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A musher and his dog team run mushing across the snow.
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A dogsled team carrying mail on the trail out of Seward.
A dogsled team carries mail on the trail out of Seward.

The History of the Trail

Although Alaska's Iditarod trail is best known today for the annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the race is really only one aspect of the trail's rich history. Before any Russian or European influence in Alaska the precursor to the trail was a large network of traditional trade and travel routes used by Alaska natives primarily for winter travel under the Aurora borealis and gleaming sun dogs. In 1908, the trails were used by government employees to explore a route from Seward to Nome but the route they cleared saw little use for its first few years. However, just as mineral discovery had driven many of Alaska's previous periods of rapid growth, increased use of the trail came in 1910 when outside prospectors heard news of gold in the area around what is today the abandoned town of Iditarod. During the ensuing gold rush, miners used the trail to connect interior Alaska with important sea ports along the coast. As the Iditarod mining district developed, the trail subsequently became the main mail and supply route from the coastal towns of Seward and Knik to the mining camps at Flat, Ophir, Ruby, and all the way to the west coast communities of Unalakleet, Elim, Golovin, White Mountain, and Nome. These prospectors also recognized the value in dogsled travel in the remote and expansive wilderness of Alaska. Dog sled teams were used to carry the mail, supplies, even gold into and out of these remote areas of Alaska.

George Nollner, a musher, is covered in a heavy fur coat looking at the camera while standing on his sled. His dogs are tied up and ready to pull.
George Nollner was one of twenty mushers to help relay serum from Nenana to Nome.

The Importance of the Sled Dog
By the 1920s, dogsleds had long been the primary means of travel for mail, cargo and people in the vast wilderness of Alaska. Recent advances in aircraft technology however were quickly making air travel a favored transportation mode in remote Alaska and dogsledding would soon become obsolete. In 1925 though, The significance of sled dogs and the Iditarod trail would be impressed upon the world one more time. In that year, the city of Nome on Alaska's remote Seward Peninsula suffered a diptheria outbreak that threatened to exact a tragic death toll on the people of the community and surrounding area if life-saving serum could not be delivered to the city in time. Unfortunately, flying the serum from Anchorage to Nome in the dead of winter at the time was just not feasible. Instead, the serum was carried north from Anchorage to Nenana on the Alaska Railroad where it was to be picked up by the first team in a chain of dogsled teams that would quickly relay the serum to Nome. With each village along the trail offering their best musher and dogsled teams, the serum was carried the almost 700 miles to Nome in just over five days. This epic serum run made heroes out of a few mushers and sled dogs and would later be part of the inspiration for today's annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

A map showing the Iditarod National Historic Trail
A map of the Iditarod National Historic Trail
The Iditarod National Historic Trail encompasses several connecting trails extending from Seward to Nome.

Iditarod Trail near Knik Lake
Alaska DNR
A portion of the Iditarod Trail as it looks today near Knik Lake.

The Trail Today
In 1978, Congress designated three trails for the first time as National Historic Trails to recognize their importance in major journeys that shaped America. The Iditarod Trail was one of these first three trails to gain this designation and today, out of only 19 trail systems now designated as National Historic Trails, the Iditarod Trail is the only winter trail on the list. The Iditarod National Historic Trail encompasses 2,300 miles of winter routes, stretching from Seward to Nome and most of the trail is located in remote areas with sparse populations. The majority of the trail is more easily traveled in winter, but there are segments of the route available for walking, hiking, or biking:

  • The first several miles of the trail north of Seward
  • Johnson Pass trail on the Kenai Peninsula
  • approximately 30 miles of the trail from Girdwood to Eagle River, near Anchorage
  • Visitors to Nome can also follow the trail for approximately 30 miles along the Bering Sea coast

For more information about the Iditarod National Historic Trail visit: the Alaska BLM Iditarod National Historic Trail website or the Iditarod Historic Trail Alliance or download Part 1 and 2 of the 2011 Iditarod National Historic Trail Visitor Guide:
Visitor Guide Part 1 (.pdf 5.3 MB)
Visitor Guide Part 2 (.pdf 4.0 MB)

A dogteam travels along the Iditarod trail near Anchorage Alaska.
A dogteam along a section of the Iditarod Trail.

The Sled Dog Today
After airplane travel in Alaska become more prolific and efficient in the first third of the 20th century, the use of sled-dogs for transportation declined. Sled dog racing however became popular in the years after WWII, mainly in the form of short distance sprint races. It was not until the late 1960s, when proponents of long-distance sled dog racing like Joe Redington Sr. and Dorothy Paige, were able to gain support for organization of a long distance race to pay homage to the importance of dogsledding in Alaskan history and to commemorate the 1925 serum run to Nome. Now known as "The Last Great Race on Earth", the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was first run in 1973 and begins each year on the first weekend of March. The Race stretches over 1,000 miles, from Anchorage to Nome, with race teams usually reaching Nome in 10 to 15 days. The race is known not only for its distance but for the harsh weather and grueling trail conditions that teams often face along the way. The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race is not the only competition to follow part of the Iditarod National Historic Trail. The Serum Run '25 Sled Dog race retraces the exact route of the 1925 serum run from Nenana to Nome each year.  


The 2017 Iditarod Race starts March 4, 2017! 

Stop by the Anchorage Alaska Public Lands Information Center on the day of commence me to warm up, and find out more information about Dog Mushing in Alaska! 

One Denali National Park's working sled dogs.
One of the working sled dogs of Denali NP&P

The Working Dogs of Denali
Of course, you can still find working sled dogs in Alaska and they offer their owners a dependable, loyal, and powerful means of transportation across the many winter trails that traverse the state. One notable kennel is the one at Denali National Park and Preserve where approximately 30 sled dogs are used by park personnel to patrol wilderness areas of the park that are off-limits to motorized vehicles. If you want to learn more about these unique and hard-working dogs, visit Denali NP&P's Sled Dog Kennel Webpage at:

Artifacts from the Trail
During the Gold Rush, thousands of Americans came north seeking wealth and adventure. Many returned home with Iditarod-era memorabilia like postcards, journals, photos, books, and other relics of the day. Over the years, these relics have been handed down from generation to generation, sometimes cherished and protected, other times forgotten and left to the elements in basements, attics, and garages across the nation. The USDA Forest Service and US Bureau of Land Management (BLM), federal managers for the Iditarod National Historic Trail, would like to help protect these relics and better tell the story of historic Iditarod Trail to the nation.

If you are interested in sharing your bit of Iditarod Trail history, BLM would consider it for use in the development of education and interpretive materials such as signs, brochures, and trail guides. BLM can also help you find a permanent public archive for your items.

If you have questions, would like more information or would like to contribute an item, please contact:

Annette Heckart
Interpretive Specialist
Chugach National Forest
3301 'C' Street, Suite 300
Anchorage, AK 99503

Kevin Keeler
Iditarod NHT Coordinator
Bureau of Land Management
4700 BLM Road
Anchorage, AK 99507

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The aurora borealis is visible on average more than 200 days per year in Fairbanks, making it an international tourist destination for aurora viewing.