The Iditarod is a system of historic trails made famous by Alaska gold prospectors and their dog teams during the late 19th and early 20th century gold rush. Most of the trail is usable only during Alaska’s six-month winter when rivers and tundra are frozen. Each year the renowned 1,150-mile Iditarod Sled Dog Race is run along the trail from Anchorage to Nome. Other events include the 210-mile Iditasport race for skiers, mountain bikers, and snowshoers, and the Alaska Gold Rush Classic Snowmachine Race. A network of shelters is being installed by the Bureau of Land Management and the Iditarod Trail Committee.
Anchorage District, Bureau of Land Management, 8881 Abbott Loop Road, Anchorage, AK 99507; 907-287-1248
Iditarod Trail Committee, PD. Box 870800, Wasilla, AK 99887; 907-378-5155 Once used by ancient hunters, then by early 20th century gold seekers, the Iditarod is actually a network of more than 2,300 miles of trails now known as the Iditarod National Historic Trail.
The trail takes its name from the 19th century Athabascan Indian village on the Iditarod River near the site of a 1908 gold discovery. By 1910 a gold rush town flourished for a time and was the center of the Iditarod Mining District. Trails used for trade and commerce by Ingalik and Tanaina Indians were improved by and for the miners.
The southern terminus of the trail begins at Seward. White settlers entering the Territory at the port trekked through heavily forested lands, now part of the Chugach National Forest. The route eventually was surveyed by the railroad to connect Anchorage with Seward.
Gold seekers often bought provisions in Anchorage or the town of Knik as a prelude to sledding, hiking or snow-shoeing across Rainy Pass enroute to the various mining districts following news of each new strike.
Other adventurers actually started their travels in Nome. They may have worked the beaches panning for gold for a time before moving south. As the two end portions of the trail developed they met in the interior at the Iditarod Mining District.
The trail was officially surveyed by the U.S. Army’s Alaska Road Commission in 1910 and dubbed the Seward to Nome Mail Trail. It was used as a major route until 1924 when the airplane came into use.
But in 1925, the dog team and driver recaptured the attention of the nation in a dramatic episode of courage and stamina. A diphtheria epidemic threatened the town of Nome, which was low on serum to inoculate the community. Plans to send a plane were thwarted by weather. Instead a relay of dog teams was dispatched from the town of Nenana down the Tanana and Yukon rivers to the Iditarod Trail. Twenty mushers carried the serum the 674 miles in 127 1/2 hours. The mushers became heroes. President Coolidge sent medals and Balto, the lead dog of the finishing team, was immortalized in statues across the country. The era of the sled dog went out in a blaze of glory.
The Iditarod Trail was forgotten for more than forty years until the 1960s when interest in racing was renewed. In 1967 the first Iditarod race was staged between Knik and Big Lake and return on nine miles of the old Iditarod Trail. Another race was held there in 1969. Then in 1973 the race was run between Anchorage and Nome. The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which has come to be known internationally as”the last great race,” is staged each March and includes competitors from around the world.
Since then other sporting events have sprung up to provide challenges of many kinds.
As a national trail, the Iditarod is managed under the terms of a comprehensive management plan prepared by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the federal agency appointed coordinator for the trail. This plan establishes a common guide to promote the preservation, use and enjoyment of the historic route. The plan identifies the trails and sites making up the historic trail system and initiates cooperative agreements among the various land managers and owners to mark and sign trails, provide access points and manage events.
Since designation of the Iditarod as a national trail in l978, the BLM has collected much of the trail’s history, crafted cooperative agreements and begun the work of nominating sites to the National Register of Historic Places.
Assisting in this effort is the Iditarod National Historic Trail Advisory Council, an 11-member group representing the Secretary of the Interior, Secretary of Agriculture, the Governor of Alaska and private land managers and users. The Council meets twice yearly to provide guidance on aspects of trail management such as the design of trail markers, cooperative agreements and competitive events.
The Iditarod Trail Blazers, a volunteer group, provides trail maintenance and construction assistance.
What are National Trails?
The Iditarod National Historic Trail is one of a number of trails designated by Congress in recognition of their significance as scenic, recreational or historic transportation routes. The Iditarod was specifically designated for its historic importance. The system was created to provide areas of hiking and for meeting the outdoor recreation needs of an ever-expanding urban population.
Who owns the trail? Because the Iditarod is such a complex trail system, stretching from Seward in the south, to Nome on the Bering Sea, it crosses lands owned by several Native corporations, municipal governments and the State of Alaska as well as federal lands managed by the BLM, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Defense. In all there are 10 institutional land managers and numerous private owners.
The Iditarod Today
Unlike the Appalachian or Pacific Crest national trails which are located near heavily populated areas, most of the Iditarod is in the remote sections of Alaska. Only a small part of the trail can be hiked in the usual sense of the word, for the Iditarod is what is known as a winter trail. Most use occurs when the tundra and rivers are frozen and easier to cross. During the summer months the thick tundra vegetation makes hiking extremely difficult on many sections of the trail.
Today one can hike those portions of the trail which run through the Chugach National Forest or the Chugach State Park near Anchorage. Dog mushers race across frozen rivers and tundra. Skiers, snowmachiners and even mountain bikers compete over various sections of the Trail in and around Knik, McGrath, Unalakleet, Nome and other communities.