The Stampede Trail is a road and trail located in the Denali Borough in the U.S. state of Alaska. A paved or maintained gravel road for 8 miles (13 km) on its eastern end as far west as Eight Mile Lake, the remainder of the route consists of a primitive, remote, and at times, dangerous hiking or ATV (All-terrain vehicle) trail following a path where the original road has deteriorated over the years.
Historically, access to the east end of the trail was gained from the Alaska Railroad. Today, the primary access to the trail is from the George Parks Highway (Alaska Route 3) which opened in the early 1970s. The Parks Highway intersects the trail at milepost 251.1, two miles north of the center of Healy. Though this intersection marks the present-day eastern terminus of the Stampede Road, Lignite Road continues a few miles east from this intersection to the railroad tracks and the Nenana River.
The trail is located near the northern boundary of Denali National Park in a small finger of State of Alaska public land that extends into the national park. The valley, known as the Stampede Valley or the Stampede Corridor, is mostly low-lying tundra and watersheds.
The Stampede Trail has been the subject of international attention since the 1992 death of Christopher McCandless, whose body was found in an abandoned bus deep inside the wilderness about 28 miles down the trail. First brought to the public's attention by Jon Krakauer in an Outside magazine article, a book in 1996, and film in 2007, followed. The landmark's infamy led to an increase in hikers along the trail as well as complaints of a corresponding increase in unprepared hikers who require assistance in the backcountry. Many rescues and deaths still occur annually along the trail. The Alaska State Troopers and the Tri-Valley Fire Department (Healy) are primarily responsible for these rescues and assistance.
The trail currently receives limited tour traffic. In 2015, Alaska Travel Adventures stopped operating Jeep tours along the trail due to deteriorating trail conditions and frequent mechanical problems. Denali Tundra Tours ceased operations of an Argo tour in 2016. As of 2019, Stampede Excursions continues to operate three daily tours along the trail in Pinzgauer 6x6 military grade trucks as well as Volvo C306 6x6 personnel carriers. This tour is called the Denali Backcountry Safari. While they pick up passengers from all Denali area hotels, the 6x6 tours actually begin at their Eight Mile Lake Base Camp at mile 7.5 of the Stampede Road. Their pavilion and other associated buildings are the last permanent structures along the Stampede Road. All tours turn around a few miles east of the Savage River. Traversing the beaver ponds, "mud flats,” and crossing the Teklanika River are major obstacles preventing most vehicles from continuing more than 5 miles or so down the trail.
During the fall, hunting traffic along the trail is heavy as the area is prime habitat for moose. Many hunters use ATV's or Argos to access hunting camps. Moose hunting in this area generally yields high success rates. Winter travel by snowmobile, dog sled, or tracked vehicle is much easier than summer travel after the boggy tundra, beaver ponds, and rivers freeze.
In September 2017, Circle the Globe Productions filmed a pilot episode for a possible new TV series along the trail and at the bus. Logistics and equipment were provided by Stampede Excursions and Alaska Mountaineering School. The series is hosted by J.J. Kelley, titled "Off the Map,” and was set to premier on the Travel Channel on July 18, 2018. The full episode is also available online on Vimeo.
Since the death of Christopher McCandless in 1992, two additional people have lost their lives attempting to reach the infamous Bus 142. In 2010, Claire Ackermann of Switzerland drowned in the Teklanika River while attempting to cross. She had tied herself off to a preexisting rope that spanned a fast moving stretch of river. When the water became too deep, she lost footing and drowned before she could be cut free. In 2019, an eerily similar incident occurred in the same location. Veranika Nikanava of Belarus perished in the same way, attempting to cross the river while tied off to a rope. Any future hikers are strongly urged to avoid tying themselves to ropes as a method of crossing Alaskan rivers.
After Nikanava’s death, her husband is attempting to raise funds and awareness for a potential cable crossing or bridge at this location.
The Stampede Trail began as the "Lignite to Kantishna" mining trail blazed in 1903 by prospectors drawn to the Kantishna region by the discovery of placer gold. In the 1930s miner Earl Pilgrim used the trail to access his antimony claims on Stampede Creek, above the Clearwater Fork of the Toklat River. For many years, the mine was accessed through the use of a winter trail. Antimony ore was shipped east to the railroad through the use of “Cat Trains,” sleds loaded with ore and towed by Caterpillar Bulldozers. Fuel and supplies for the mine were backhauled in the same way. The overland cat trains could take 3 or more days of travel time and February was the generally the best month for such winter trail travel.
In 1960, Yutan Construction won a contract from the new state of Alaska to upgrade the trail as part of Alaska's Pioneer Road Program, building a road on which trucks would be able to haul ore from the mines year-round to the railroad at Lignite near the present day town of Healy. Construction was completed in 1961 after some 47.5 miles (76.4 km) of road was built but no bridges were ever constructed over the several rivers it crossed. Maintenance on the project was halted in 1963 and the route was shortly rendered impassable to large vehicles by soft permafrost and seasonal flooding.
The trail has since been used by backcountry travelers on foot, bicycle, dog sleds, snowmachines, and all-terrain vehicles. The trail's main obstacle is the crossing of the Teklanika River. The river's fluctuating depth can hinder attempts to ford it. The Alaska State Troopers report that several rescues are necessary every year at the river crossings. In August 2010, high water resulted in the drowning death of Claire Ackermann, a hiker from Switzerland and in July 2019 Veranika Nikanava of Belarus was swept downstream and drowned. Today, hundreds of people per year still attempt to reach Bus 142.
Fairbanks City Transit System Bus 142 is an abandoned 1946 International Harvester K-5 that is parked in a clearing along the Stampede Trail near Denali National Park. It was originally one of a few buses used by the Yutan Construction Company to provide remote accommodations for the construction crew from Fairbanks that worked on road upgrades in 1960–1961. The bus engine was removed and it was instead towed by Caterpillar D8 bulldozers. It contained beds and a wood-burning stove, which still remain today. When the Stampede Mine ceased operations in the 1970s, all but this one bus were removed from the trail. Bus 142 had a broken rear axle, which caused the crew to leave it where it now serves as a backcountry shelter for hunters, trappers, and visitors.
The bus gained notoriety in January 1993 when Outside magazine published an article written by Jon Krakauer titled "Death of an Innocent" describing the death of Christopher McCandless, an American hitchhiker who lived in the bus during the summer of 1992 while attempting to survive off the Alaskan wilderness only to die of starvation four months later.
In recent years, the bus, also known as the "Magic Bus" according to McCandless's own writings, has seen a pilgrimage of visitors seeking where McCandless perished. The 2007 film version of Jon Krakauer's 1996 book about McCandless, Into the Wild, revived more interest in the bus.
In 2013, Dave Gill from the United Kingdom visited the bus as part of a British documentary publishing project. The post on his website shows that as of 2013, visitors have shot at the bus and caused damage, resulting in its accelerated deterioration.
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