Willow extends about 30 miles in the Mat-Su Borough, approximately a 90-minute drive along the George Parks Highway (Hwy 3) north of Anchorage, and west of Wasilla. It is located between miles 60 and 80.7 at approximately 61° 44′ north latitude, 150° 02′ west longitude (Sec. 08, T019N, R004W, Seward Meridian) within the Palmer Recording District. It encompasses 14 square miles of land and 1 square mile of water.
Willow’s first inhabitants were Dena’ina Indians (Athabascan Natives), many still remaining in the area. The community got its start when gold was discovered on Willow Creek in 1897. Robert Hatcher was the first to stake a claim. Soon twelve hard rock mines were operating in the Willow Creek drainage; Independence, Lucky Shot, Gold Chord and Archangel to name a few. Miner’s supplies were brought in by boat to Knik, the established trading center. From there, a 26-mile summer trail went northwest, up Cottonwood Creek, and across Bald Mountain to Willow Creek. The winter sled trail went north, crossing the present line of the Alaska Railroad at Houston, and up the west end of Bald Mountain for 30 miles. Line cabins, to accommodate the freighters and mail carriers, were built on Nancy Lake (this route was the forerunner for the present George Parks Highway). This trail, dubbed the “Double Ender Sled Trail” (from times when the snow was so deep that double-ender sleds with dog teams and horses wearing wooden snowshoes were needed to get through) is still used today by skiers, hunters, backpackers and snowmobile enthusiasts. The sleds then followed a trail along Willow Creek in an easterly direction, now Hatcher Pass Road. The Talkeetna Trail also passed through Willow and was used by dog teams and pack horses.
The Alaska railroad (built from 1903-1923) gave further life to gold mining, and soon the area was full of miners, trappers, and homesteaders (who hand-cleared their land in order to grow vegetables or run minx farms). The Susitna Route of the Alaska Railroad from Talkeetna to Anchorage was completed in 1923 with section crews stationed approximately every 8 miles in camps with names such as Houston, Willow, Kashwitna & Caswell. It wasn’t until 1912 that road maintenance in the Mat-Su Valley began, with Willow’s only maintained during summer. During World War ll, the Army built the Alaska-Canada Highway (Alcan) which linked Alaska to the lower 48. It bought land from early homesteaders and built an airstrip and radar warning station in Willow to provide defense against possible Japanese invasion. After World War ll, many of these former soldiers started homesteading in the Susitna Valley. The Trail’s End Lodge was built in 1947; it subsequently became a post office in 1948. By 1954, Willow Creek was Alaska’s largest gold mining district, with total production approaching $18,000,000 per year.
When Alaska received official Statehood in 1958, the first construction phase of the Anchorage-Fairbanks Highway began, linking Willow with Fairbanks and all points north. Willow’s first primary civic election took place in 1960, with voters walking an average of five miles to cast their votes. In1961 the first Willow Winter Carnival was organized as a social respite from the long and lonely winters. It is now held every January; ten days of lively fun, featuring uniquely Alaskan games, crafts and activities that attract visitors from all over the world. Land disposals, homestead subdivisions, and completion of the George Parks Highway in 1972 fueled continued growth in the area. Willow is recognized worldwide as the Recreation Capital of Alaska, often hosting the restart of the famous Iditarod Sled-dog due to poor weather conditions (Willow always has enough snow).
In 1972 Willow was selected in a plebiscite as the new location of the state capital. However, funding to enable the capital move was defeated in the 1982 election.
Willow has a thriving population of 2300 residents committed to the continued growth of their community. It features a health clinic, doctor’s office, school, credit union, convenience stores, service station, fuel oil supplier, towing service, several bed and breakfast providers, air service, river boat tours, post office, community center, commercial buildings and several churches. Our summers are warm and enjoyable with superb views of Mt. McKinley. Denali National Park is an easy five hour drive away. Our winters are generally more enjoyable than other towns in the Mat-Su region, as we do not suffer the stinging winds of the Matanuska Valley. Willow has fantastic vantage points from which you can get truly breathtaking views of the Aurora Borealis (northern lights). Visitors consider us truly Alaskan – off-the-beaten-track – yet within a short drive to larger centers with cinemas, hospitals and department stores.