Is The Trans-Alaska Trail America’s Next Great Long Trail?

A group of determined Alaskans hopes to create an 800-mile trail that will trace the state’s famous pipeline from Arctic Sea to Pacific tidewater.
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A group of determined Alaskans hopes to create an 800-mile trail that will trace the state’s famous pipeline from Arctic Sea to Pacific tidewater.
Alaska

If it gets the go-ahead, the Trans-Alaska Trail could eventually cross the state's rugged interior. (Photo by Austin Love)

Alaska’s wildlands are famous for their lack of official paths — even national parks like Denali and Wrangell-St. Elias remain mostly track-free. Now some Alaskans want to change that in a big way. The just-announced Trans-Alaska Trail would offer ambitious hikers a chance to walk 800 miles across the state from the Pacific coast town of Valdez to Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Sea. The route would cross the massive Chugach, Alaska, and Brooks Ranges, and offer hikers hardy enough to brave it heroic doses of giant glaciers, empty taiga, and tundra teeming with wildlife along the way.

That such an ambitious idea is remotely possible largely rests on the fact that it (mostly) already exists. The trail would follow an existing gravel service pad for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline (TAPS). Pipeline operator Alyeska currently uses it to service the structure; the company allows recreational access on a case-by-case basis.

Alaska State Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins (D-Sitka) first came up with the idea of opening up the trail to the public after a college road trip on the Richardson Highway, which along with the Dalton Highway parallels the pipeline for most of its length but remains between one and 15 miles away.

“I was running along this spectacular section, and I just filed it away, but the very next year I ended up in the legislature and I started thinking about how to explore the epic potential of this trail,” he says. “Alaska is at a historic discussion point. There are budget deficits, there’s the uncertain future of our economy, the decline of the oil and gas industry here, and we’re at a crossroads in more ways than one. This is one of the largest pieces of oil industry infrastructure in the world, and at the same time, it counterintuitively might also be a world-class recreation gateway.”

The pipeline itself tunnels underground and out of sight for about half its length. For the other half, where Arctic permafrost prevents burial, it snakes across the landscape next to the trail, often suspended above ground to accommodate migrating caribou and earthquakes alike.

"The pipe has an austere beaty — it's this cylinder of silver that transects Alaska with this bizarre geometry and continuity that a lot of Alaskans identify with," Kreiss-Tomkins says.

But making the Trans-Alaska trail real would require cooperation from federal, state, native, and private landowners (in addition to Alyeska, who lease the land from the aforementioned entities). So in November 2014, Kreiss-Tomkins began assembling the coalition of supporters necessary to move forward. On a Saturday in late March, the idea made its public debut at a town-hall meeting in Valdez, the gateway and proposed trailhead for the Trans-Alaska. In addition to fielding questions from the public, the planners announced plans to open 66-mile pilot segment of trail that follows an underground section of pipeline from Valdez into the Chugach. (Boosters hope to secure permission from Alyeska and other stakeholders soon to open this smaller section first to begin addressing feasibility concerns.)

“I think of the Pacific Crest Trail, I think of the Appalachian Trail, and I think ‘Wow, what a neat opportunity,’” says Jim Shirell, a current Valdez city council member, former Alyeska employee, and 26-year resident. “The beauty of it creates a lot of post-commercial economic opportunity for rural Alaska as well as a recreational value to the users. If this is well developed, [access to the Richardson Highway] will allow people to to do anything from a day trip to a multiday trip.”

While some might bristle at hiking on a gravel path that’s next to a pipeline and within stabbing distance of a (largely empty) highway, the remoteness and rugged topography of interior Alaska means that the path would still rank among the wildest in the world. But relatively proximity to the Richardson and Dalton Highways means help or coordinated supply drops would never be too far away.

“The diversity of terrain that it covers and type of landscape you get to experience is impressive,” says Lee Hart, a Valdez resident and executive director of Levitation 49, a nonprofit dedicated to economic diversification in Valdez. “Because it follows the pipeline alignment, it’s not capital-W wilderness. But it will still have this wild feel to it, much like the rails to trails programs.”

Those infrastructure attributes are also what make crossing Alaska on foot possible. Ned Rozell, a writer for the University of Alaska’s science department, discovered this while completing the trail with his dog in 120 days in 1997. He wrote about it in the book Walking My Dog Jane.

“You can’t do that walk in summer unless you’re elevated, because much is wet, swampy ground — it’s not good hiking without it,” he says. “But there’s nothing else that goes saltwater to saltwater in this state. It’s the only way to cross north-south, and you cross 800 rivers and streams, and you just go through all these little ecotypes.”

With few settlements along the way, Rozell’s friends used the highway for supply drops, and he detoured to highway bridges for especially treacherous river crossings. But the most onerous portion of the trip might’ve been getting permission: It took Rozell months to secure rights to the trail from Alyeska and other agencies.

Right now, Alyeska reps say the company is not in favor of the trail. “We have significant concerns about safety (for those recreating, for our employees and for the pipeline itself), about the environment and about security,” wrote Alyeska corporate communications director Michelle Egan in an email. “We know the TAPS corridor is an incredible 800 mile stretch and we can understand why people want to experience it, however our responsibility for protecting the environment, the asset and the people who work around it is enormous.”

Alyeska’s worries aren’t necessarily unfounded: In 2001, the pipeline bled thousands of gallons of oil after “yahoos” shot it. But trail boosters remain optimistic, and Alyeska occasionally cooperates with outdoor recreation; they currently maintain access for the Cooper Basin 300 sled dog race and support right-of-way access to the Solomon Gulch trail.

“The idea of a Trans-Alaska Trail is compelling because it has the potential to marry two different sectors of the economy that are at the core of what Alaska is: energy and the outdoors,” says Cailin O’Brien-Feeney, local recreation advocacy manager for the Outdoor Industry Association, which has thrown its support behind the proposed trail. OIA plans to join a public forum in support of the Trans-Alaska Trail at the Alaska Outdoor Economy Futures Summit June 3–4 in Valdez that will feature presentations, local speakers, and an outing in the area.

“Too often, conversations pit those things as oppositional,” he says. “It’s certainly not appropriate to have energy development everywhere, but this is a pretty exciting opportunity to show that if we’re smart about it we can have both things.”

While an officially designated Trans-Alaska Trail remains perhaps years away, at least the proverbial snowball is rolling downhill. Hart talks about the possibility of utilizing heli ski lodges to implement a New Zealand-style hut system; Kreiss-Tomkins is courting outdoor companies like Outdoor Research for official letters of support and beginning formal conversations with Alyeska, Alaska native corporations, the BLM, and the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. Now the avalanche of questions begins.

“The idea has potential,” Kreiss-Tomkins says. “And now we’ve done enough work to know how much more work we need to do.”

Stay tuned for updates on the Trans-Alaska Trail from Backpacker — on the web, in the magazine, and (fingers crossed) on the trail soon.