A 500-mile hiking trail across Alaska? Advocates say the pandemic is a perfect time to start

A runner in an orange windbreaker and wearing a red running backpack descends a dirt trail with wet vegetation in the foreground and mountains rising into fog int he background
A runner descends the Crow Pass Trail, which could become a piece of the Alaska Long Trail, a 500-mile chain of trails from Seward to Fairbanks (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Since the pandemic started, storefronts in towns around Alaska may have emptied, but trails?

“They’re jammed with people and that’s all the trails — trails up in the Chugach all the trails here in town,” said former Alaska Governor Tony Knowles, standing on the Coastal Trail near downtown Anchorage earlier this week. 

Park use around Alaska is up over 150% since the start of the pandemic, according to data from Google, which is why Knowles says now is the perfect time to start thinking about a trail project even more ambitious than the Coastal Trail.

It’s called the Alaska Long Trail and it would connect Seward to Fairbanks in 500 miles of existing hiking trails with some trails yet to be built. And that’s just the first section of it — someday it could include 2000 miles of trail stretching from the Panhandle in Southeast Alaska all the way to the North Slope. 

Steve Cleary, Executive Director of Alaska Trails, a non-profit advocacy and trail building group, says a board member came up with the idea in May, just as the pandemic hit. It’s modeled after other similar projects around the world — the Appalachian Trail in the Eastern United States or the Inca Trail in Peru, for example — that give travelers reason to stay around longer and pump more money into the economy. 

Tony Knowles (left) and Steve Cleary talk at an overlook on the Coastal Trail near downtown Anchorage. Knowles, who served as Anchorage Mayor in the 1980s, says getting public support for trail projects is essential for pushing them through (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

“People might come for a month and see how far they get, put on the map, and that’s where they’ll come back next year, for another month, see how far they get,” he said. 

He’s not sure if there would be regularly-spaced cabins along the way as there are on parts of the Appalachian Trail, but there would be ways to get tourists to spend money. 

“They’ll stop at all the communities along the way to resupply. And it really could be an economic driver and another way to sustain the state’s economy,” he said. 

While the trail might cost money upfront, advocates see it as an economic investment and cite studies that show the economic value that tourists who hike trails bring with them. Hiking is the fastest-growing draw for tourists in Alaska, according to a 2016 survey by the McDowell Group.  

And Cleary says that there are a lot of other issues that need funding during a pandemic and an economic crash, funding for the project might be easier than one might think. Federal programs, such as the recently-passed Great American Outdoors Act, could funnel millions into deferred trail maintenance projects.  There are also foundations that might be willing to donate to the project for causes like climate change mitigation, promoting public health, and wildlife enjoyment. 

A map shows the route of the proposed Alaska Long Trail
A map of the proposed rough route of the Alaska Long Trail. Click here to see a larger version of the map. (Courtesy of Alaska Trails)

“This is not also a huge money project. This is not a billion-dollar project. It’s not 100 million dollar project,” said Knowles. 

There is still lots of construction to be done, including a currently trail-free section of mostly wet lowlands from Healy to Nenana. But other trails already exist. 

Over 30 miles of trail have already been built on the Kesugi Ridge Trail in the Denali State Park, for example. Cleary says that Alaska Trails has also been working with the Denali Borough on trails in the National Park around the Healy Overlook Trail. And the restoration of the 120-mile Southern Trek of the Iditarod Historic Trail from Seward to Girdwood is already underway. 

Max Romey, an artist and filmmaker from Anchorage recently completed a portion of that project on foot for a film project and said that he was surprised how much of the trail existed, though it would mysteriously stop and start without warning. 

“It was really interesting to do these little tiny sections, but you could not feasibly complete them or reasonably. And they’re only missing a couple pieces. Once you connect those, it wouldn’t be crazy to take a long weekend or, you know, an extreme run or hike or backpack for a week,” he said. 

Bushwacking, fording creeks, and crawling over trees above raging rivers still has to happen, but Romey said that the experience of running and backpacking the route gave him a glimpse of some history of Alaska — from Gold Rush prospectors to Indigenous trade routes — that is hard to conceptualize from a textbook. And it’s something that could be lost. 

“Trails are kind of like the language. Once they’re gone they’re gone but there’s so much that goes into making them,” he said. 

A man crawls on his back over a tree that has fallend over a raging creek
Lars Arneson crosses a creek on the Southern Trek of the Historic Iditarod Trail. Romey said that on some sections of the route, a trail already existed on both sides of a river or creek, but there was no bridge connecting them. (Photo courtesy of Max Romey/Trailbound Alaska)

For advocates, the pandemic is a perfect time to reflect on what trails are, and what they could be. Taking lessons from pushing through Coastal Trail as Anchorage Mayor in 1980s, Knowles says that getting the public behind the project is what will ultimately determine its success. The Coastal Trail was approved in a public vote before it was built. So would the Long Trail get that kind of support?

“I don’t think so right now, because I don’t think anybody knows what it is,” he said 

But he’s hoping that will change as people consider how valuable trails are to their lives during the pandemic. Cleary, of Alaska Trails, also says that getting powerful people behind the project doesn’t hurt. 

He’s planning to meet with Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan this week.