Combine the weather on the Appalachian Trail, the views of the Pacific Crest Trail, and the navigational difficulties of the Continental Divide Trail, and you can envision the experience of a long trail in Alaska.
We’ve all heard the saying: Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither are trail systems. But the Alaska Long Trail (not the official title, just a placeholder) is the stuff thru-hikers dream about—and though it may take time, it’s a dream worth fighting for. Though the trail is still in its infancy, the vision is to create a path stretching roughly 500 miles from Fairbanks to Seward. It would closely follow the Parks Highway from Fairbanks south to Talkeetna, swing south through Chugach State Park, then follow the Iditarod Trail south to Seward.
“I don’t want this to be a 100-year project, but it will probably take longer and cost more than people hope,” said Chris Beck, coordinator of Alaska Trails Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to more and better trails. For the past few years, Beck has been one of the keepers of the Alaska Long Trail flame.
Origins of the Alaska Long Trail
The idea for a long trail in Alaska took shape with the inspiration and support of former governor Tony Knowles. The initial proposal was for a 900-mile route connecting the Beaufort Sea to Valdez following the trans-Alaska pipeline corridor. However, there were challenges. A more plausible route revealed itself when the Alaska Trails Initiative prepped the Statewide Trails Investment Strategy document. Their research showed that connecting existing tracks and new projects on public lands could easily form a backbone and workable route for a continuous trail from Fairbanks to Seward instead.
Beck noted a diverse parade of support over the years, including public land management agencies, Native organizations, local governments, businesses, and more than 100 passionate volunteers.
“The Alaska Long Trail is racing out of the gate, generating broad bipartisan support in just the first two years since it was conceived,” he said.
Beck emphasized that when the full Alaska Legislature earmarked $13.2 million in the 2021 capital budget toward trail segments, that proved their support for a “next generation economy,” a scale of investment Beck hasn’t seen in his 40 years in Alaska. Even though current governor Mike Dunleavy vetoed the funds as a side effect of the state’s struggle over the permanent fund dividend, Beck is confident all entities see how a long trail nurtures a more durable economy.
The economic benefit
According to Lee Hart, founder of Alaska Outdoor Alliance, another nonprofit heavily involved in the long trail, there is definite economic motivation.
“Tourism is front and center in this state, as evidenced by the numbers,” Hart said. Alaska has the seventh largest recreation economy in the United States, and outdoor recreation represents 4.2 percent of the state’s economy.
Plus, demand is soaring. New data indicate that the demographics of Alaskan tourists include younger and more independent travelers seeking active, outdoor recreation experiences, with hiking as their fastest growing activity.
“We need to be ready for the tsunami of outdoor recreation in our state,” Hart said. She also noted that we need to make sure that growth does not outpace the state’s ability to support the existing infrastructure. “We want to think ahead and develop systems and protocols for maintaining, as well as building, toward the future,” she said. “The trail is one opportunity for the potential of the state’s outdoor recreation sector.”
On average, visitors spend $198 per day while in Alaska. If half the state’s visitors stayed “one more day,” that would translate to an extra $137 million in spending per year. Long trails have power on local economies and businesses, providing more reasons for visitors to slow down, stick around, and invest money on lodging, stores, restaurants, and guides.
Residents will also benefit
While some communities demonstrate ambivalence toward the trail, citing satisfaction with their current level of tourist activities and fears of overuse, a long trail benefits residents as well—promoting healthy lifestyles with more day hikes and multi-week, lifetime achievements. In fact, 81 percent of Alaskan residents already participate in outdoor recreation, and if the pandemic revealed anything, it’s that people are seeking close-to-home pursuits.
“Alaskan garages have a lot of different ways to get outside and have fun, and people like to move around the state in a variety of ways, so we want to meet mixed user needs,” Beck noted. So, while the trail will be primarily for non-motorists, the goal is to include a braided route to accommodate multiple types of users, which may vary by location and season.
Being built one section at a time
Step by step, portions of the trail in the form of individual trail projects have received recreation infrastructure grants and investments and have been permitted and survived the public comment process. Denali Borough successfully partnered with the National Park Service and Department of Transportation to gain Federal Land Access Program funds to construct a new parking area and trailhead for Antler Ridge, identifying the most buildable terrain and access to trails just outside the national park. Phase one accomplished the paved parking area, and the next phase will include trail upgrades and restrooms.
And while enhancing the Antler trailhead area predates any long trail concept, Denali Borough’s mayor, Clay Walker, says there is lots of excitement around how the project will impact the bigger picture.
“The expansion of quality ‘frontcountry’ Denali experiences is a defined goal of Denali Borough,” said Walker. “This infrastructure in the entrance of the park is becoming more important with some closures of the [national] park.”
According to Beck, “The next step is to build on bipartisan support, and to work with communities, landowners, and users to plan routes to fill gaps in the trail, and to secure federal, state, local, and foundation funding for key trail segments.”