Alaska, History, Outdoors

Today’s Iditarod Trail still poses winter travel trials at Turnagain Pass

  Nordic skier exploring snowy Iditarod National Historic Trail. Credit: Will Brennan USFS

A recently restored segment of the historic Iditarod Trail beckons travelers at Turnagain Pass, but is not without traditional navigational challenges. Six large bridges are yet to be installed on this 11-mile trail segment connecting the Johnson Pass Trail up and over Turnagain Pass down to Seward Highway Milepost 72.5. Winter travel affords the best opportunity to cross the creeks traversing the route.

 

Alaska’s Iditarod Trail is world famous for the endurance sled dog race from Willow to Nome and nationally esteemed as one of 19 National Historic Trails. The Iditarod National Historic Trail is not a single continuous trail, but a network of 2,300 miles of trails that served as the conduit for winter commerce from Seward to Nome, particularly during the gold rush heyday of 1880-1920. Gold was sent out and supplies brought in via regular, supported dogsled routes from the port of Seward. Winter travel afforded easier passage of muskeg and brush, although it also threatened avalanche risk in steeper terrain.

 

The first 186 miles of the Iditarod National Historic Trail, known as the “Southern Trek”, are on Chugach National Forest land. Chugach National Forest is incrementally restoring the trail for non-motorized and winter motorized travel from Seward to Girdwood. Piece by piece, hikers, skiers, mushers, or snowmachiners may travel the traditional route that followed Native Alaskan trails and sustained later Gold Rush communities.

 

Dena’ina travelers used frozen rivers for winter travel and gold prospectors of the 1896 Turnagain Arm gold rush followed their lead. In the Turnagain Pass area, prospectors followed Ingram Creek from Turnagain Arm up to the pass. On the southwest side of the pass, the trail followed Granite Creek to Sixmile Creek, access to the boomtowns of Sunrise and Hope.

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The Granite Creek-Ingram Creek trails were used until 1951 when the Seward Highway was completed along roughly the same route. This traditional trail has been restored by Chugach National Forest, save for six bridges, which have more demanding engineering specifications today than existed in 1908 when the Alaska Road Commission formally surveyed the Seward to Nome Mail Trail. From the north, the Turnagain Pass Iditarod trail leads from the Muskeg Meadows Trailhead at Milepost 72.5 near the base of Turnagain Pass up to Center Ridge (approximately halfway) to the North Johnson Pass Trailhead. A parallel trail for snowmachiners runs between Granite Creek Recreation Area and the west side rest area at Turnagain Pass.

 

Experienced winter travelers can negotiate creek crossings when low stream flow and ice bridges open the rolling landscape around Turnagain Pass. Skis or snowshoes are best for the soft snow present on the route as of early January reported by Chugach National Forest Trail Crew Coordinator Will Brennan. The relatively deep canyons of Spokane and Bertha Creeks are among the more challenging crossings of this route. There are no signs marking the trail, nor much traffic, so the trail is best for self-equipped travelers seeking a backcountry tour. As such, it is also a little-visited gem for backcountry Nordic skiers accessible from the Seward Highway.

 

North of Center Ridge, the trail is exposed to avalanche paths. Current avalanche conditions and safe travel guidance can be found at the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center website, www.cnfaic.org/. Also, if you make it to Girdwood on January 27th or 28th, you can join the Hot Dog and Ski Bunny party at the Sitzmark to benefit this invaluable organization.

 

If you explore Turnagain Pass this winter, you are tracing the same routes as potlaching Dena’ina, dog-running mail carriers, and pioneering road builders. Kenai Mountains Turnagain Arm National Heritage Area promotes and protects the heritage and continued use of corridors connecting Alaskan communities.

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