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Outdoors/Adventure

Before homework, take your kids on a hike through history right here in Anchorage

  • Author: Erin Kirkland
  • Updated: November 13
  • Published November 13

Even though Anchorage has received its first few measurable snowfalls, most trails aren't quite ready to accept our family's wintertime ski traffic, so we've been hoofing it a lot lately. Plus, the weather has been gorgeous, and nothing is as invigorating to a work-weary parent as a walk in the woods after a busy day.

Usually we have time for an hour of uninterrupted family time on trails near our home, between pick-up from school and homework (I firmly believe that kids do more productive homework, with less complaining, if they play outside first).

Our favorite trail, and one of the easiest to access, is the Campbell Airstrip Trailhead in East Anchorage.

Owen (left) and James Kirkland read an interpretive panel along Viewpoint Trail earlier in the fall. The Campbell Tract’s military significance is often missed by users who frequent the area for hiking, biking, or skiing. (Erin Kirkland)

Popular with local hikers, bikers, runners and dog mushers, the Campbell Tract and adjacent Far North Bicentennial Park are a diverse set of trails that provide far more than a place to run the ya-yas out after a day spent sitting at a desk.

I became interested in the history of the area after passing an interpretive sign along the new section of paved trail leading from the intersection of Tudor Road and Campbell Airstrip Road to the trailhead. "Can you see the foxhole?" the sign said. "This area was once part of Campbell Garrison."

Campbell Garrison? I needed a bit more information, so I turned to the Bureau of Land Management field office and Jenny Blanchard, the archaeologist and cultural resources program manager for the agency.

Blanchard told me that after Pearl Harbor, the military didn't want all of its forces concentrated at Fort Richardson should a Japanese attack occur, so they set up four smaller satellite garrisons (groups of troops) around Southcentral Alaska.

The four, located in Anchorage, Birchwood, Willow and Goose Bay, were designed strategically to provide both access and protection in case the Japanese forces came calling.

We often use the trails without thinking about the reasons they're named the "Campbell Airstrip Trailhead" or "P-38 Lightning Trail," but in truth the Campbell Tract was an integral part of the nation's defense system between 1942 and 1944.

"The Campbell Garrison was mostly wall tents and bunkers made up of tree saplings and sod," Blanchard said. "But Quonset huts eventually replaced the temporary shelters, and the military had fighter planes stationed right where we walk today."

There were foxholes too, dug by soldiers and never filled in to preserve the integrity of the tract's history. Today they look different, half-filled with more than 70 years of forest debris, but whenever I spot one, I feel like I've discovered a treasure.

That's no mistake, Blanchard said.

"We have the interpretive signs and trails that take visitors past the largest and most visible features, but we don't show every fortification and feature in order to preserve them for the future," she said, adding that both state and federal laws protect historic resources, even way out in the forest.

Blanchard recommends the following route for families, especially those with smaller kids. It's also a great mountain or fat bike route, with the ability to extend your ride.

Remember to stay on marked trails for both your safety and the protection of the area and watch for wildlife. If you find an artifact you think might be part of the Campbell Garrison's past, Blanchard recommends taking a photo, getting a GPS location if possible and sending it to the BLM field office.

Maps are available at the same BLM website (although I had to Google "BLM Campbell Tract" to find a printable version), at the Alaska Public Lands Information Center on Fourth Avenue or at trailheads.

Start at the Campbell Airstrip Trailhead, where you can follow the trail across Campbell Creek. To your left is a one-mile loop with two options: Birch Knob and Viewpoint. Pick either one; you'll end up in the same place.

Along Birch Knob, a short but steep hill leads to an area where the Army planted gun emplacements as a lookout mechanism, with several foxholes still remaining along the trail itself. At the bottom of the hill, take a left again and walk back toward Viewpoint Trail, taking note of the remains of building foundations on either side.

Owen Kirkland explores an old Campbell Garrison building foundation along Viewpoint Trail in the Campbell Tract. (Erin Kirkland)

Viewpoint Trail features several signs providing the story of the Campbell Tract's history, with photos of how the area looked during the 1940s. Keep an eye out for more foxholes.

One of the original roads, and an airplane taxiway from the war, has become the P-38 Lightning Trail. It's a dog-mushing-only trail during the winter, so you'll need to wait until the snow melts to see the features there. However, parts of the Moose Track Trail and Campbell Airstrip Trail have features along them, and they are open to everyone year-round.

Why is a place like this important? Blanchard summed it up perfectly in an email.

"Campbell Tract has been recognized as a significant historic district — eligible for the National Register of Historic Places — so we want Alaska's kids to know about it and be good stewards of this part of Anchorage history into the future."

Hear that, kids? It's up to you to keep the story alive.

Erin Kirkland is author of the Alaska On the Go guidebook series and publisher of AKontheGO.com.

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