Thinking about going to the dog sled races in Alaska? Here are my Iditarod travel tips from my personal experience of my trip to see the Iditarod this year!
Last weekend a friend and I went to see the ceremonial start of the Iditarod in Anchorage, Alaska. Neither of us had ever been to the Iditarod, but we are husky dogs lovers (we both have mixed husky breeds) and always wanted to go. So we planned a trip a few months in advance and headed up there for the ceremonial start of the race!
The Iditarod is the “Last Great Race” in the “Last Frontier”. It is a sporting event where mushers race their team of dogs through the rough and majestic terrain of Alaska. The treacherous trail goes from Anchorage to Nome and is usually a 1-3 week trek for the teams. It is a once-in-a-lifetime event to see!
The ceremonial start of the Iditarod is always on the first Saturday of March and begins on Fourth Avenue in downtown Anchorage. It is just one of the many activities that goes on around Anchorage during this time. Other activities include the Fur Rondy events, Winter Carnival, Tour of Anchorage, Musher banquet and more.
We stayed in the lovely Captain Cook hotel in downtown Anchorage. It is the only luxury hotel in Anchorage and has 500+ rooms. It is a neat place to visit, even if you don’t stay there. It is one of the more convenient hotels to stay in for the start of the race downtown. It is walking distance to the ceremonial festivities which are just a few blocks away!
Travel Tip: If staying at the Captain Cook in Anchorage, ask for a room on one of the top floors. The views are better and there will be less street noise from the commotion of the events!
If you don’t want to pay the expensive price tag of the Captain Cook, don’t worry, there are plenty of other accommodations downtown. Or, out of town is the Millennium hotel which I have stayed at before on other visits. It is less fancy, closer to the airport, but it is a popular hotel during the Iditarod because of it’s organized Iditarod tours. They have buses that take guests to the real Iditarod race start in Willow, Alaska. The only thing bad about staying outside of downtown is you have to rent a car or pay to get into town for all of the other events.
The morning of the Iditarod (March 1, 2014) we woke up about 2 hours before the race start at 10am, bundled up in all of our winter gear, and headed outside in the bitter cold. Our first stop was picking up a warm beverage. There are lots of options for coffee, including the popular Kaladi Brothers Coffee.
Travel Tip: It is usually below freezing weather. Bundle up. Wear lots of layers, and bring hand warmers and hot beverages for a more pleasurable experience when you watch the dog races!
Since 4th street is where all the action is, we headed straight there! Just follow the dog barks (seriously!) In just a few blocks, we found all of the sled dog teams parked along the streets with their dogs either in kennels or chained to their vehicles. The streets were crowded with media, locals and tourists eager to meet the dogs and mushers! It is an open and friendly meet and greet before the ceremonial start! Most all the mushers will let you pet the dogs, get photos and take time to talk with you!
It was very personal. It’s an amazing experience to talk to some of these racers that are just about to start the race of a lifetime. There are rookies and professionals that have won the last great race, year after year – and they are all out interacting with the crowds!
Travel Tip: Show up 1-2 hours before the race start to meet and greet with the mushers and dogs. Most Iditarod racing teams are friendly and willing to chat with you. You can even take a few photos!
I never expected it would be so laid back, I was pleasantly surprised! As nice as engaging with the mushers was, my favorite part was admiring those amazing dogs! They had excitement in their eyes, they were ready and eager for the races to start!
A note about the dogs – they are all carefully chosen because of their athleticism and size. Most mushers consider 55-65lb huskies ideal for distance mushing. Did you know they race over 1,049 miles over the course of the Iditarod? Each team starts with 16 dogs and they must end the race with at least 6 dogs actively racing.
After the visits, my friend and I were shuffled to the sidewalk viewing spots by the volunteers, since the race was about to get going! We wanted to watch the race from a few viewing spots, knowing we would get different views from each spot. We talked to some locals who gave us some pointers on the best spots to watch the dogs run.
Travel Tip: When viewing the ceremonial start of the Iditarod some of the best spots are (1) The Iditarod Trail Race start sign (2) The first turn the teams make on 4th & Cordova (3) 16th and Cordova (4) Chester Creek Greenbelt (5) Goose lake park
Near the start sign is nice because you can hear the announcer clearly. He announces each team before the run, their statistics, hometown and some history about them. It is interesting to know the background on the teams. Not only that, you get to see how excited the dogs are, they are jumping all around before the run begins!
The first turn is a great spot to view also because there is a little hill you can stand on to see better. It allows you to stand above the dogs, and get a different view of the race. It is also fun because some rookies take the corner too fast and are known to lose balance!
As for 16th & Cordova, Chester Creek Greenbelt and Goose Lake Park and beyond… these are less crowded destinations. These places are more locals than tourists, and more sparse. They are much more quiet and intimate. Especially Chester Creek, where you will be very close to the dogs as they run by!
These are some of the best viewing spots in the Iditarod ceremonial start. But really, all the spots are good to check out the impressive teams, some are just more crowded than others.
I loved watching the dedicated and focus dogs running with tight harnesses, showing their organized race skills. It is remarkable that these dogs can go around 100 miles a day with such stamina and excitement for the trail!
Travel Tip: If you want to find out more about the history and details of the race there are often videos viewings events and book signings throughout the week, giving a more detailed look at the “Last Great Race on Earth”.
While at the dog races, you will find a number of food vendors as well as the restaurants that line the streets where the dogs run. One popular choice for food in Anchorage is reindeer hotdogs. The M.A. Gourmet Dogs are world renowned, and if the line is too long for you, there are a dozen other hot dog stands that offer similar delights.
We chose to eat at the also famous (in Anchorage) restaurant, the Snow City Cafe. They have a delightful menu including snow-crab omelets, wraps, Panini’s and more. Locals vote it year after year the best breakfast in Anchorage. I must say it was tasty! I had the heart attack on a plate which was gluten free!
If you are looking for a place to warm up a bit during the races (the races lasted a few hours) there are booths inside the strip malls with vendors selling handmade knits, food, art and more. It is fun to duck into these mini-festival-markets to warm up and try out some samples of jerky, gourmet popcorns, salsas and more! The jalapeno popcorn is worth the $7 a bag!
Travel Tip: Don’t miss the individual vendors for tasty goodies to bring back to family and friends. I especially liked the homemade popcorns and jerky!
After the last racer ran, we did some shopping downtown. There is plenty of authentic gear, as well as those cheesy touristy t-shirts. The fur shops are quit the experience too. You can find all kinds of animal pelts, fur jackets, hats, gloves and more.
Animal fur was once a necessity for the native people to survive the cold winters of Alaska. To celebrate their traditions, Fur Rondy happens right around the time of the Iditarod, and has all kinds of festivities including Run with Reindeer, dog mushing events, Out House Races and an organized snowball fight. It is a entertaining festival that captures the Alaska spirit and history, and if you are planning a trip to the Iditarod, you should plan on going a few days early to make some of these non-conforming Alaskan events!
Travel Tip: Mark your calendar and plan your trip to Anchorage to include some of the unique Fur Rondy events. The Fur Rondy winter carnival offers a lot of fun activities to see and do!
I hope my experience was helpful for your Iditarod trip planning for the ceremonial start and beyond. My trip was just a 24 hour layover, but I had such a great time this year, that maybe next year I will extend the trip and have more Iditarod travel tips for you!