AK Fam will freely admit we only occasionally pause in one Mat-Su town or another on the way to someplace else, so I looked forward to the novelty of an entire day in Wasilla, some 40 miles from Anchorage.
Our first and logical first stop was the Mat-Su Convention and Visitor's Bureau at Mile 35.5 of the Parks Highway (the confluence of Glenn and Parks highways). Here knowledgeable staff and volunteers provide welcome insight into the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, including its history and seemingly endless activities. Grab a well-orchestrated Visitor Guide for resources ranging from shopping outlets to glacier-climbing and camping, and everything in between.
Since the Valley is the jumping-off point for most Interior Alaska activities, including the famous Iditarod Sled Dog Race, many visitors prefer to start their explorations at Iditarod Headquarters at Mile 2.2 Knik-Goose Bay Road in Wasilla. Open 8 a.m.-7 p.m. seven days a week through mid-September, Iditarod HQ is a worthy stop to immerse oneself in videos, trophies, and the offices of the Last Great Race. However, it is not our first choice for family/sled-dog introductions. Authentic and compelling? Yes. Kid-friendly? Not so much. Signs warning "Don't Touch" and "Stay Off" rather turned us off. Outdoors wasn't much easier. No presentation into the life of a sled dog accompanied an uber-short whip around the property via wheeled cart, and our crew of kids were left with little to inspire their natural curiosity. Visitors with children would be better off at kennels owned and operated by Iditarod veterans. Either Martin Buser's Happy Trails Kennel or Vern Halter's Dream a Dream Dog Farm are stellar examples of mushing life and both welcome families, although both require a bit more driving to get there.
Leaving dogs behind, we turned further north toward an AK Fam-favorite, the Museum of Alaska Transportation and Industry. The museum is acre upon acre of Alaskan history personified. Simple yet incredibly popular play equipment and picnic tables in front of the buildings allowed for a short break before entering the facility and Kid Mecca. Located at 3800 Museum Drive in the outskirts of Wasilla and open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. seven days a week all summer and on select days the rest of the year, this museum is not a drive-by. Alaska was created in a series of "booms and busts", and much of the technology of the times was simply left behind, including a full Alaska Railroad train, caboose and all. You'll find it all here; from the antique cars indoors to the outdoor exhibits of old fire trucks, tractors, and snow machines, not to mention the helicopters and military aircraft. The $8 admission fee for adults does not even begin to cover the scope of mechanized glee one is able to experience. Military, seniors, and kids cost a mere $5, and a family is able to see the sights for $18, worth the price if one considers the time and effort this not-for-profit organization has spent hosting visitors.
Sadly, the clock pointed us homeward and we bid the Valley farewell, making one final stop along the way. The Palmer Hayflats have always intrigued me, and with newsletters arriving in my mailbox about the non-profit organization preserving the area's ecological beauty, I couldn't wait any longer to visit. Off the Glenn Highway at the Knik River Access exit is a tiny little parking area and access to Reflections Lake, a one mile hike a stone's throw from the wild Knik River. The Hayflats themselves are 45 square miles of wetlands, forest, lakes, and tidal sloughs. They also are part of a State Game Refuge, and wildlife is as much a part of this green landscape as ever. The trail around the lake is a work in progress, for sure, but after a long day trekking around town, AK Kid and I were more than content to stroll the gravel pathways and over the boardwalks, listening to the buzz of a hatching of dragonflies and the call of a single loon alone in the water.