My Magical First Iditarod Experience
Snow tumbled from the sky, creating a snow-globe-like setting—perfect for the Ceremonial Start of Alaska’s iconic Iditarod Race. Hoping to beat the crowds that gather to cheer the mushers, my friend and I had arrived at Bicentennial Park—away from the event’s center in downtown Anchorage—at 9 a.m. We were the first ones there, but it wasn’t long before fans in colorful tutus and checkered-patterned dress suits were lining the trail, sharing hot cocoa and cider. As the snow started falling harder, my anticipation grew.
This excitement fills the Anchorage air every March, when the famed 1,000-mile dog sled race to Nome begins. This ceremonial event kicks things off, then continues the next day with the race’s official start. I had first heard of the Iditarod and learned of its soulful history five years before, and this was my first opportunity to come and witness history in the making.
Just as the snow started to fall in bucketfuls, the announcer broke the silence and the teams—mushers, sleds, and dogs—slid by, one-by-one, with canine tongues leading the way. While today was just for show, the dog teams were clearly happy to be out running, following in the pawprints of their ancestors.
Each dog showed its own personality. Some were laser-focused on what lay ahead, while others turned their attention to the spectators, almost mugging for the cameras. Locals lined the trail, cheering with signs encouraging their favorite mushers. Photographers set up camp, hoping to capture the dogs' bounding excitement. Children got the most excited to see the dogs run by, cheering and clapping for the handsome animals. My Iditarod dream was finally coming true.
Still, for the dogs, mushers, and fans, this all was just a warmup for the real deal, which starts north of Anchorage. So the next day, my friend and I made the hour-and-a-half drive to Willow. This was like the ceremonial start on steroids: Thousands of energetic people dressed in their best winter gear and gathered on Willow Lake for the Official Start. Groups had packed for a day of excitement, grilling food and drinking while children played in the snow with friends they had just met.
Laughter filled the air, with the echo of the announcer adding to the welcomed noise. Fans interacted with their favorite mushers, rigging up an extender pole to dispense a beer to the passing teams. Mushers steered their sleds toward the dangling cans, hoping for one last beer before their send-off into the wilderness. Cameras snapped and drones flew above, with endless opportunities to capture candid moments of this grand Alaskan festival.
My Iditarod adventure surpassed any initial concept of what my experience would be like. It transported me to another world as I laughed, cheered, and connected with the locals. I enjoyed my time so intensely that I plan to make it a yearly tradition. Maybe one year I’ll skip the party on the ground and hire a tour company to do something truly exceptional: follow the race from the air.
Until Next Adventure,
Attend the Race:
Watching both the Iditarod’s Ceremonial Start and Official Start requires thorough pre-planning.
The events occur over the first weekend in March, starting that Saturday in Anchorage with the opening ceremony and continuing on Sunday with the official start, 90 minutes north in Willow. Hotels, rental cars, and other accommodations book up, so we recommend planning your trip as early as January. There are no tickets required for the event—an incredible bargain to experience Alaskan history. If you’re looking to beat the crowds and guarantee your front-row spot along the trail, plan to arrive about 2 hours early, as people start tailgating before the event.
Ride Like a Musher:
Ramp up the thrills by riding as a passenger behind a sled dog team or controlling the sled and doing the mushing yourself! Check out Alaska.org for information on how to book your next Alaskan dog sled adventure. Some tours book up a year in advance, so start planning your adventure today!