In early 2023, the U.S. Forest Service announced a plan to add dozens of new public-use cabins to Alaska’s trail systems. It’s the biggest cabin expansion project in Alaska in the last 50 years—and it stands to make the state’s wilderness even more accessible to hikers looking for lightweight, long-distance travel.
Dubbed the Alaska Cabins Project, the initiative is a partnership between the U.S. Forest Service and the nonprofit National Forest Foundation (NFF). Together, the two organizations aim to repair 10 existing huts and add 25 more to the Chugach and Tongass National Forests. Already, Alaska’s huts have made outdoor recreation possible in a region where the weather and wildlife usually deter all but the savviest adventurers. Thanks to the existing cabins, families and novice hikers alike have been able to enjoy a night out in the Alaskan wilderness—without having to worry about torrential rain or grizzlies.
“They’re amazing,” says Patrick Shannon, the NFF’s Pacific Northwest and Alaska director, who stayed in the Windfall Lake Cabin outside of Juneau this summer. “You hike about three miles through the rainforest to get there. The Forest Service provides a canoe and a rowboat, so you can go out onto the lake. And unlike with [European-style] huts, you reserve it for a night, so it’s yours. People are allowed to come in during the day if they need to dry off, but at night, you have it to yourself.”
A long legacy of Alaskan huts
Right now, about 200 cabins are scattered throughout the Chugach and Tongass National Forests, which together comprise millions of acres of densely vegetated landscape. The state’s first huts were erected in the 1920s as part of an effort to get more people comfortably recreating in the state’s vast public lands, according to James King, the U.S. Forest Service’s Alaska region director of recreation, land and minerals.
Then, in the 1930s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt launched the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to put Americans back to work during the Great Depression, and the cabin-building campaign went into overdrive.* Over the next decade, CCC crews built dozens of cabins in the Chugach and Tongass National Forests and hundreds more in the Lower 48. However, few of these CCC cabins ever became hut-to-hut systems. At the time, the focus was on base-camping overnights and family car camping—not on long traverses. Traverses were always thought to be more of a European invention. Americans, who relied on their cars rather than public transportation to get to and from trailheads, preferred to hike in loops or stay put.
That said, hut-to-hut travel does exist in the U.S. in a few select places. In New Hampshire, hikers can travel between fully staffed stone lodges perched strategically along the length of the White Mountains. In Colorado, mountain bikers and hikers often link the primitive wooden cabins dotting the San Juan Mountains. Other systems exist in Tahoma State Forest in Washington, Haleakala National Park in Hawaii, and Yosemite National Park in California.
“The huts in the U.S. reflect our culture,” says Sam Demas, a self-professed “hut nut” and the co-author of Hut to Hut USA: The Complete Guide for Hikers, Bikers, and Skiers. “We occupy the two ends of the spectrum. At one end, we are a backpacking culture. In the U.S., you want to go out and not see anyone and feel like you’re out there on your own. That appeals to our libertarian self-sufficiency ethic.” The U.S. also reigns supreme on the other end of the spectrum: car camping, which epitomizes ease and convenience.
“Huts are a middle ground between those two extremes,” Demas says. And American huts—which tend to be smaller and more spartan than the fully featured hostelries of the Alps—reflect both.
“[American hut systems] are also a reflection of private enterprise and capitalism as a dominant modality for developing almost any enterprise here in the U.S.,” adds Laurel Bradley, Demas’s co-author. Some of the more famous huts in the U.S. are run by national parks, the Appalachian Mountain Club, or other nonprofits. But the majority of America’s hut systems are small family businesses, Bradley says.
“Many of these hut systems were launched during the 1980s on the back of the cross-country ski craze,” she explains. A handful of these systems are still in operation. Most of these—and the country’s other remaining hut-to-hut chains—are short. Many require only one to two overnights. The longest take just four to five. For example, both the White Mountains Hut Traverse and Yosemite’s famed High Sierra Loop are 49 miles. For Demas and Bradley, that presents a serious void in America’s recreation opportunities.
