No matter how long you’ve lived in the Mat-Su, it’s all but guaranteed that you’re still finding new corners to explore. Given an area the size of Vermont for our playground, that’s not really a surprise. Over normal summers that means ducking away to hide out in less trafficked spots as tourists flood the region with their dollars.
But 2020 is anything but a normal summer, and the lack of tourism has the potential to mean empty pockets and disaster for community members who rely on that traffic to make ends meet. But, according to Casey Ressler with the Mat-Su Convention and Visitors Bureau (MCVB), it also means an opportunity for locals to try out the local destinations without fighting out of state visitors for bookings.
“This is the year that you can be a tourist in your own backyard,” Ressler said. “All of the things that people have said forever ‘well, I’d love to do this,’ — now is your chance. Not only can you go out and do something and have fun, but it also helps support a lot of the businesses that are struggling right now.”
That includes a corner of the Mat-Su Borough that’s not always on residents’ radar — Glacier View. Ressler is working with several MCVB member companies there to change that. He provided us with a few excursions to check out the recreation possibilities in what one business owner there hopes will become the “new Talkeetna.”
Tour the Matanuska Glacier
A scenic drive 70 minutes up the road from Palmer puts you at the foot of the Matanuska Glacier, near the Matanuska River headwaters and on the doorstep of Matanuska Glacier Trekking and Ice Climbing Adventures (MICA). Order a delicious lunch from 907 Bowl ($11.99) or pack your own and head out on their longest glacier tour, the Advanced Trek, for a fun but challenging day with a guide out on the ice.
You’ll want to wear waterproof boots or be prepared to borrow theirs, and bring an at least 30 litre pack or use a loaner. Remember that wind the Valley often feels blowing off the glacier? You can, of course, feel it on the glacier, too, so layers are important and rainwear is critical. As long as you’ve dressed well, you’ll have an incredible time exploring parts of the glacier most residents would likely never find alone.
Employees at MICA said if locals want to come out, this is definitely the summer for it. In addition to the Alaskans-only 20% discount on the trek — which will bring the total to about $135 for a day-long adventure plus a $25 glacier entrance fee — you’re likely to hit the glacier free from the enormous crowds that are typically there in the summer. They have openings almost daily, they said. Visit Micaguides.com to book with discount code “AKLocalsRule” (must show Alaska ID when you arrive).
Give glamping a try
A stone’s throw from the MICA parking lot sits Alpenglow Luxury Glamping, designed and operated by former MICA glacier guide Mandy Vestal. Slowly expanded over the last two years as her funding permits, Vestal has created a small off-grid luxury paradise complete with wildflowers, a cedar hot tub, a peaceful Bed and Breakfast vibe — and tents.
Five thick canvas tents on raised platforms house comfortable and private bedroom areas, with porches offering spectacular views of the mountains and the glacier. Breakfast in the morning was simple but fresh — including a homemade egg, potato, cheese and pepperoni casserole and house-made granola — and the French press coffee was hot and perfect.
Vestal, who plans to expand to a few more tents next year, said she’s almost completely booked out through her early-September season closing date, but has openings mid-week. Her dream, she said, is that locals and visitors will come to think of Glacier View as “the new Talkeenta,” turning right at the Palmer-Wasilla split and heading up the Glenn to experience the glacier instead of making the drive out towards Denali.
Tent accommodations start at $129, but discount codes are available when the tent is booked with a glacier trek. Bookings can be made at alpenglowluxurycamping.com.
Flightseeing might seem like a tourist activity bridge too far for locals, but after experiencing it ourselves we think it’s well-worth the price.
About 15 minutes up the road from the glacier and MICA sits Sheep Mountain Lodge. Mat-Su residents might think of it as a great place to eat (and it is — try the blackened halibut and strawberry-rhubarb pie), but this year they are offering something new: helicopter tours.
Current lodge owner Mark Fleenor is an experienced pilot who masterfully maneuvers his helicopter around Sheep Mountain on his 30-minute tour, helping riders spot bear, moose and sheep before sweeping off to fly over and around the glacier. Time driving by or even walking on the glacier doesn’t do it justice the way flying over it does.
Fleenor, who bought the helicopter a mere two weeks before the pandemic hit, thought he would be out of luck with a major purchase on his hands unused this summer. Instead, he said, it’s been the “dark horse of the season,” bringing a parade of locals in for tours, which can be booked as walk-ins.
As the only helicopter tour in the area, Fleenor is also exploring other ways to leverage his new toy. For example, next year, he said, they plan to offer dinner and a flight, dropping visitors on top Sheep Mountain with a meal from the lodge and a bottle of wine, and then picking them up an hour later.
And of course the lodge is also still just that — a lodge. While they are completely booked in normal summers, this year they still have openings. They’re also open through the winter, he said, with visitors coming to stay and ski their groomed trails or snowmachine nearby.
Helicopter tours start at $125 for 20 minutes per person, or $149 for 30 minutes, with a minimum of two guests per flight. Find out more at sheepmountain.com.