PALMER — There’s more than one way to get to Willow from Palmer, but one option is only available in the summer.

On June 17, the Willow Fishhook Road opened nearly three weeks earlier than usual, surprising local hikers like Heather Burgess and her son Spencer as they made their way to Summit Lake.

“There’s so much snow still. I don’t know why it’s open so early,” Burgess said.

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The lake was still partially frozen and there were still some mounds of snow left on the hills but the roadway was clear, thanks to maintenance work by the Department of Transportation. Typically, seeing ice on Summit Lake this time of year would normally mean one walked up the steep and primitive roadway without their vehicle because the gateway up the pass would be closed.

“It’s very early,” DOT spokesperson Shannon McCarthy said.

McCarthy said the gate typically opens during the Fourth of July weekend. Being early is the exception, not the rule. Weather and road conditions are always a factor and safety is top priority when deciding when to open it up.

“So we were able to get in there, clear the road and get it down and then because we had already cleared the road and maintained it, we were able to open it up,” McCarthy said.

This year, DOT had maintenance work to do, which is something they prefer to do when it’s closed. McCarthy it was about three miles of roadwork. She said they cleared the roadway, filling in low spots and putting down dust pallet to help prevent dust on the winding and narrow road with steep cliffs. She said their work and the favorable conditions allowed them to open up early.

“It’s not the kind of thing we will be able to do every year but it really worked out well this year,” McCarthy said.

It’s a rare treat already enjoyed by countless people, from casual hikers wanting to access Summit Lake to hang gliders who jump off cliff near the lake.

DOT has the ultimate say and determines each year when the gate opens, allowing people to access Summit Lake with their vehicles or take the scenic route to Willow through the mountains.

Venturing through Hatcher Pass to Willow instead of the Parks Highway offers a more scenic experience and is often recommended to locals and tourists alike as a must see destination. It’s a unique way to see a spectrum of wildlife and wildflowers with plenty of picturesque views along the way.

The road is gravel for about 22 miles and can be rough at places especially after big rains that leave ruts in the road. Drivers are advised to go slow through the mountainous road until they reach the pavement in Willow.

Driving to Willow from Palmer through Hatcher Pass is roughly 47 miles and about 49 miles from Wasilla.

The gate typically closes around September. McCarthy said DOT closes it after the first significant snow fall, so it’s variable each year.

Contact Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman reporter Jacob Mann at jacob.mann@frontiersman.com

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