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Bearfoot Travel Guides: The Tangled Iditarod Trail Led Miners To Gold Country

Places To See The Iditarod Trail: Local Towns All Over Alaska Have A Piece Of The Iditarod Trail Pie

The "Iditarod Trail" was a mail trail that started in Seward and ended in Nome.  Back in the days of the Gold Rush, mail trails were vitally important. They were used by dog mushers to haul freight and news from the rest of America up into the mining camps. And, they were used to freight gold back, down to the sea.

On its way north, the Iditarod Trail passed through many settlements and camps that eventually turned into well-known (and lesser-known) Alaska communities. This is a brief look at places on Alaska's road system where you can physically come in contact with the historic "Iditarod Trail."

Location #1: 

Seward, Mile 0 Of The Iditarod Trail

Sign welcoming travelers to Seward.
Welcome sign to Seward, Alaska.
Before Anchorage was the most important city in Alaska, the most influential "city" in the state was Seward. Located in a mountain-fringed seaside town on Resurrection Bay, Seward is at the breezy end of Resurrection Bay.

It's a Gold Rush town, with big, broad streets that anticipated a future as the capital city of Alaska, with a bustling community full of trolleys. When the Alaska Railroad came along, though, the town lost its clout to Anchorage, which took over its importance. Eventually Anchorage became the unofficial capital of the growing new state, and Seward was left behind.

But it did have its glory days, during the Gold Rush, when miners would bring gold into Seward by dog team, down the Iditarod Trail. Dog teams pulled into Seward, in front of the very same buildings you can now see on 4th Avenue, where tourists and local people park their cars. The teams were carrying gold. Lots of gold -- up to a million dollars worth of gold, from the coastal gold fields for transport Outside.
Postcard showing dog teams arriving in Seward, Alaska from the gold fields on the Iditarod Trail, bringing gold.

Plaque describing the Iditarod Trail and Seward Alaska's importance.
Outdoor sign in Seward describing the Iditarod Trail.
Sign showing Seward,Alaska,'s tie to the Iditarod.
Mile 0 of the Iditarod Trail in Seward.
Seward has a number of signs around town, directing you to "Mile 0" of the Iditarod Trail, near the shore, and explaining the historic background of the trail and how the town was tied to the great Trail.

Location #2: 

Crow Pass At Girdwood: A Rough & Ready Place To View The Iditarod Trail

Iditarod Trailhead at Crow Pass near Crow Creek Mine.
From Seward, the trail headed north, around Turnagain Arm, and through Crow Pass, near what is now the town of Girdwood, around 40 miles of what is now Anchorage.

The trail goes through dense, big trees -- coastal spruce.

Here, the Iditarod Trail climbs through the trees, winding its way up and over tree roots. You can walk along the trail if you like, and ponder how dog teams could have possibly negotiated these woods.

Location #3: 

Eagle River Nature Center

Iditarod Trail route to Crow Pass starts here.
Overlook at Eagle River Nature Center near Iditarod Trail.

Crow Creek and Crow Pass are actually officially part of the Anchorage Municipality, although there's nothing "Anchorage-like" about the area. Eagle River, which is north of Anchorage, is also officially in the Anchorage Muncipality. A little more city-like than Crow Creek and Girdwood, nevertheless this area is at the end of a 21 mile, one-way trail section that starts in Girdwood, skirts the entire city of Anchorage through the mountains and hills, and winds up at Eagle River Nature Center.

It's a strenuous trip in some places, hiking from Crow Creek to Eagle River along the trail, and can take over two or more days. This section of the trail runs through a state park, and there are many restrictions involving fires and places you can camp. There are also dangerous river-fording problems, so you should not try the hike unless you first stop at Chugach State Park Headquarters at Mile 115 Seward Highway.

You can view the Iditarod Trail from the Eagle River end, by driving to Mile 12 of the Eagle River Road, to the Eagle River Nature Center, which is the northern end of the Eagle River-Girdwood Iditarod Trail section.

