Spotlight: The Iditarod National Historic Trail
America’s last great gold rush trail honors Alaska’s history and hosts popular races
What You’ll Find
The Iditarod National Historic Trail commemorates a 2,300-mile (3,701 km) system of winter trails that first connected ancient Native Alaskan villages, served as a transportation corridor for the last great American gold rush, and now plays a vital role for travel and recreation in modern-day Alaska.
The trail is best known today for its annual Iditarod Sled Dog Race. Race participants and their teams of dogs spend up to 15 days mushing 1,000 miles (1,609 km) from Anchorage to Nome. The race is renowned for its great distance, treacherous sledding conditions and challenging arctic weather. The first race was in 1973 to honor the history that dogs played in over-snow transportation and continues annually during the first week in March.
Other events on the historic trail challenge even the toughest competitors. In mid-February, snowmobilers race between Wasilla and Nome in the Irondog, the world’s longest and toughest snowmobile race. In the final week of February a human-powered marathon begins. The Iditarod Trail Invitational is an event for participants who ski, bike or run either 350 (563 km) or 1,100 miles (1,770 km) with minimal support. Now that’s endurance!
A number of small towns along the trail serve as gateways to your Iditarod experience. McGrath, Unalakleet and Nome are the three major air service hubs and each offers daily commuter flights from Anchorage. Use this Bureau of Land Management (BLM) trail map, for a view of the trail system and the towns along the way. Another resource to help you prepare for your trip to this enchanting landscape is the Alaska Geographic visitor guide.
A series of public shelter cabins lie along the trail between Knik and Nome. Almost all are accessible in winter only and do not require a reservation; however, users are expected to share the cabins with other parties. The BLM also maintains five shelter cabins primarily for winter travelers.
The Chugach National Forest’s Crow Pass Public Use Cabin is on the Crow Pass segment of the trail just outside of Anchorage between Girdwood and Eagle River. This A-frame cabin requires a reservation and is available only from May through September due to active avalanche paths crossing the trail to the shelter.
Make Sure You
Explore the trail! Enjoy world class areas as you cross country ski, snowshoe and snowmobile along more than 1,500 miles (2,414 km) of historic trails.
Discover the wildlife! The trail is a terrific setting to see—depending on the section of the trail and time of year—moose, caribou, brown bear, bison, wolf and a variety of birds. If you are in the hills along the Bering Sea you may also get a chance to see some musk ox.
Cell phones only work in towns along the trail, and won’t work while on the trail between villages away from Alaska’s road system. Make sure you’re totally self-reliant if you venture out! Also, check out BLM’s frequently asked questions for more advice on traveling to Alaska and how to best prepare for your Iditarod National Historic Trail adventure.
Did You Know?
Native Alaskan tribes used dogs and created trails for transportation long before contact with Europeans. During the Alaska Gold Rush era (1896-1918), thousands flocked to Alaska’s goldfields and the demand for dogs and sleds skyrocketed. Between mining seasons, men with dog teams and time on their hands introduced several popular sled-dog races. Leonhard Seppala was particularly successful at racing and later became a national celebrity for the crucial role he and his team played in delivering diphtheria serum to epidemic-stricken Nome in 1925.
The advent of railroad and aircraft transportation began to fade this long-time tradition between “a musher and his best friend.” As a way to honor Alaska’s sled-dog history and to revitalize mushing, the Iditarod Sled Dog Race began in 1973, which again brought national attention to this impressive partnership between mushers and their dog teams. In 1978, Congress designated the Iditarod a National Historic Trail—one of only 19 historic trails throughout the United States, and the only winter trail in the National Trail System. Visit the BLM website to read more about Iditarod Trail History.