it remote from any road access--just look at a map. But if your interest is confined to riding a developed surface, you can't do better than to seek roads that go high, over passes or summits. By lower 48 standards our passes are puny. The highest is only 4800 feet, but up here less than a 1000 foot elevation gain can put you above treeline to wide open vistas of wild flowers, glacial tarns, rushing streams, looming glaciers, and jagged rocky peaks. From these heights, it's possible to really see a lot more territory.

 

Given the large number of mountain ranges in Alaska, it's unfortunate that only a few roads actually cross them. Our practical road builders prefer to follow rivers around mountains, keep the bends mild, and grades low for the RVs and snowplows. That makes these few high roads all the more precious to us bikers who generally appreciate a nice view as much as the interesting ride to get there. For those of you planning a trip up here, what follows is my list of high roads not to be missed, arranged form North to South (name of Alaska highway) elev:

 

Atigun Pass (Dalton/Haul Road) 4800 ft gravel

Cleary/Twelvemile/Eagle (Steese) 2233-3685 ft gravel

Isabel Pass (Richardson) 3000 ft

Broad Pass (Parks) 2300 ft

MacLaren Summit (Denali) 4086 ft gravel

Tahneta/Eureka (Glenn) 3000-3322 ft

Thompson Pass (Richardson) 2771 ft

Hatcher Pass (Willow-Fish Hook Rd) 3886 ft paved to within 300 ft

Chilkat Pass (Haines) 3493 ft

White Pass (Skagway) 3290 ft

 

No, therse aren't quite ALL the road passes and summits in the state, but if you want to "see" Alaska, try to arrange your travel over as many of these beauties as you can. Obviously, some of these passes, such as Atigun, might require more time and effort than you have available. However, the point of this tale is to feature a visit to the Hatcher Pass area, a frequently over looked high pass (third highest in the state and the HIGHEST that is paved) just 80 miles from Anchorage. Anyone travelling through Anchorage should have this pass on his/her list.

 

The problem with pass bagging is, of course, the weather. Passes attract clouds and wet stuff, so luck plays a big part in the experience--unless you live here and can just go up when it's nice and clear (smirk). So let's go up to Hatcher Pass (almost) on a great sunny summer day in case when you get there it isn't so nice.

 

The Talkeetna mountains are about 50 miles north of Anchorage. The highest peaks are about 6000 feet and lie along the south edge of the mountain block. They form a wedge between two great river valleys of South Central Alaska, the Matanuska and Susitna Rivers (Mat-Su Valley).

The Hatcher Pass road runs from the Matanuska River north up the Fish Hook Road, over the pass at 3800 feet, and then down a much less steep long gravel road to the Susitna River--all told about 50 miles. The road was recently paved from the Fish Hook side to within 300 vertical feet of Hatcher Pass, about 15 miles. The paved portion ends just short of the pass at the Independence mine State Park at 3500 feet elevation. This is my destination today on the Harley, as I'd just as soon keep it off the gravel and nice and shiny. (I said it was a sunny day didn't I?)

 

The ride north from Anchorage is along Knik arm of Cook Inlet, fairly boring super slab divided road, across the Matanuska and Knik Rivers, across the hay flats and valley bottom to the small town of Palmer. Palmer is the agricultural center of Alaska such as it is, and is famous for gigantic vegetables (esp cabbages), the Alaska State Fair every August, and the start of the Fish Hook Road to the Talkeetnas.

 

Fish Hook Road runs from Palmer on the Matanuska, directly north across the fertile valley

 

 

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The road follows the Little Susitna River as it twists and turns through the foothills, steadily climbing.

 

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the milky.cloudy color in the water is from the Mint Glacier melt high above

 

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The little valley is narrow here, as the river follows a fault zone. Evidence of the fault can be seen high on the banks where the road construction crews have removed tons of gouge, the crushed rock from fault action, which would fall and regularly block the road. The ride is nice here right beside the river and twisty

 

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And not long before I come to treeline, with the Talkeetna peaks in the distance

 

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As the valley opens up a bit, the road cuts sharply up hill yielding nice views back down the Little Su valley (note the Mat-Su valley in the distance, the Chugach mountains to the South across the big valley, and the fault ridge along the lower Little Su course)

 

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As I get higher in the mountains, I note a number of trails and side tracks. The one to Reed Lakes is particularly scenic--ending at a couple of high rocky tarns that reminded me of the Enchantment Lakes area of the Washington Cascade mountains. There's also evidence of gold mining operations all around here, but mostly in the form of almost overgrown tracks cut into the hill

 

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I'm standing in the old wagon track--see the faint twin ghosts of ruts in the fireweed in the distance.

 

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Of course, the Harley in the hills photo.

 

Up nearing the top, alpine valleys normally are carpeted with wild flowers, but I'm a bit late for the best color and it's been a dry summer.

 

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Independence mine buildings appear as I near the end of the paved road and just below the pass

 

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The mine closed in 1951 and was a hard rock gold mine. The State is in the process of restoring/preserving many of the remaining buildings. Some of the buildings are in surprising shape

 

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The original paint scheme was silver with red trim. Some areas show the effects of 20 feet of snow and frequent avalanches

 

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In the late 1930s, these 3 story bunk houses were built

 

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close up the effects of weathering can be seen

 

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A few buildings remain from the Gold Cord mine above the Independence

 

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and a typical mountain stream now flows from the Gold Cord past the Independence to the Little Su

 

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I hope this taste of the Talkeetnas whet your whistle for some pass and summit riding in Alaska.

 

Best wishes,

Dave

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Bob Palin

OK, OK, I have to go to Alaska again...

 

A truly great post.

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David

You have a gift, Dave. I really enjoy reading and viewing your posts. Just an honest look at things without the fluff. The pictures are outstanding. thumbsup.gif

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jclarke

Very cool photos and a nice write-up. My favorites are Chilket Pass, Thompson Pass and Isabel Pass.

I was glad I had a full face helmet when I drove them - nobody got to see my mouth hanging wide open - because they blew me away.

Hope to return to Alaska someday soon.

I am not sure if the Top of the World Hwy. is considered a Pass, but I thought the view from 4515 feet above sea level was pretty cool. See pics on my website noted below. Look on the page dated June 16 for pics of view from Top of World back to Dawson City.

When I come back I'll look you up and you can point out the best of Alaska to me. Thanks

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ian408

 

Oh my thumbsup.gifthumbsup.gif

 

And such a beautiful day too!

 

Ian

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RichEdwards

Outstanding photos and descriptions. I must go!

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Marty Hill

Will be there after spring torrey! grin.gif

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dhb

Thank you all for the nice comments. Sometimes I feel like a shill for Alaska (or New Zealand) and it's good to know some folks out there just like to look at the same scenery I do. Thanks.

 

Re: Top of the World highway. This is a really nice road, but I think technically is in Canada--even if not, please consider my recommendation to try the Jack Wade Junction to Eagle route or the Steese highway 3 summits (Cleary/Twelvemile/Eagle) and see if you don't agree they equal or better the TOTW road--plus are much less travelled and more pristine. It's nice to have such a quandry--which world class work of nature is better/best?

 

Hope to see you folks up here sometime..

Best wishes,

Dave

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