With the backdrop of towering Pioneer and Twin Peaks and the surrounding Chugach Mountains, this agricultural community offers access to countless recreation opportunities in the Mat-Su Valley, just 40 miles north of Anchorage.
Born at the height of the Great Depression as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal relief program to transplant struggling farmers from the Lower 48 to Alaska, Palmer is still known today for its agricultural roots. The town is famed for its 90-pound cabbages, seven-pound turnips, and other monster root vegetables, the result of the midnight sun that shines up to 20 hours a day during the summer.
Things to do
Palmer is striking because of its blend of farming community and alpine paradise: old red barns and fields of hay are bordered by knife-edged mountain peaks. The downtown area exudes a 1930s ambience; many of the historical buildings have been preserved right down to the antique furniture and wood floors.
The Palmer Museum and Visitor Center is housed in a rustic log cabin and tells the stories of the area's Alaska Native, gold rush, and agricultural history. Next door is the Palmer Showcase Garden, which showcases flowers and the area's famous oversized vegetables in the summer. Also held at the Showcase Garden during summer is Friday Fling, a weekly open-air market with local produce, art, crafts, food, and live music.
A block away is the Colony House Museum, an original farmhouse from the 1930s that was built during the settlement of Palmer. Today its eight rooms are still furnished with artifacts from that era. Guided tours of the museum are accompanied with fascinating stories of farmers adapting to raising crops in Alaska's short growing season.
Many visitors like to drive Palmer's back roads past original colony farms. Begin by heading nine miles northeast on the Glenn Highway and then hop on Farm Loop Road. If it’s mid- to late summer, keep an eye out for roadside vegetable stands. In June, the town celebrates its roots with Colony Days, a three-day event featuring food, games, races, a farmer’s market, booths, and the popular and entertaining Colony Day Parade.
History and agriculture aren’t the only thing the town has to offer, though. Palmer is central to several day trip possibilities and activities, including hiking in the region’s many state parks, dogsledding, fishing, horseback riding, boating, ATV tours, flightseeing, and more.
Hatcher Pass and Independence Mine State Historical Park
To the north, Hatcher Pass Road leads to scenic Hatcher Pass and Independence Mine State Historical Park. Hatcher Pass is a stunning recreational area filled with panoramas of the Talkeetna Mountains, hiking trails, and gold mine artifacts including the 16 remaining buildings of Independence Mine.
Located at the head of the Knik River is Knik Glacier, an impressive glacier that is three miles wide at its face and more than 200 feet thick. Visitors can view the glacier several ways: on an air boat, in the seat of an all-terrain vehicle (ATV), or as part of a flightseeing trip.
Musk Ox Farm
Three miles from downtown is the Musk Ox Farm, home of the only domestic herd of musk ox in the world. The farm raises musk ox to produce qiviut, the incredibly warm and soft fur made from the musk ox's undercoat. Tours are offered and the gift shop sells qiviut sweaters and hats.
The Reindeer Farm at Mile 11.5 of Old Glenn Highway is located on one of the area’s original farms. At the farm visitors can pet, photograph, and feed the reindeer and view resident moose and bison.
Alaska State Fair
Palmer’s most popular event is the annual Alaska State Fair, the state’s largest fair, a rollicking 12-day event around Labor Day. There’s live music including local and national bands, a carnival, hundreds of booths and food vendors, shows, and livestock and agriculture exhibits, including the giant vegetable weigh-off to see who grew the biggest pumpkins, cabbages, and more.
Matanuska River Park
Matanuska River Park is operated by the city of Palmer and is located less than a half-mile from the downtown area. The park features wooded campsites and a series of trails that winds around ponds and along the Matanuska River.
Staying & Eating in Palmer
Palmer is a full-service community with accommodations, restaurants, grocery stores, shops, gas stations, and other visitor services. Lodging options include several hotels, motels, and inns in the downtown area, plus B&Bs, guest houses, vacation rentals, and wilderness lodges and cabins in the area surrounding town. There’s also a wide variety of state and privately-owned campgrounds and RV parks. A handful of restaurants, cafes, and several breweries are located in downtown Palmer.
Palmer was established as part of a New Deal relief program during the Great Depression. The mission was to transplant 200 struggling farming families from the Midwest to Alaska where they would cultivate a new agricultural economy.
In 1935, the down-on-their-luck families stepped off the Alaska Railroad in the Matanuska and Susitna Valleys, deemed suitable by the government for farming. The soil was rich by Alaska standards, but the growing season was just long enough for cool-weather grains and certain vegetables, leaving little margin for error. The farmers’ perseverance paid off, however, and today the Mat-Su Valley is Alaska’s breadbasket, producing 75 percent of the state’s total agriculture.