Hatcher Pass Alaska- A guide for exploring the Mat-Su Valley

Hiker sits upon a craggy peak looking to the distance with low clouds in the talkeetna mountains

INTRODUCTION

old house with white paint and red trim surrounded by jagged mountains of Hatcher Pass Alaska
Independence Mine is a highlight of Hatcher Pass

If raw and rugged mountainous landscape and expansive valleys of colorful tundra are your vision of beauty then Hatcher Pass in Alaska can’t be missed! Take a drive along the scenic 60-mile Hatcher Pass Road with plenty of opportunities for hiking, sightseeing and photography along the way.

Go back in time to Alaska’s gold rush days and explore the decaying remnants of an abandoned mining town. Backpack to the most picturesque red cabin set amid towering, jagged peaks of the Talkeetna Mountains. Visit a seemingly idealistic and charming Alaska town perfectly framed by the Talkeetna and Chugach Mountain Ranges. Hatcher Pass is certainly Alaska’s lesser-known gem!

Exploring Hatcher Pass and the Mat-Su Valley was one of our most memorable Alaska experiences, encompassing nature, history, wildlife, and our most beloved cafe in Alaska!

We spotted an abundance of wildlife; hiked through rolling tundra, craggy peaks and to pristine glacial lakes; explored the ruins of Independence Mine; slept in a Scandinavian-style hut completely isolated from civilization; and ate the best cinnamon role of our life at an irresistible cafe in the nearby town of Palmer. Let this guide aid you in planning your trip to Hatcher Pass in Alaska!

PREPARING FOR YOUR TRIP TO HATCHER PASS ALASKA

road winds through autumn colored tundra on a cloudy day in hatcher pass alaska
Are you ready for a road trip through the unforgettable Hatcher Pass?

Coming from Anchorage to the start of Hatcher Pass takes about one and a half hours. Hatcher Pass road winds through the Talkeetna Mountain Range for nearly 60 (ish) miles. There are two main access points for driving Hatcher Pass Road: one access point near the town of Willow and the other near Palmer.

If you travel from Willow the first portion of the road is gravel, which makes for a rough drive for the first 20 miles or so. After the gravel portion the road is paved and in good condition. The drive takes a couple of hours depending on how often you stop for the incredible scenery.

We started from access point near Willow and ended our trip in Palmer. Palmer was the perfect ending point, as we discovered a delicious Thai food restaurant and a charming cafe to conclude our Hatcher Pass adventure. Ultimately, your route will be determined on your next destination in Alaska.

Visiting the Kenai Peninsula and Denali National Park are incredible additions to your Hatcher Pass road trip. Check out our comprehensive DIY road trip guides and continue your adventure through Alaska!

WHEN TO GO TO HATCHER PASS ALASKA

river runs through mountain landscape with jagged peaks and autumn colored tundra surrounding on a cloudy day in alaska
Autumn colors blanket the expansive tundra of Hatcher Pass… what time of the year will you visit?

Hatcher Pass Road is open depending on the amount of snow-fall and if the road is deemed safe for diving. Normally, Hatcher Pass is open from the first week of July until October 1st. If you travel in the early months of opening you will be treated with lush, green tundra and wildflowers. During mid-August through September you will have a vivid display of breathtaking autumn colors. You just can’t go wrong!

WHERE TO STAY IN HATCHER PASS ALASKA

red hut sits in the distance surrounded by mountains and clouds in hatcher pass alaska
Can you imagine waking up to this? Backpacking to the Mint Hut was a highlight of our Alaska road trip.

If you are a budget traveler like us then you will want to stick to camping. There are lodging options in Palmer and Willow, but if you want to stay in the heart of Hatcher Pass and your budget is flexible check out Hatcher Pass Lodge. The lodge offers rustic cabins situated in the most picturesque valley surrounded by the Talkeetna Mountains.

Camping in your vehicle at a pullout along Hatcher Pass Road is permitted unless specified. If you want to tent camp in the backcountry you can do so as long as you cannot be seen from the road. There is one official campsite at the Gold Mint Trailhead that is a perfect option if you plan to do the hike the next day. We spent one night camping in our car and 2 nights at the backcountry Gold Mint Hut. We will discuss the latter of the two later on in this post.

WHAT TO DO IN HATCHER PASS ALASKA

Take photos

narrow winding road sits between rolling autumn colored tundra in hatcher pass alaska
Hatcher Pass road provides several opportunities to pull over and take in the landscape

Ok, maybe this is an obvious one. Sometimes the scenery is just so spectacular in Alaska, and Hatcher Pass in particular, that you forget to pull out your camera and capture the moment. There are several pullouts along the road that are specifically meant for those picture perfect memories you are sure to remember forever.

Hatcher Pass alaska summit plaque on a clear summer day in alaska
Don’t miss your trophy photo at the highest point of Hatcher Pass

The further you climb the pass the more stunning it gets! Midway along the route on Hatcher Pass road you will encounter a hiking trail that leads up to a spectacular viewpoint. Be sure to stop at the Hatcher Pass sign post for a trophy photo; this is the highest point along Hatcher Pass road- 3,886 feet above sea level!

