At this moment, the nonprofit groups Alaska Huts and Alaska Trails, in coordination with many other state and private organizations, are working toward building a series of trails and huts that people all over the world will speak of in the same breath as they do of the trails, huts and scenery of Nepal, the Alps, New Zealand and Peru. With the rise of eco-tourism, Alaska could tap into this trend by building a newer, greener and long-term economy that allows people even without any outdoor experience to “touch the wild."
People come from all over the world to take cruises up the Panhandle, hop on train tours to Denali and charter fishing boats out of Homer and Seward. Other people come to crawl up the flanks of Denali and Mount Foraker or trek through the pathless expanse of the Arctic. Between these extremes — comfortable tours on one side and arduous mountaineering and trekking on the other — exists the great middle: the wilds and wilderness of Alaska that begins at the road’s or railroad’s end and remain open to all who want a relatively easy and safe outdoor experience.
Currently, going into the wilds of Alaska means an often arduous trip. Even the popular Crow Pass Trail requires fording a wide, cold river. It also involves camping out, which means having to carry more on one’s back and take precautions against the intrusion of bears.
Compared to even most other states, Alaska has barely tapped into the economic and mental benefits of a series of trails connected by huts accessible to almost anyone who can hike a few miles. One merely has to think of the White Mountains in New Hampshire and the Rocky Mountains in Colorado or Appalachian Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and Pacific Crest Trail to realize how few trails and fewer huts and cabins Alaska has in comparison.
Those of us associated with Alaska Huts and Alaska Trails hope to change that. The trails we envision, along with a series of huts and transportation to and from these trails, will offer tourists and Alaskans the opportunity to encounter the extensive and expansive wilds of this big state safely, affordably and comfortably.
Some such trails have already started to appear. For instance, the current Glacier Discovery project through the Placer River and Trail River valleys will offer train transportation to and from the trail, wide and gradual trails most people can hike without difficulty, and a series of comfortable huts along the way — and along that way, marvel at the amazing landscape of glaciers, river gorges and high mountains.
Another project, the Historic Iditarod Trail, will offer tourists and Alaskans a 120-plus mile end-to-end hike from Seward to Eagle River — and maybe, given enough funding, then on to Talkeetna and even Fairbanks along the historic route of the Iditarod Trail.
Yet both of these projects have slowed or even stalled for lack of funding.
Such trails, though, with a series of huts along their length and maybe even guides and shuttle services to make travel even easier and safer, could compete with other national trails, including Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail in popularity — both of which have greatly helped local economies (in some places even making up almost the entirety of that economy). Why couldn’t this also prove so in Alaska with its larger mountains, broader rivers, novel glaciers and snowfields?
Though we at Alaska Trails see and support the importance of the full breadth of the outdoor recreation industry, we have chosen focus on trails and trails-related infrastructure, like huts, trailheads, signage, marketing and trail maintenance. We believe that investing in trails and their infrastructure will entail little cost and bring far more tourists to Alaska. This, in turn, will help the future economy of the state by promoting the one natural resource that most of the world already knows about and that this state has in the most abundance — wilderness.
Coordinating with a coalition of non-profit organizations including Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm; Alaska Huts and Visit Anchorage; government agencies, including Alaska State Parks and the United States Forest Service; and private businesses, including Alaska Railroad, outdoor guides, shuttle services and local hotels and inns, we envision a complete infrastructure that will draw people from all over the planet to this state — just as people now travel from all over the globe to hike in Nepal, the Alps, Peru and New Zealand.
This vision has already begun to take material form as new trails appear on the Kenai Peninsula and throughout the Matanuska Borough. This makes it a work in progress, but a work barely started.
To see it progress toward its full potential will require the help of commercial and non-commercial businesses, non-profit organizations, health institutes and Native corporations, as well as motorized and non-motorized user groups. It will also take a change of vision on behalf of local and state government in seeing the benefit for all in investing in the outdoors.
Alaska Trails has worked to bring all these various interest groups together into one pro-outdoor recreation coalition. By organizing such a diverse coalition, Alaska Trails leads in this effort to benefit both the local economy as well as increase options for healthy active lives, all while undertaking the stewardship of Alaska’s unique natural landscapes.
Shawn Lyons is the author of the outdoor book series “Walk-About Guides to Alaska.”
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