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Iditarod National Historic Trail

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Trail Description

Iditarod Trail Sign

The Iditarod National Historic Trail commemorates a 2,300-mile system of winter trails that first connected ancient Native Alaskan villages, opened up Alaska for the last great American gold rush, and now plays a vital role for travel and recreation in modern day Alaska.

Over 1,500 miles of the historic winter trail system are open today for public use across state and federal lands. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), under the National Trails Act, is the designated Trail Administrator, and works to coordinate efforts by federal and state agencies on behalf of the entire Trail. BLM maintains about 150 miles of the Trail, including four public shelter cabins. The remainder is managed primarily by the State of Alaska, or crosses private Native lands on public easements.

Iditarod 100 year celebration

January 2008 marks the 100th anniversary of efforts to open the now famous overland route from Seward to Nome. To commemorate this epic achievement, January 2008 to October 2012 has been designated the official Iditarod National Historic Trail Centennial.

Governor Sarah Palin proclaimed 2008-2012 the official centennial of the Iditarod National Historic Trail. You can read the entire Proclamation here.

The Iditarod Trail, also known historically as the Seward-to-Nome Mail Trail, refers to a thousand-plus mile (1.600 km) historic and contemporary trail system in the U.S. state of Alaska.

Historic Iditarod Trail

The Iditarod Trail was a trail that connected a point 80 km (50 mi) north of Seward, Alaska, where a forerunner of the Alaska Railroad ended, through Iditarod, Alaska and then to Nome. The trail was about 1,850 km (1,150 mi) long.

From its beginning, the trail wound along Turnagain Arm, over Crow Pass, down the Eagle River Valley and northward to the trading post of Knik, Alaska, the largest town on the Upper Cook Inlet until the railroad town of Anchorage was founded in 1915. The trail then passed west through the valleys of the Susitna River and Yentna River and over the Alaska Range and Rainy Pass. West of the Alaska Range, the trail crossed the Kuskokwim River Valley to the hills west of McGrath and entered the Innoko River mining district and the town of Ophir. After Ophir, the trail went southwest through the Kuskokwim Mountains to Iditarod.

The trail went north from Iditarod through the now abandoned towns of Dikeman and Dishkaket and then northwest to the village of Kaltag. The trail then followed the 145 km (90 mi) long Kaltag Portage, an ancient native trading trail, to Unalakleet, on the Norton Sound. From Unalakleet, the trail north and west around the shore of the Seward Peninsula, passing the villages of Shaktoolik, Koyuk, and Golovin. It then proceeded to its end on Front Street in Nome.

The trail was used during the winter by dog mushers with large freight sleds carrying up to 500 kilograms (1,100 lb) of freight.

Iditarod National Historic Trail

When American explorers and prospectors arrived in the north, they quickly learned from Native Alaskans that sled dog teams were the only way to reliably move goods and people across the frozen landscape. Not by chance, the ‘Seward to Nome Trail’ as the Iditarod was originally called, was first mapped and marked in 1908 by a four-person Alaska Road Commission crew supported by dog teams.

“…having two basket sleds and 18 sets dog harness made…at Seward we spent five days “trying out dogs” and repacking the outfit ready for the trip. ..” W.L.Goodwin 1908

Nine months after the route was surveyed, two prospectors made a ‘Christmas Day Strike’ in the Iditarod Mining District, and the last great gold rush was on. Between 1910 and 1912, 10,000 gold seekers came to Alaska’s “Inland Empire”. In the following years they worked $30 million of gold from the ground.

“…in the month of March I left for the north. That was many years ago when there were only two modes of travel, mush dogs or just mush.” Reminiscences of the Iditarod Trail, Charles Lee Cadwallader.

Roadhouses and Dog Barns

With the rush, entrepreneurs quickly erected roadhouses and dog barns along the trail at a convenient day’s journey apart—about 20 miles—to shelter and feed trail users. Freight shippers, mail haulers and well-to-do passengers relied on dogsleds. Less wealthy foot-travelers used snowshoes, skis, and the occasional bicycle.

“Meals were two dollars each, and blankets spread over wild hay on a pole bunk cost another two dollars. High prices for those days, but a cabin in the shadows of Mt. McKinley is a long way from civilization.” Nuggets and Beans, Harold Penkenpaugh.

By 1918 the stampede reversed itself. New winter mail contracts bypassed the fading town of Iditarod in favor of more direct routes to Nome, and World War I drew young miners and workers away from the gold fields.

Nome Serum Run Marks the Beginning of the End

In the winter of 1925, a deadly outbreak of diphtheria struck fear in the hearts of Nome residents. Winter ice had closed the port city from the outside world without enough serum to inoculate its residents. Serum from Anchorage was rushed by train to Nenana and picked up by a sled dog relay. Twenty of Alaska’s best mushers and their teams carried the serum 674 miles (1,078 km) from Nenana to Nome in less than 5½ days.

This was to be one of the final great feats by sled dogs. Within a decade, air transport replaced the sled dog team as the preferred way to ship mail. With downturns in gold mining, most of the roadhouses closed, boom towns emptied, and the Iditarod Trail fell into disuse.

A Partnership Effort Re-Opens the Iditarod Trail

"Trail work is never done." Joe Redington Sr., "father of the Iditarod"

Forest and tundra reclaimed the Iditarod Trail for almost a half a century until Alaskans, led by Joe Redington, Sr., reopened the routes. To draw attention to the role dogs played in Alaska’s history, Redington and his friends created an epic sled dog race from Anchorage to Nome following the route of the historic Iditarod Trail. The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race ultimately revived dog mushing in Alaska and around the world. After years of effort by Redington and the Alaska Congressional delegation, the Iditarod was designated as a National Historic Trail in 1978.

