Natural Resource Development
One Step at a Time
Completing the Alaska Long Trail
By Vanessa Orr
Sarah Lewis Photography

iking is an important pastime in Alaska for tourists and residents alike. A proposed multi-braid trail system known as the Alaska Long Trail is going to make it even easier for people to enjoy spending time outdoors.

The trail is a work in progress that will connect Fairbanks and Seward, taking advantage of already established trails and including new trails that will be developed along the way. When complete, more than 500 miles of trails will allow users to travel on mostly public lands, like the Appalachian Trail in the Lower 48. Developers dare hope that the trail system may someday connect to the Arctic or incorporate a Southeast Alaska portion.

“The vision is ambitious,” says project coordinator Mariyam Medovaya. “Our ultimate goal is to create a network of routes that can accommodate both motorized users and nonmotorized users for snowmachining, hiking, biking, and skiing.”

The current concept for the trail was developed three years ago on the heels of the work that the nonprofit Alaska Trails organization was doing with its partners to develop a priority list.

“We were looking at a map for shovel-ready projects between Fairbanks and Southeast and saw that there were already many segments of the trail on the ground between Fairbanks and Seward,” says Medovaya. “With a little imagination, you could see a continuous trail system. Everyone got excited recognizing the opportunity in Southcentral for this kind of trail.”

The idea of an Alaska long trail has been discussed for more than a decade. An early version would have followed the Trans Alaska Pipeline System. The project is now in the hands of the Alaska Long Trail Coalition, which includes partners in five regions along the route: the Fairbanks region, Denali Borough, Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Anchorage area, and eastern Kenai region. Members of the coalition, which meets quarterly, include the Chugach National Forest, Chugach State Park, Anchorage Park Foundation, Mat-Su Trails and Parks Foundation, Denali State Park, Hatcher Pass State Recreation Area, Denali Borough, and Fairbanks North Star Borough. Other stakeholders include municipalities, trail user groups, nonprofits, tourism industry associations, and tribal councils.

What’s in a Name?
In August, the Alaska Long Trail Coalition planned to switch the name of the project to Alaska Traverse. Instead of moving forward with the new name, the coalition determined that the project would benefit from keeping the name used for the past three years.
“The Alaska Long Trail is not going to happen next week, but it’s already showing real benefits, both in the near- and long-term.”
Clay Walker, Mayor, Denali Borough
Vertical descriptive route map area of the Alaska Trails topography with state/national park names, town names, a body of water, and a northward compass direction icon shown on the pathways
Descriptive detailed rectangular illustrative box showing the Alaska Long Trail Overview (concept) and the Long Trail Corridor color coded object images plus Land Ownership colored coded protocols and other proposals information
Congress recently directed the US Bureau of Land Management to conduct a National Scenic Trail (NST) feasibility study for the “Alaska Long Trail,” and this language is no part of the National Scenic Trails Act. To maximize the success of the feasibility study and minimize the confusion about the name of the project, the coalition chose to revert to the trail’s previous name.

The NST system comprises eleven long trails around the country, including the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. The NST designation opens doors to more federal funding and will be critical to the development of the Alaska Long Trail. The designation would also bring more nationwide recognition, leading to increased visitation along the route.

Trail to Treasure
“Long trails have a magical appeal—look at the other long trails around the world and you can see that a lot of people are attracted to the concept,” says Medovaya. She notes that roughly 3,000 through-hikers use the Appalachian Trail each year, but more than 3 million visitors each year trek at least one segment of that trail.

“Long trails provide a sense of adventure, and we expect that the Alaska Long Trail will likewise bring visitors from all over the world, as well as inspire Alaska residents to use it,” Medovaya adds.

The route as envisioned now is near both the state road system and Alaska Railroad, which would provide easy access. Because many different communities are also located along the road system, the trail would provide them with the opportunity to become a travel hub, bringing more people into their businesses and stimulating the economy. A typical through-hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, for example, costs between $5,000 and $10,000 per person, with a good amount of that money spent in local communities.

The Alaska Long Trail may also result in more people choosing to move to the state as it enhances quality of life. “Right now, six out of ten Alaskans live here because of the outdoor recreation opportunities that the state provides,” says Medovaya. “Increasing the amount of those opportunities will likely bring more people to Alaska, adding to its workforce.”

Building the full trail will also directly employ Alaskans, including landscape architects, construction firms, trail maintenance workers, and more.

“We’re excited because the trail will benefit both residents and tourists,” says Casey Ressler, president and CEO of the Mat-Su Convention and Visitors Bureau. Ressler also serves on the trail advisory group. “When you look at places like Hatcher Pass and Reflection Lake, that one-mile loop is packed on sunny days. Having more options for hikers is a good thing, and it’s a great way to get people outside.” Having more options also could help alleviate pressure on existing trails.

“The Alaska Long Trail is also important from a sustainability standpoint because it will become a major tourist attraction,” he adds, noting that the Appalachian Trail not only attracts through-hikers but visitors who come back year after year to complete different sections. “Those people will be eating in our restaurants, visiting our breweries, and staying at our hotels and B&Bs. We will definitely see an impact.”

A Work in Progress
Of course, creating a 500-plus mile trail across Alaska is no small feat, and trail supporters face a number of challenges to make it happen. This includes planning and securing easements for trails in areas where there are currently no specific routes, such as the section between Hatcher Pass and Talkeetna and the section between Healy and Nenana.
Glen Alps trailhead parking filled to the brim on a sunny summer day in 2020.

Chris Beck

Landscape photograph of the Glen Alps trailhead parking lot area filled to the brim on a sunny summer day in 2020
Hiking near Anchorage in the Chugach State Park.