Location #4:

Gold Rush Town Of Knik

Sign for the Knik Museum on Knik-Goose Bay Road.
Knik Museum & Iditarod Trail sign.
Once -- in the days before Anchorage came into prominence -- Knik (pronounced "Kah-nick") was the largest city in Cook Inlet. "Anchorage" was a place where steamers from Seattle and California anchored their ships. Then, miners got into "lighters" or smaller boats, which took them to destinations in Cook Inlet, which included Knik -- but also other places, such as Tyonek and Hope, down the coast. Knik was a trading post, and prospectors, as well as Native people (many of them Dena'ina from nearby areas, but others the Ahtna from faraway Copper River Country) walked to Knik to trade.

When the Iditarod Trail was put in from Seward to Nome, it crossed over through Knik. The town became even bigger, with a newspaper, hotels, saloons, barbershop, kennels, and even a jail. Knik was a real boom town, fueled by gold fever, as the dog teams roared through, laden with thousands of pounds of gold on their way to Seward.

By 1917, the Alaska Railroad came through Wasilla, near Knik. (You turn at the old railroad depot in Wasilla, onto the Knik-Goose Bay Road
to get to Knik.) The boom in Knik was over.

Nowadays, you can drive down the Knik-Goose Bay Road to the Knik Museum. It's the old pool hall, and it's full of Iditarod lore. On the way, you can also stop off at the Iditarod Headquarters, which are closer to Wasilla than Knik.

The Knik Museum was once a Gold Rush pool hall on the Iditarod Trail.
Knik is important to the current Iditarod Sled Dog Race, which happens every March. A Knik resident, Joe Redington, was concerned about the demise of dog mushing, which was being replaced by snowmobiles (or "snowmachines" as they're called in Alaska). In 1967, he and Dorothy Page, a Wasilla amateur historian, thought up the race as a winter carnival event. The first race was only 25 miles and ran on the old Iditarod Trail between Wasilla and Knik. Later, the race was expanded to include a run from Anchorage to Nome, along the Iditarod Trail -- a distance of almost a thousand miles.

The Gold Rush had a huge impact on Knik. But, except for the museum, it's hardly something you would be aware of. There's a sign at the Iditarod Trail where it crosses near the museum and heads off the road system, west through the wilderness, to the coastal town of Nome.

Location #5

Tanana River City Of Nenana

Where the diphtheria serum arrived for Nome.
The Nenana Trail Depot, where the serum arrived for Nome.
And here we take a leap, by driving hundreds of miles north of Knik -- to Nenana, which is 50 miles south of Fairbanks on the Parks Highway.

The "Iditarod Trail" wasn't just one trail. It was a convoluted tangle of  Native American trails, which crisscrossed Alaska far more densely than the sparse, current two-lane Alaska road system does today. One part of the trail ran between Nome and Nenana, as a mail trail. The way it worked was that mail came in from the lower states, and was then shipped by rail from Seward, where it was taken off the train at Nenana, and then shipped by dog sleds a total of 674 miles from Nenana to Nome, taking almost a month to get there. This went on, after the railroad was put in, until around the mid-1920s. By 1925, dog teams were being replaced during the winter by small planes carrying the mail.

But, during  the winter of 1925, it was too cold to run the planes. And a diphtheria epidemic -- as rare and dangerous for its time as ebola is today -- sprang up in distant Nome. Antitoxins were shipped to Seward, then railed to Nenana. Twenty mushers from the fading mail crews got together with 150 dogs, and relayed the serum, wrapped in a blanket, to Nome in only five and a half days. (They worked separately, like racers passing the baton, moving the serum from one river community's musher to the next.) It was heralded as one of the great heroic events of the decade: The Race Of Mercy.

Today, Nenana people rarely, if ever, promote the race, or their town's role in it. But Nenana itself is an "Iditarod Trail" town and well worth visiting, as it remains extraordinarily authentic, with many buildings still here that existed in 1925.

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