Photo Credit: Flickr: Kennakenai. The Willow side of Hatcher Pass

The small town of Willow is set in the gorgeous Matanuska-Susitna Valley, just an 80-minute drive from Anchorage. Driving through, you might not even realize you’re in a town; only a few buildings are visible from the highway. It may be a quiet community, but there’s a lot to do: fishing, floating, and dog sledding are all popular activities. In fact, dog mushers love Willow, because winters are longer and colder than in Anchorage. Warm-weather adventurers also love it here, because summertime temperatures are often warmer than in Anchorage.

If you’re using Anchorage as base camp, come to Willow for a day trip; you can also base yourself in the Palmer/Wasilla area or find a B&B in Willow itself. If you’re headed to Talkeetna, or if you’re driving to Denali from Anchorage, break up the trip by stopping in Willow for a tour. Here are some ideas.

Fans cheer for an Iditarod Musher at the official start in Willow, Alaska

Fans cheer for an Iditarod Musher at the official start in Willow, Alaska. Photo by Jaime Hammond.

Favorite Attractions & Activities in Willow, Alaska

Dog Sledding Tours & The Iditarod Start

How much of a dog-mushing Mecca is Willow? This is the starting point of the world-famous Iditarod sled dog race! Most people catch the ceremonial start in Anchorage, but the beginning of the actual race is here each year on Willow Lake. Can’t make the Iditarod? Come for the smaller local races held in the area throughout the winter, like the Willow 300 or Knik 200; they’re also a blast to watch.

Even better…come try your hand at mushing! Several mushers who race in the Iditarod and live in Willow open their homes and kennels to visitors year-round. In winter, experience this thrilling sport by mushing across the snow, or just enjoy riding in the sled. In summer, you’ll ride in a cart on wheels, while pups pull you along wooded trails. And no matter the season, you’ll get to meet the excited dogs!

Fishing & Float Trips

With tons of creeks, streams, and lakes, Willow offers great summertime fishing—with far fewer people than you’ll find on the Kenai Peninsula. Head to local favorite Willow Creek State Recreation Area to angle for king salmon (from mid-June to early July) and silver salmon (in August); spend the night at one of the 140 campsites. You can also fish while rafting on a guided trip on Willow Creek; angle for salmon or trout, depending on the season. Or just look for fish as you take a scenic float trip down Willow Creek.

Nancy Lakes Recreation Area

One of Alaska’s few flat recreations areas, Nancy Lake Recreation Area comes studded with lakes. It also has some of the finest public use cabins in the state—check them out!

Lupine in bloom in Hatcher Pass with Hatcher Pass Cabins in the background

Lupine in bloom in Hatcher Pass with Hatcher Pass Cabins in the background

Hatcher Pass

Willow offers access to the less-traveled side of Hatcher Pass—an area known for its mining history and scenic beauty. Most traffic reaches the pass from the Palmer side. But the route from the Willow side is just as pretty. Travel to the top of the pass and see Independence Mine, where you can learn about gold mining from 1938 to 1950. Just be aware that while the Palmer side is paved, the Willow side is markedly more rugged—and only open from around July 1 through September 15. Numerous potholes and hairpin turns near the top of the pass require careful navigation, so don’t take an RV here, and make sure your rental car allows you to drive gravel roads.

Getting To Willow Alaska

From Anchorage, Willow is an 80-minute drive on the Glenn and George Parks highways. It’s 30 minutes from Wasilla and 45 minutes from Palmer.

Things to Do in Willow