First Among America's National Trail System

National Historic Trails commemorate major routes of exploration, migration, trade, communications, and military actions that formed America. Across America, only 16 trails have been honored as National Historic Trails. The Iditarod is the only Alaskan trail in the National system, and the only Historic Trail celebrating the indispensable role played by 'man's best friend" in America's Last Great Gold Rush.

Recreation on the Trail Today

One hundred years after its heyday, some variation of the entire Historic Iditarod Trail from Seward to Nome is still open to the public. You can explore the Historic Trail year-round on foot, by auto, or by rail between Seward and Knik, Alaska, especially in the Chugach National Forest on the Kenai Peninsula and Chugach State Park right outside of Anchorage.

Winter overland travel by snowmobile, ski or dogsled is still a great way to explore the remote northern sections of the Iditarod Trail. Many community museums along the Iditarod Trail display historic photography, equipment and artifacts that depict the toils and rewards of life on the historic trail.

For summer recreationists proficient in remote water travel, the rivers used by early gold seekers offer access to miles of sandbars, lonely hills, and bug-infested swamps. And every February and March, professional and recreational racers put their minds, muscles and machines to work in epic long-distance winter races that link Alaska's largest and smallest communities.

Management of the Historic Trail

Most of the historic Iditarod Trail is located on public lands managed by the State of Alaska or federal agencies (although some segments pass over private lands). No one entity manages the entire historic trail—management is guided by a cooperative plan adopted by state and federal agencies in the mid-1980s. The federal Bureau of Land Management coordinates cooperative management of the trailand is the primary point of contact for matters involving the entire trail.

Every year local groups, community clubs and individuals contribute their personal time and money to maintain and improve the Iditarod Trail. The statewide non-profit Iditarod National Historic Trail Inc. helps protect and improve the trail and keep the "lore of the trail" alive.

Iditarod Race Route

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, named after the now-abandoned town of Iditarod, commemorates the last great goldrush in America to the Iditarod gold fields and the critical role that dogs played in the settlement and development of Alaska. It is a common myth that the Race commemorates the dogsled relay known as the 1925 "Serum Run" from Nenana to Nome. The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was first established by Joe Redington Sr. in the early 1970s to encourage the designation of the Iditarod Trail as a National Historic Trail, bring the dying tradition of dogsledding back to the villages of Alaska, and promote the sport of competitive dogsled racing.

Today the race follows much of the Primary Route of the Iditarod National Historic Trail, with a segment alternating north or south, depending on the year. (These segments are also part of the Iditarod National Historic Trail). Every 'odd' year (i.e., 2007), the Race travels the south route from Ophir to Kaltag through the ghost town of Iditarod. On even years, the Race travels north from Ophir through Ruby and Galena to Kaltag. The 1925 Serum Run followed 500 miles (800 km) of trail (now designated as the Iditarod National Historic Trail system) between Ruby and Nome.

Questions and Answers

Q: What is the length of the Trail?

A: The original surveyed mail route from Seward to Nome was 938 miles. The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race uses two alternate routes from Anchorage to Nome which are each substantially longer than the historic route. Each of the two race routes are approximately 1,100 miles from Anchorage to Nome. The total mileage for the historic trail system (including side and connecting trails) is approximately 2,300 miles.

Q: Do I need a permit to travel the trail?

A: Casual users who do not charge fees for transporting or supporting other users, or who do not organize competitive events on the trail are not required to obtain a permit. Persons who organize or benefit from commercial or competitive activities are required to obtain a Special Recreation Permit for use of federal lands.

Q: Where can I hike the trail during the summer?

A: Since the Iditarod Trail is primarily a winter trail, opportunities for summer hiking are limited. The first several miles of the trail north of Seward can be hiked during the summer as can the approximately 30 miles from Girdwood to Eagle River. Visitors to Nome can hike east along the trail near the Bering Sea coast for approximately 30 miles.

Q: Can I ride my snowmachine on the Iditarod Trail?

A: Most federal and State lands along the Iditarod are open to snowmachine use. It is best to check with the administering agency prior to travel to see if any temporary closures have been implemented.

Q: What kind of services are available near the trail?

A: The cities of Anchorage, Nome, Seward, Girdwood, Eagle River, and Wasilla all provide numerous opportunities for food, lodging and transportation. North of Wasilla, however, the trail enters an essentially roadless wilderness with very limited service and support facilities. Small towns and villages along the trail such as McGrath, Unalakleet, and Galena have regularly scheduled air transportation, but are somewhat limited in other support facilities. Smaller villages can provide food, fuel and limited lodging depending on availability.

Q: What kind of wildlife can I expect to encounter along the trail?

A: Depending on the part of the trail and the season, you can expect to see moose, caribou, brown bear, bison, wolf, Dall sheep and many varieties of birds and smaller mammals. Near the Bering Sea coast you may see seals, walrus and occasionally a polar bear. Be aware that all of these are wild animals and may become hostile if they feel threatened. Use appropriate caution with any animal encounter.

Q: I will be coming to Alaska for a week during the summer. Where are the best places to view the Iditarod and learn more about the history of the trail without having to walk long distances or hire a guide?

A: One of the best places to view the Iditarod Historic Trail is at the start in Seward. The first couple of miles of the trail begin as a paved bike path near the small boat harbor. The Seward Museum also maintains displays and interpretive material on the early days of Seward and the trail. Other interesting displays are maintained in Wasilla at the Dorothy Page Museum, and in Knik at the Musher's Hall of Fame Museum. A very interesting display on the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is maintained at the Iditarod Trail Committee Headquarters in Wasilla. If you are able to go to Nome, a drive east along the Bering Sea coast follows the historic trail for approximately 30 miles. While there, check out the materials and photos at the Carrie McClain Museum.

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GPS Data:

612754N 1494650W
61.465 -149.7805556

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