The Glenn Highway runs from Mile 0 in Anchorage to Mile 187 at Glennallen, where it intersects the Richardson Highway. A short 16 mile jaunt north up the Richardson is the junction with the Slana-Tok Cutoff which connects to the Alcan Highway. The Glenn Highway was completed as part of the massive Alcan Highway building project during World War II which finally connected Alaska to the rest of the North American highway system.
Of all the main highways in Alaska, the Glenn Highway was until recently the most hair-raising to drive. In recent years large improvement projects have been broadening tight curves, widening shoulders, replacing old bridges, adding passing lanes and shoring up eroding hillsides. Gee, at this rate it won't be such an adventure to drive anymore.
National Scenic Byway
The same lay of the land that makes the Glenn Highway exciting drive has also earned it recognition as a National Scenic Byway. The highway follows the Matanuska River valley between the Talkeetna and Chugach Mountains all the way to its source at the Matanuska Glacier, which is plainly visible from the highway. The highway crosses numerous tributaries before climbing up to the divide at Eureka Summit. From there it descends into the Copper River basin.
Driving Time (summer)
Plan on about four hours to drive from Anchorage to Glennallen. The middle section of the drive still has places where the highway has not been upgraded and you may have to slow down for tight curves and hills. Before leaving, you should check for road construction, as it is not unusual for Alaska road crews to shut down a highway at night, the long daylight hours make it possible for them to work in the middle of the night.
Anchorage to Glennallen
Anchorage to Palmer
The Parks and Glenn Highways run together from Anchorage to Mile 42, where the Parks takes off toward Wasilla and the Glenn goes to Palmer in an area known as the Matanuska Valley (or Mat Valley for short). This stretch is the only true controlled-access freeway bit of highway in Alaska. Expect heavy traffic on this segment, especially during rush hour, as many residents of the Matanuska Valley commute to work in Anchorage.
The highway runs between the Chugach Mountains and the Knik Arm of Cook Inlet. At the head of Knik Arm, it takes off across a grassy area of the valley known as the Palmer Hay Flats. A series of four bridges cross the glacial Knik and Matanuska Rivers.
The area around Palmer is one of the few agricultural areas in Alaska. Yes, we do grow things up here. The long daylight hours make for enormous cabbages and extraordinarily sweet carrots. Potatoes, broccoli and zucchini are among other crops that grow well. Palmer was settled during the Great Depression by a government plan which relocated displaced "Dust Bowl" farmers. Pioneer Peak (seen to the south) is named after these early settlers.
Palmer to Matanuska Glacier
There is so much variety in this stretch of road it's hard to describe it all. At times the highway is right down on the floodplain of the braided Matanuska River and at other times it runs high above it on the hillside. In the latter areas, the highway descends into hairpin turns to cross tributaries before climbing again. There are interesting rock formations and mountains brightly colored by mineralization.
At Long Lake State Recreation Site, the highway snakes along the side of a hill from the lake to a vantage point high above it. There are places where the steep drop is close to the road with no guard rails. This is a slide area; I've seen it littered with small rocks, especially in the spring.
There are breathtaking views of the glacier right from the highway, but it's worth the stop at the rest area at Mile 101. There's a nice and fairly short trail to a viewing platform but there are telescopes and interpretive signs right at the rest area.
Matanuska Glacier to Eureka
The highway climbs through Sheep Mountain Pass past an interestingly shaped knob known as Lion Head. One of my favorite stops is the rest area at Mile 118.5, which is also a trailhead for the Chickaloon-Knik-Nelchina trail system. The picture at left was taken from the rest area. This area is particularly beautiful in the fall due to the scrubby brush which turns bright shades of red, orange, yellow, and chartreuse. The picture second from left was taken on the hill above the rest area, which is actually the lower slopes of Gunsight Mountain. It isn't until you continue along the highway to Mile 125 or so that you see the distinctive notch that gives Gunsight Mountain its name (third picture from left). The bent metal poles in the picture are for winter snowplow drivers to help locate the highway in white-out conditions.
Past Gunsight Mountain the country opens up onto what my mother always called "the plateau." At Mile 129 you reach Eureka Summit (3,322 feet), a popular snowmachining area in winter. Another favorite stop of mine is the pullout at Mile 129.4 which offers a nice view of Nelchina Glacier (picture above right.)
Eureka to Glennallen
The final leg of the trip to Glennallen is relatively boring "green tunnel" driving. At Mile 160 you pass the turn off to Lake Louise, which is a BIG lake. This dirt road leads 17 miles through interesting country to the Lake Louise State Recreation Site. The final note of interest is the last ten or so miles coming into Glennallen, where long straight stretches offer spectacular views of Mt. Sanford (16,237 feet) and Mt. Drum (12,010 feet). They are two of several tall volcanic peaks in the Wrangell Mountains.