Willow is a sleepy little village located on the George Parks Highway whose claim to fame is its drop-dead gorgeous view of Mount McKinley. On a clear day, “the Great One” dominates the Willow skyline like nowhere else in Alaska.
Like so many Alaska communities, Willow was established as a tent city after gold was discovered on Willow Creek in 1897. A trail to the gold was built and then the Talkeetna Trail, the forerunner of the Parks Highway, was also laid out through Willow. This soon became a major thoroughfare, bustling with freighters, mail carriers and their dog teams, and packhorses. The trail gave way to the Alaska Railroad and many of the surveyors and construction crews who worked on the line ended up settling in Willow. By 1920, Willow had its own railroad station.
When gold mining activity ceased in the nearby Talkeetna Mountains in the 1940s, Willow became a ghost town, but the community bounced back with the completion of the Parks Highway in 1972. Four years later, Alaska voters chose Willow as the site of the new Alaska capital, which was to be moved from Juneau. The move was put on the back burner in 1982, however, when funding for the immense project was defeated in a general state election.
Things to do
Today Willow calls itself the “Recreation Capital of Alaska.” Visitor services are a large part of the community’s economy. With Mount McKinley looming overhead, visitors in Willow can arrange flightseeing excursions to the mountain as well as bear viewing, river rafting, and fly-in fishing adventures throughout the area.
Willow also has its share of dog mushers, with many of its residents past participants in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race to Nome. Although the race begins in Anchorage, it is merely a short ceremonial start and then the dogs and teams are trucked north to Willow for the official re-start on the first Sunday in March. In the summer, a number of the kennels offer informal tours along with a ride in a sled.
Willow is known for its fishing, boating and camping along nearby rivers and lakes. Visitors can find guides or lakeside lodging through the Mat-Su Convention and Visitors Bureau and then book an afternoon float to catch rainbow trout in such area rivers as Willow, Montana and Clear creeks or the larger Susitna and Talkeetna rivers.