The Iditarod is known as the “Last Great Race,” an incredible feat of endurance that covers 1,000 miles of rough terrain through blizzards and whiteouts – and features the most adorable athletes of any sport. Seeing this incredible race in person can be tricky, but it’s not impossible. If you’re thinking about heading north to the Alaskan wilderness for this once-in-a-lifetime event, here are some planning tips and tricks…
See the Ceremonial Start
Held in the urban surroundings of Anchorage, the ceremonial start is the most accessible part of the race for visitors. On the first Saturday in March each year, spectators line Fourth Avenue to celebrate and to send off the dogs and their “mushers,” or sled drivers. This section of the race is purely ceremonial and does not count toward the official race time. (The race “restarts” the following day from the small town of Willow.)
There are a number of other events in and around Anchorage leading up to the race, including the Mushers’ Banquet, where race starting numbers are drawn. The banquet is held two nights before the start, members of the general public can attend. Tickets cost $81 per person. And in the 10 days before the race the Fur Rondy (or, “Fur Rendevouz”) festival takes place, bringing live music, a carnival, and, yes, other dog sled races to Anchorage.
Follow the Route
From Willow, 80 miles north of Anchorage, the intrepid dogs make their way west through the towns of Finger Lake and Rainy Pass before heading over the Alaska Range and down the other side to the Kuskokwim River, to Rohn Roadhouse, Nikolai, McGrath, Takotna, Ophir, Cripple, and through the arctic tundra.The race route alternates each year between a northerly and southerly route. The final stage is along the coast of Alaska to Nome, where the finish line awaits.
Visit a Checkpoint
There are 26 or 27 checkpoints along the Iditarod, depending on the route. Most of the checkpoints are in remote villages, but the easiest (and most popular) for spectators to visit are Yentna Station (42 miles from Willow) and Finger Lake (112 miles from Willow).
Getting to the more remote checkpoints by yourself can be tricky, although flying in on a day tour is possible. You can also get a flight from Anchorage to Nome for around $450 and wait there for the teams to cross the finish line. Hotels in Nome fill up fast during the Iditarod, so you’ll need to make reservations well in advance. The Nome Convention and Visitors’ Bureau keeps a list of accommodations at its website.
Book a Package Tour
They don’t come cheap, but Travel Alaska offers a variety of package tour options, from a 15-day trip that covers most of the race and many checkpoints ($6220 per person based on double occupancy), to a six-day tour ($750 per person based on double occupancy) that largely sticks to the early stages of the race. They also include excursions – a private sled dog kennel tour, a chance to try dog mushing yourself, a sightseeing cruise to Kenai Fjords National Park to see Grey Whale migration, and a day of skiing at the Alyeska Resort.
Become an IditaRider
Every year, a few Iditarod enthusiasts get the enviable opportunity to ride in the sled of an Iditarod musher for the 11-mile ceremonial race at the start of the festivities. These riders are the winners of the IditaRider Auction, a fundraiser for the race where anyone can bid for the chance to ride. Of course, the auction winners pay steep prices for the privilege: bids start at $500 and can go as high as $7,000 for the most popular mushers.
This approach takes substantially more commitment than just flying in to see the race, but volunteering is a great way to feel a part of the action and help out – the Iditarod depends on its volunteers.There are many different opportunities, from helping with dog food drops to making foot ointment and helping out in the offices. Some roles are reserved for members of the Iditarod Trail Committee, but all volunteers receive discounted rates at the Millennium Alaskan Hotel, a race sponsor. Volunteer spots usually fill up quickly, so, if you can make the commitment, be sure to get your application in early.