Chris Beck

Portrait photograph of a man in a blue/black puffy jacket, red hiking backpack, tan colored cargo jeans, and a hiking pole seen hiking near Anchorage in the Chugach State Park on an overcast day
New routes need to be sustainable in terms of construction and visibility and must also work for the traveler, notes Medovaya. For example, trails cannot go over marshland or wetlands, and while 95 percent of the proposed trail route is on public land (state, federal, and municipal), private landowners must also agree to provide trail access.

“The few private parcels we need to work with are on Alaska Native lands. We’ve been working with Ahtna Corporation on early-stage planning around Cantwell and with the Knik, Chickaloon, and Eklutna tribes to consult on route selection,” says Medovaya. “We’ve started that process and so far have received a positive reception.”

There has been hesitation from some groups concerned that trail development might interfere with hunting and trapping rights. “Those decisions are up to the land managers; our coalition does not make policy decisions on how the trails are used,” Medovaya says. “If there are restrictions on land use, those will stay in place; the use of the new trail segments will be according to land management policies, the terrain, and community input.”

Approximately 20 percent of the trail is already on the ground, with the most complete section between Seward and Eagle River in the Chugach National Forest and Chugach State Park. Farther north, planning is currently underway to connect Eagle River and Palmer.

“A couple of other segments are underway in terms of getting easements and permits, and just recently a key segment connecting Government Peak Recreation Area and Hatcher Pass received approval for a permit,” says Medovaya. “We’re now working on securing funding for that piece.”

Mayor Clay Walker of the Denali Borough says that his area is excited to be part of the trail planning. The borough is currently looking at where new trail segments can link to existing trails, particularly in the Denali Park area.

“We’ve been working with our partners to identify the new segments we’ll need because some of the trails will be within the DOT [US Department of Transportation] right of way, and others lie within other land management ownership,” Walker says.

The mayor adds that the borough has some priority areas for connecting communities. “For example, we’re hopeful to get funding for separated paths along the DOT right of way from Cantwell to McKinley Village and into the park,” Walker says. “We’d love to have a separated path connecting those communities.”

Raising Funds
While there is no exact date for when the 80 miles of trail through the Denali Borough will be completed, Walker says that the borough is working on finding funding while discussing long-term maintenance.

“We’re in the early stages of discussions with land managers about who will maintain those trails,” he notes, adding that the borough is looking at numerous funding sources, including state and federal funds. “We did get some congressionally directed spending funds for Healy south to Antler Ridge Trailway, so we’re making headway.”

According to Medovaya, the coalition has been quite successful in securing state and federal funding to construct trail segments over the past few years, including $11.6 million in federal appropriations with Senator Lisa Murkowski’s support. Most of that money is being used to complete the Iditarod National Historic Trail—Southern Track between Turnagain Arm and Seward, which will be finished in the next couple of years.

For the last two years, the state capital budget has included Alaska Long Trail projects, most of which are centered around Anchorage and Chugach State Park.

“The fact that the trail has received money through the state capital budget shows that trails are a nonpartisan issue; people like trails on both sides of the political divide,” says Medovaya. “Everyone uses trails, whether for hiking, biking, skiing, snowmachining, or walking dogs.”

Alaska Trails is also pursuing individual donations to use for operational expenses as well, to bring stakeholders together for the planning process.

Crow Pass trail takes hikers above treeline. The trailhead is off Crow Creek Road in Girdwood.

Kerry Tasker

Portrait photograph of two hikers on Crow Pass trail on a sunny day; Crow Pass trail takes hikers above treeline. The trailhead is off Crow Creek Road in Girdwood.
Upper Iditarod Trail, part of the Iditarod National Historical Trail, winds through rainforest in Anchorage’s wild backyard.

Monica Sterchi-Lowman

Close-up photograph perspective of a wooden sign planted onto a middle area of a tree trunk that reads GIRDWOOD IDITAROD TRAIL; Upper Iditarod Trail, part of the Iditarod National Historical Trail, winds through rainforest in Anchorage's wild backyard.
“As a nonprofit, we facilitate the process of planning and securing funds, and that work requires some funding; all of our individual donations go to that, and we are grateful for those,” says Medovaya. “We are also very grateful for the help of ConocoPhillips, Rasmuson Foundation, Mat-Su Trails and Parks Foundation, and Turnagain Training, which runs the Race Across Alaska Winter Challenge and has brought thousands of dollars to the project from the individuals participating.”
Patient Steps
According to Medovaya, the full trail between Fairbanks and Seward may take thirty years to complete, though she expects about 70 percent of the trail to be finished in the next ten years.

“It’s a big, ambitious goal and it will take time,” says Walker. “The Appalachian Trail took over 100 years, and while I don’t expect that it will take that long, there are a number of complications working with different land managers and funding agencies to stitch this whole quilt together.”

He credits nonprofit organizers with taking the lead. “The work that Alaska Trails has done to bring different organizations, agencies, and entities together around this coalition has already made headway toward increased trail access, and we’ve seen some real progress outside of the big goal,” Walker says. “The Alaska Long Trail is not going to happen next week, but it’s already showing real benefits, both in the near- and long-term.”

Once completed, the trail and its segments will be available for use year-round and will also be open to various modes of transportation, depending on the location. The entire trail could be traversed in about three months, depending on whether people choose to stay in towns along the way, like Talkeetna or Healy, or take side trips.

“In winter, people can ski or use snowmachines for some segments to make the trip faster, and in the summer, they can hike or bike segments, or even packraft,” says Medovaya, adding that hikers could also choose to use the Alaska Railroad flagstop service to connect between gaps, such as through the Nenana Canyon.

“The variety of uses and transportation options make it a truly Alaskan trail,” she says.