Outdoor recreation in Alaska is unique because Alaska’s landscapes are different from anywhere else. Our mountains are bigger, our wild spaces more vast and our wildlife more abundant. While plenty of issues threaten to divide us, prioritizing time spent outside might be the most universal – and unifying – of Alaskan values. Alaskans demonstrate their commitment to outdoor recreation in both their rate of participation and their intensity. Across nearly all types of outdoor recreation activities, we get outside more and we play harder than folks in other states.
We hunt, fish, hike, bike, mush, skijor, snowmachine, run, ski, snowshoe, ride ATVs and berry pick across our home state. Naturally, Alaskans also love long distance, backcountry challenges like the Susitna100, the Iditarod and the Iron Dog. To that end, we deserve a long trail that embraces that spirit of adventure, while also providing ample opportunities for an afternoon family hike. Statewide nonprofit Alaska Trails, along with our Alaska Long Trail Coalition partners, is proposing just such a trail – a 500+ mile multi-braid trail system connecting Fairbanks and Seward through the Kenai Mountains, the Chugach Mountains, the Talkeetna Mountains, the Alaska Range and the Interior.
Most of the proposed route will pass through US Forest Service, National Park Service, BLM, and State of Alaska lands. While some other long trails, like the Appalachian Trail, are hiking-only footpaths, we seek to embrace the multi-use spirit of Alaska’s trails. The trail system will incorporate a variety of year-round uses (motorized and non-motorized) along different braids. Sections of the proposed trail will be open to hikers, bikers, ATV-ers, skiers, snowmachiners, skiers, skijorers, equestrians and others. Which sections? That depends on a few key factors: the constraints of the physical landscape, the policies of the agencies that manage the land through which the trail passes, and the recreation communities that participate in the planning process. The vision is of a braided network of trails from the Pacific coast in the south to the heart of Alaska’s Interior that will allow for a variety of uses and experiences.
Momentum is building for the Alaska Long Trail. The concept has received outstanding bipartisan support across user groups, local governments, and geographic regions. We are excited to see so much interest and enthusiasm. Several Long Trail projects have recently been funded – and in some cases completed – through federal grant programs and national outdoor recreation funding. Now, Alaska Trails and partners are working together this legislative session to secure funding for shovel-ready and/or planning-ready Long Trail projects in the FY2023 state capital budget.
Specific Long Trail projects include:
- developing multi-use segments on inactive logging roads (#2)
- separated highway paths for safe non-motorized travel (#4)
- upgrading winter trails for multi-use year-round access (#1)
- building new non-motorized trails (#3, 6, 12)
- improving winter maintenance and connectivity for motorized trails (#5)
- building essential bridge connections (#14)
- reconnaissance studies to identify links between existing segments (#7, 8)
- existing trail improvements (#10, 11, 13)
- wayfinding and safety improvements (#9)
- building backcountry trailside cabins, enhancing multi-use access (#15)
In the Fairbanks area, the projects include improving the all-season, multi-use trails in Isberg Recreation Area; building 18 miles of multi-use trails through the Tanana Valley State Forest; and developing a new connection along the Equinox Marathon trail.
In the Denali Borough, a critical segment is included to create a 5-mile non-motorized separated path along the east side of the Parks Highway from Carlo Creek to McKinley Village. This Long Trail segment will simultaneously make it easier and safer for local residents to move along the Parks highway corridor, and help support the growing “frontcountry recreation” opportunities for Denali National Park visitors.
In the Mat-Su Borough, the projects include maintenance improvements for a motorized winter braid of the Alaska Long Trail in the Susitna Valley between Big Lake and Trapper Creek; construction of a 12-mile trail connecting the popular four season trail systems at Government Peak Recreation Area with those at Hatcher Pass; and planning for the Palmer Hay Flats trail – the bluff-edge “coastal trail” for the Mat Su.
In the Anchorage area, Long Trail projects include a reconnaissance study to determine a non-motorized connection between Anchorage and Mat-Su Borough; safety and wayfinding improvements on the Anchorage segments of the Long Trail (the Moose Loop); rebuilding and rerouting numerous eroded sections of the Crow Pass trail; improvements to the Arctic to Indian winter trail; an extension of the Turnagain Arm trail around Windy Corner to Indian; and a bridge replacing the now-closed hand tram over Glacier Creek in Girdwood.
On the Kenai Peninsula, there is a proposed, new trailside cabin overlooking Spencer Glacier along the Whistle Stop railroad corridor of Chugach National Forest. This project will provide access to the backcountry to residents and visitors of diverse abilities and be open to motorized and non-motorized users.
Piece by piece, Alaska Trails and our many partners are working at the local level to identify practical options for the missing trail segments needed to complete the Alaska Long Trail. Along the way, we’re working with trail users, landowners, local governments, and other partners to make sure that it is a trail by, and for, Alaskans. In addition to providing more ways for residents to get outside and enjoy Alaska, the Long Trail provides reasons for visitors to spend more time and more money in our state, benefitting Alaska businesses and communities. And while there is no doubt that a world-class long trail will attract visitors (and their wallets) to our state, this will be our trail. So whether you enjoy the Alaska Long Trail by riding your snowmachine for the day on the Johnson Pass Trail, by gravel biking through Tanana State Forest, or by through-hiking it’s full length on foot, we hope all Alaskans will take great pride in the creation of this world-class trail system, here in our world-class, scenic landscapes.
If you’re interested in getting involved in the process, or learning more about the Alaska Long Trail and how you can show your support, visit our website: https://www.alaska-trails.org/the-alaska-long-trail.
Haley Johnston is the Tongass National Forest Sustainable Trail Strategy Project Manager.