Visit Independence Mine Historical Park

abandoned mine of white buildings and red trim surrounded by fog and jagged mountains in hatcher pass alaska
Independence Mine surrounded by vivid autumn tundra

Take a captivating self-guided tour through Independence Mine and discover what once was one of Alaska’s largest gold mining operations. The buildings are abandoned, some lie in ruins while others are well maintained. The surrounding landscape is equally as impressive as the mine itself.

mine structures set in colorful autumn tundra surrounded by jagged peaks of the talkeetna mountains
Independence Mine is a great place for exploring and photographing

Surrounded by craggy peaks of the Talkeetna Mountain Range, the valley where the mine resides is often inundated a thick fog making for an ominous setting that is perfect for photos. To make a day of it, hike the Gold Cord Lake Trail from the Independence Mine parking area and be rewarded with more breathtaking scenery. This is one of the great historical sights in Alaska and can’t be missed while visiting Hatcher Pass.

Hike to a glacial fed lake

turquoise glacial lake surrounded by jagged mountains, rocks and clouds in Hatcher Pass Alaska
Choose to hike to one of the many glacial fed lakes of Hatcher Pass

Alaska is home to several strikingly beautiful turquoise glacial fed lakes, many of which are in the Hatcher Pass area. Summit Lake is an accessible and simply stunning lake that can be accessed via a short hike from mile 19 of the Hatcher Pass road. If you plan to hike the Gold Mint Trail, you will have access from the Mint Hut to the most secluded glacial lakes in Hatcher Pass.

Hike the Gold Mint Trail and spend the night at the Mint Hut

red hut sits in the distance surrounded by mountains and clouds in hatcher pass alaska
Can you imagine waking up to this? Backpacking to the Mint Hut was a highlight of our Alaska road trip

This was our favorite Hatcher Pass activity and one of our most memorable Alaska moments! The hike to the Mint Hut via the Gold Mint Trail is a long 8-9 mile hike (one way), but you will have the most incredible views during the entire hike. The last 1/2 mile is the most difficult, as you gain a considerable amount of elevation in a short distance. At the end of the hike you will be rewarded with the most picturesque red hut awaiting your arrival.

two hikers next to red hut in the middle of the talkeetna mountain range surrounded by jagged peaks and low clouds
Blown away by the beauty of the landscape surrounding the Mint Hut

The landscape surrounding the hut is simply indescribable. We recommend spending two nights at the hut to give yourself time to explore the area and relax in the secluded and peaceful environment. After resting, continue heading north east to Jewel Lake or Moonstone Lake. They are both gorgeous glacial lakes with a brilliant turquoise color. Moonstone Lake was our favorite with its vivid color and the craggy Talkeetna Mountains for a dramatic backdrop.

Hikes sits on a large boulder looking at a turquoise glacial lake with thick clouds surrounding the landscape
Moonstone Lake near the Mint Hut is one of the most remote and peaceful glacial lakes near Hatcher Pass

There are a couple of things to keep in mind before hiking the Mint Hut. First, you will need to register and pay a $20 fee (good for one year) with the Mountaineering Club of Alaska before staying at the Mint Hut. Second, it is recommended to bring a tent in the case that the hut is full upon arrival. We had the hut to ourselves the first night and shared with three other hikers on the second night. Try to go on a weekday and you shouldn’t have a problem getting a spot!

For more Alaska backpacking adventures check out our comprehensive guide for backpacking Denali National Park!

Have a picnic along the Little Susitna River

river floes from jagged mountains through tundra on a cloudy day in hatcher pass alaska
Find a spot next to the Little Su River and have a picnic before leaving Hatcher Pass

A crystal clear river that flows out of the Talkeetna Mountain Range and makes for a perfect picnic spot. Enjoy an afternoon picnic and relax after hiking. There are several parking areas along the road that allow you to walk down to the riverbank.

Treat yourself to the most delicious cinnamon bun in Palmer

small town hatcher pass alaska old train with aqua colored building and water tower in the distance
Don’t miss the charming town of Palmer and try an unforgettable cinnamon bun at Vagabond Blues

We stayed a couple of days in Palmer and couldn’t get enough of the coffee and pastries at Vagabond Blues Cafe. Palmer is worth the visit just to try the amazing “cinnamon brick.” If you have a weakness for Thai food then you must eat at Pho and Thai restaurant, you definitely will not be disappointed! Delicious food is the perfect treat after several days of exploring Hatcher Pass and before continuing on your Alaska adventure.

IN SUMMARY

woman stands looking towards horizon with autumn colored tundra in the distance and winding road that goes through the tundra
Hatcher Pass is Alaska’s hidden gem that is sure to make a lasting impression

Hatcher Pass is Alaska’s most overlooked gem that deserves to be on every nature lover’s itinerary. Whether you commit to just one day to drive Hatcher Pass road, or spend one week exploring the backcountry, Hatcher Pass is certain to be a place that will leave a lasting impression.

Where will your Alaska adventure take you next? Head north on the unforgettable Dalton Highway to the arctic circle and experience Alaska in its most raw and unfiltered form. Be sure to read our complete Dalton Highway road trip guide before embarking on this wild ride to the north!

Have you traveled to Hatcher Pass? If so, we would love to hear about your experience in the comments section! As always, reach out if you have questions about traveling to Alaska!

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