“We’re convinced that there’s something incredibly therapeutic about the hut-to-hut experience,” Demas says. “It’s a pilgrimage. You begin to feel the effects after about five to seven days. If you really want to transform your life, you have to do a longer pilgrimage, and that’s not possible in the U.S. going hut to hut.”
Though, when Alaska’s vision comes to fruition, that could all change.
The Alaska Cabins Project
Right now, hut-to-hut hiking is hard to come by in Alaska. The state’s few existing traverses are short and tend to occupy more remote or technical terrain. Top of mind are the three cabins in the Delta Range, which are managed by the Alaska Alpine Club (AAC). These huts are spaced about 4 to 12 miles apart, and glacier travel is required to reach them.
The state’s other major hut operator is the Mountaineering Club of Alaska (MCA). The nonprofit’s eight huts comprise two different hut-to-hut hikes. The first is the 23-mile Bomber Traverse in the Hatcher Pass area in the Talkeetna Mountains just north of Wasilla. This route threads through glaciers and alpine meadows, connecting three cabins. The second MCA hike is the 40-mile Eklutna Traverse in Chugach State Park, popular among ski mountaineers. Both routes are classics but, again, fairly technical.
The Alaska Cabins Project aims to change that. The endeavor is in many ways the offspring of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which was introduced to Congress in 2021 by Oregon Representative Peter DeFazio. It became law in November of that year.
“The act set aside $18 million specifically for cabins, and the lion's share of that funding came to Alaska,” says the NFF’s Shannon. The first of the cabins was completed this past summer (though its name and location won’t be released until it’s available for booking). Five more are on the way in 2024. After that, the USFS plans to build six to seven cabins per year.
The 25 new huts are designed to be easily accessible—many less than a mile from roads or parking areas. And they can be booked 300 nights a year. They’ll be dispersed across Southcentral and Southeast Alaska, with the bulk of them relatively close to communities near Anchorage and Juneau. Some will go on to become part of longer hut-to-hut traverses, including the ambitious Alaska Long Trail, a proposed 500-plus-mile trail system connecting Fairbanks and Seward. Others will be stand-alone cabins designed to give local families an easy weekend getaway in nature.
These near-town cabins, King says, are designed in part to help alleviate the current reservations bottleneck. Right now, cabins are often booked out three to six months in advance. King hopes the additions will make it easier for local Alaskans and tourists alike to secure a stay. They’re also intended to give more people access to southern Alaska’s most stunning vistas.
“We’ve been trying to select sites that are unique,” King says. “Many of them are at the edge of a lake, ocean or river, or on a ridge with beautiful views.” These are the places Alaskans love most; the build sites were all suggested by locals during a lengthy public comment period. During that period, the USFS asked people what style of cabin they preferred and where they’d most like to stay. The agency then narrowed the suggestions to 25 new sites. All 25 are due to be completed and open to visitors by the end of 2027.
“For years, my whole family stayed at one of the cabins in the [Chugach] National Forest every year,” says Lang Van Dommelen, a lifelong Alaskan and a master’s student at University of Alaska Southeast focusing on outdoor recreation and rural development. It was a family tradition he treasured. But during the pandemic, the cabins’ popularity soared. It soon became too difficult to get a reservation, and the Van Dommelen family had to put an end to their cabin tradition.
Van Dommelen says he’s excited about the proposed cabin expansion—like everyone else, he likes the prospect of easier reservations—but he does have some mixed feelings.
“One of the proposed cabin sites is in the Berry Pass Area [just south of Chugach State Park near Alyeska Resort ], which is really popular with a variety of users. It’s a longer hike, but mellow and approachable, and there’s really great tent camping all over the area,” Van Dommelen says. Because tenting is not permitted within a certain radius of forest service cabins, “putting a cabin on Berry Pass would block off a lot of the accessible camping to other users,” he says. (He and the rest of his family provided similar feedback to the USFS during the public comment period.)
Other proposed sites have existing access issues, like parking shortages. However, the USFS says it’s prepared to address these.
