Article by Erin Kirkland
One glance in any direction makes it easy to see why the small community of Palmer is so popular with outdoor enthusiasts. From open farmland to rugged mountain peaks, hundreds of miles of trails wind their way through forests and fields, encouraging hikers, bikers, and cross-country skiers of any age to take to the grand outdoors of the Matanuska-Susitna Valley.
For families with small children, the Palmer area provides a wealth of options to explore the unique environments, and history, of Palmer and its residents, past and present. Whether you are lifelong Alaskans or are newcomers to the Valley, there’s a trail for every ability and interest, including the youngest family members. Here are a few that appeal to younger children:
Matanuska Experiment Farm, 1509 S. Georgeson Drive, Palmer, 99645
A working research farm serving Southcentral Alaska, the Experiment Farm is part of the University of Alaska system and provides valuable research and field studies for farming, agriculture, and forestry. With 800 acres of forestland and 260 acres of farmland, it is also a delightful place for a family walk or longer hike, as the farm serves as a connector to the Matanuska Greenbelt system, owned by the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. The Experiment Farm has 11 miles of flat and rolling hill terrain and can connect to the state-owned Matanuska Lakes trail system for an even longer adventure. Particularly lovely on a crisp autumn afternoon, these trails are a testament to Palmer’s rich farming history.
Independence Mine State Historical Park, 23264 Gold Cord Road, Palmer, 99645
Once the site of two thriving gold mines, this Alaska State Park unit is now a wildly popular destination for day hikers, berry pickers, and in the winter, backcountry skiers. The mines are long closed, but the park offers a glimpse into the frenzy of “gold fever,” with many of the historic boomtown buildings renovated to their original atmosphere, and a series of interpretive trails to explore. Try the paved pathways at the old mine sites, including a walk into the bunkhouse, offices, and imagine life as a gold-mining family. Or, try the short but steep hike to Gold Cord Lake and dip your toes in the icy water while gazing at the million-dollar view. Note that an Alaska State Park Pass is required, or pay a day-use fee upon entrance to the mine road.
Reflections Lake, Palmer Hayflats State Game Refuge, Palmer, Milepost 32.6, Glenn Highway
One of Palmer’s most accessible hikes for families with small children, Reflections Lake is a great place to catch a glimpse of waterfowl, moose, and the occasional fox, all while gazing upon the beautiful waters of this small lake, so named for its propensity to reflect towering peaks from the Chugach Range in the background. The loop trail is about a mile in length, with a few spurs leading to the Knik River and a viewing platform that provides a great perch to look across the refuge. In the fall and winter, migrating birds flock to the area, and moose can often be seen grazing in the fields.
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Alaska freelance writer and award-winning community innovator Erin Kirkland has spent a lifetime exploring the outdoors and traveling; first as a child with her forester father and flight attendant mother in the Pacific Northwest, then with her own children. A 13-year resident of Alaska, Erin’s Alaska On the Go guidebooks are considered required reading for anyone planning an Alaska adventure with children; and her website, AKontheGO.com, was the first resource completely dedicated to kids, Alaska, and those destinations offering family and kid-friendly activities.
She currently serves as an ambassador for youth and family outdoor recreation activities for Alaska State Parks and is a highly desired youth guide for several Alaska tourism companies.
Erin and her family have driven, flown, sailed, cycled, and mushed every region of Alaska. She enjoys road trips, camping, and traveling aboard Alaska ferries, where life is slow, internet connections are few, and the scenery is ever-changing.