Alaska Long Trail hopes to bring tourists, money and opportunity to the Peninsula

Work is underway on a 500-mile trail connecting the Kenai Peninsula to Fairbanks, and organizers say it has the potential to create major economic impacts in the communities it passes through, including Girdwood, Moose Pass and especially Seward, the point end of the trail.

The idea for the so-called Alaska Long Trail has been around for a long time, but it really caught on in 2019, according to Haley Johnston of Alaska Trails, the lead organization for the project.

“It’s also being driven by this coalition of people who are along the trail corridor,” he said. “It’s a group of people from across the state who are making decisions and trying to push this forward.”

The long trail will be open to a variety of types of recreation, including hiking, biking, and snowmachining. The long trail will connect existing trails along its corridor, which already have use restrictions. Johnston said those use requirements will remain the same for existing trails.

Johnston said that 20% of the route already exists as a trail, and work on the trail will be done in parts.

“Overall, I think the Alaska Long Trail will be great. But independently, each of these trail projects is worth your funding,” he said. “Individually, they will bring health and economic benefits to adjacent communities.”

Organizations working on the route are gradually receiving funding for each part of the project.

During the last legislative session, several of these Long Trail-related projects achieved large financial gains, including $1.5 million allocated to the Crow Pass to Eagle River Trail.

Johnston says the project will require a lot of capital. In addition to the costs of building new routes and improving existing trails, Alaska Trails will also have to pay for trail mapping and planning for additional trail sections.

Johnston filed earlier this month in the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District industry insights forum about the possible economic impacts of the Alaska Long Trail. She said recreation is Alaska’s largest tourism outlet, and data shows demand is growing across the state, and specifically on the peninsula.

“People are here for the outdoor splendor, so I think the Kenai already occupies a part of Alaska and the nation’s imagination of what outdoor recreation in Alaska is like,” he said. “It’s a really natural place for visitors to have some outdoor fun because it’s not as wild as the Brooks Range, but it’s wilder than what they know in Ohio.”

She said would-be long-trail hikers could have a big hit on the dollar per person, especially compared to tourists on pre-booked cruise voyages. Hikers are more likely to spend at local businesses, restaurants and places to stay, Johnston said.

“Their economic impact has the potential to be deeper and broader in a community,” he said.

Johnston realistically said that the road between Seward and Mat-Su will take about five years to complete. Everything north of there will take a little longer, he said.