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Located about 50 miles northeast of Anchorage, Hatcher Pass Recreation Area has historically been a destination of choice for southcentral Alaskans searching for an outdoor version of James Hilton’s Shangri-la in “Lost Horizon.”
But nowadays, Hatcher Pass isn’t just for locals, and its growing popularity as a tourist destination is hard to ignore.
Visitor statistics show that in 2011, about 600,000 people visited the 300,000-acre area and neighboring Independence Mine State Historical Park, which was named a National Register of Historic Places attraction in 1974.
The allure of both places lies partly in their fascinating pasts. In 1906, Robert Hatcher staked a gold claim in a remote wilderness area of the Talkeetna Mountains. Soon, a crude infrastructure of winding mountain roads and trails were built to supply what would become the third-largest gold-producing area in Alaska’s history. The mine closed in the 1950s, leaving a ghost town of gold-mining artifacts. For decades, the old roads were an inside secret to local Alaskans because they led to gold of another kind: easily accessible recreation and pure scenic beauty.
Personally, I visit the pass often to take in its colorful explosion of alpine flowers, to listen to the ebb and flows of its whitewater rapids and to marvel at the steep glacier-carved cirques and winding river valleys. Near the mine, oxidized skeletons of rusting ore carts and splintered old tools are scattered between the crumpled mining buildings and hard-rock mining equipment. The on-site museum and visitor’s center give voice to these gold rush relics.
Visitors also flock here to enjoy the backcountry hiking and mountain biking trails, to go berry picking, to photograph wildlife and to explore ancient geological formations. Clients can recreationally pan for gold if they bring a shovel and pan.
Today’s new ski and lodging infrastructure makes Hatcher Pass a must-see destination in winter. The Government Peak Recreation Area offers superb cross-country skiing, and it’s one of the first areas in Alaska to receive snowfall in October, one reason why it is a training site for the U.S. Cross-Country Ski Team. I prefer to visit in March and April, when warmer temperatures and longer daylight hours allow more time to access the area’s distant natural attractions and huts.
Hatcher Pass Lodge has comfortable, private cabins for rent. The property’s restaurant offers a varied menu, along with ample opportunities to visit with resident Alaskans while sipping the house specialty, a Hatcher Pass Steamer.
Alaska State Parkswww.alaskastateparks.org
Hatcher Pass Lodgewww.hatcherpasslodge.com