“The USFS is already aware of parking constraints,” says Kenzie Barnwell, who works closely with the USFS in her role as the Chugach Stewardship Coordinator for the National Forest Foundation. “We will definitely be looking to address those if they continue to be a problem.”
While the Alaska Cabins Project isn’t in itself a hut-to-hut system, it will dovetail with a number of other initiatives designed to bring Alaska to the cutting edge of long-distance recreation.
Two of the new huts will fill in gaps along the existing Resurrection Pass hut system, making a 75-mile traverse from Hope to Seward possible—as long as users can get the appropriate reservations. New cabins would also make it conceivable to do a 32-mile loop starting and ending at Mendenhall Lake just northwest of Juneau.
Then there’s the Alaska Long Trail (ALT). Alaska Trails, a statewide nonprofit organization, is currently working with the Alaska Long Trail Coalition on a new cross-country route of the same name. The Alaska Long Trail was first conceived of in May 2020, just as the state’s public lands began to overflow with locals eager to escape the confines of their homes during the Covid-19 pandemic. Then, in 2021, the Alaska state government approved $13 million in funding to help make it happen.
The trail, which is currently under construction and does not yet have a proposed finish date, would go right by six of the proposed cabin sites, including the Berry Pass, Turnagain Arm Area, Center Creek, Carter Lake, Trail River Campground and Meridian Lake cabins. Ultimately, developers hope to add a number of other huts along the long trail route, making it possible for hikers to link up portions of the ALT and the Alaska Cabins Project systems.
The Alaska Long Trail corridor is also within spitting distance of several existing cabins, including the Dale Clemens Cabin and the Crow Pass Cabin.
However, the ALT isn’t the only new hut-accessible route coming to Alaska. The nonprofit Alaska Huts Association (AHA) is currently in the midst of a second endeavor, dubbed the Glacier Discovery Project. When finished, this new system of cabins and trails will enable hut-to-hut travel along the Placer River corridor. Visitors will be able to reach the cabins via the Glacier Discovery Trail—and via train.
The Glacier Discovery Trail shares the Placer River Valley with the Alaska Railroad. In 2007, the USFS partnered with the rail company to help shuttle visitors to valley trailheads. The train currently offers three whistle-stop drop-offs, which will correspond with the AHA’s three upcoming huts.
The first of those huts—the Lars Spurkland Memorial Hut— is due to open in 2024. The cabin will sleep 18 and offer views across Spencer Glacier. Each of the three huts will be two to four miles apart.
When these long-distance trails and hut-to-hut systems are complete—hopefully in the next few years—Alaska could have a robust recreation infrastructure that rivals anything you’ll find in the Alps. And that could open up a world of opportunities—for visitors, for locals, and for the state as a whole.
If you build it, they will come
“Right now, Alaska is a natural resource-extractive state. That’s how we manage our budget,” says Van Dommelen. Currently, oil revenues provide about 85 percent of the state’s income. “In the future, I’d love to see an economy built around things like tourism and outdoor recreation.” Right now, he points out, recreationists travel from all over the world to hike classic long-distance routes like the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail in the Lower 48. Van Dommelen thinks it’s high time Alaska offered that kind of opportunity.
Demas and Bradley seem to think similarly. The demand is there; all the United States is missing is the supply.
“There’s a huge market for people our age who want to go hut to hut,” Demas says, referring to middle-aged to retirement-aged folks. “Right now, they have to go to Switzerland or France or New Zealand, but they would love to do it here. Likewise, Europeans would love to come to the U.S. for hut-to-hut hiking.”
Demas is hopeful that American land managers will start to catch on soon. All it takes is one hut stay to understand that it’s the most efficient, economical way to put more people in the backcountry with less impact, he says.
If all goes according to plan, the Chugach and Tongass huts could become that case study for the rest of the country.
(Editor's Note, January 10, 2024: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Theodore Roosevelt launched the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to put Americans back to work during the Great Depression, when, in fact, it was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The story has been edited to correct that fact.)