The name of the wilderness lodge is Camp
Denali, and I noted with amusement that the scene at the Denali
National Park train depot did resemble a bunch of grown-ups
incongruously en route to a kids sleep-away camp. Adults -- dressed
in fleece, colorful waterproof jackets and sturdy boots -- dragging
bags and suitcases over to rows of school buses, some posing for
photos by the wood-frame train station while others trekked to the
gift shop to buy Alaskan-wilderness postcards.
in the air. The conversation was peppered with references to
various mammals: bear, moose, wolverine. And our bus driver, Fritz,
warned us not to stick any extremities out of the windows when we
stopped for photo ops. Whoa.
So this was no
simple sleepover camp. Actually, nothing is simple about being a
visitor in Alaska -- the states sheer size and scope is
overpowering from the start.
Each and every
traveler clustered around the vans, for example, had debarked
either a five-hour trip from Fairbanks or an eight-hour one from
Anchorage. Getting anywhere in Alaska is a lengthy exercise,
mitigated, however, by the grandeur of all that, well,
the long haul
Park is like that, too. The park is famous for its main mountain,
20,000-foot Mount McKinley, known simply as Denali around these
But consider that
to get to Camp Denali we had to take a six-hour drive down the
parks lone, unpaved, 90-mile road. The park itself totals about
7,392 square miles in area, and the total park and preserve is more
then 9,000 square miles. So really, we were barely making a dent in
Camp Denali is
actually two places: the actual Camp Denali, or simply Camp, and
North Face Lodge. Camp consists of 17 wood-frame cabins and a main
lodge, a dining building and an outhouse (with modern toilets and
showers) perched on a hill.
North Face Lodge, a single building with 15 rooms connected to a
common living/dining room and kitchen.
established in 1951 by two women as a true camp for backpackers and
mountain climbers passing through to Kantishna, a former mining
camp at the end of the Denali road. The Cole family, which bought
Camp, acquired the Lodge in the 1980s, mostly because it was an
eyesore, and fixed the place up nicely.
guests book into says a lot about them. Camp folks might be
construed as a little more adventurous, more romantic, more into
roughing it. The Lodge folks are people who value the comforts of
having their own private bathroom.
Both also have
views of Mount McKinley, or Denali --
which means Great One in Athabascan, a Native American tongue -- on
days when the peak deigns to peek from behind a veil of
I had had visions
of sitting on the porch of my Camp cabin, drinking in Denali views
over a glass of Duck Pond Pinot Noir -- purchased in Fairbanks, as
Camp Denali requests guests BYOB.
But Im just a
writer, not a paying guest, and Camp was full up, so I was moved to
the Lodge. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise, especially
after Id gotten to know my fellow Lodgers. Which didnt take long,
as we were climbing all over each other on that bus at each animal
I detected a
swell of excitement as our bus cleared the checkpoint at the roads
15-mile marker. A lot of visitors dont get beyond that point, the
cutoff point for private transportation. Only a few vehicles are
allowed past mile 15, including Park Services buses and those from
the three lodges at the end of the road: Camp/North Face, the
Kantishna Road House and the Denali Backcountry Lodge. The latter
two, just down the road from Camp, run daily trips from the depot,
but Camps shuttle runs just twice a week, Fridays and Mondays,
which means guests must book three- or four-night
Six hours, three
rainstorms, two bears, multiple caribou and several hundred Dall
sheep later, we arrived, excited and weary, at the Lodge and were
met by hosts Bronwyn and Matt.
We all, formally,
introduced ourselves. The group was comprised of the kind of people
youd want to be cooped up with on a cruise or in a lodge -- each
introduction was funny, friendly, intelligent and brief. It was
clear theyd made an effort to get out here; for some it was obvious
that Camp Denali was the highlight of their Alaska vacation. Also,
at $425 a night, its not cheap.
By then it was
almost 10 p.m. and the sun was still out. The weirdest part about
visiting Alaska in June is that the sun never really sets; evening
stretches on through night and the sun maintains a steady
midafternoon position past 11 p.m.
Needless to say,
I didnt feel tired. I gave the rooms loose-leafed binder a quick
read, as it included important guidance (about bear encounters).
Armed with false bravado, my hiking boots and camera, I headed for
a hike in the hills between the Lodge and Camp.
I hiked over the
brook and up a ridge. Magnificent is the only word I can use: The
sun lit the hill with a golden glow, the air was fresh and clean,
and there was nobody else around -- in particular, no bears. Best
of all, Denali was out, its snow-capped peak visible amid some
light cloud cover.
I hiked over a
creek and down a trail, but since the Lodges hiking map is
extremely vague, I got lost. I first worried about it getting dark,
then worried that the constant sunshine and ever-babbling brook
would drive me nuts -- an unchanging scene that I would be stuck in
But by midnight I
had made it back down the hill and to the Lodge, where a couple of
ladies were taking turns looking at the mountain through a
Camp Denali is
unique; because of its history and environmental record it is the
only company allowed to offer private guided hikes within the park
At breakfast we
were given a choice of hikes -- easy, moderate or strenuous -- and
then divided into groups of 12 and sent on a six-hour
tundra is indeed an adventure. Even if you dont meet a bear youre
confronted by all types of new surroundings, such as spongy tundra,
which is like walking on a mattress. Our guide Fritz went into
raptures over spotting a rare redhead bird. The next day we saw a
moose and a wolverine that, happily, ran in the opposite direction
from our group.
Then there is the
majesty of the mountain glaciers, which appear, seemingly, out of
nowhere once the cloud cover lifts.
director Sharon Gerhardt drove me up to check out Camp, where each
cabin has its own wood-burning stove and porch. Camps meeting lodge
is a wonderful old log building, and theres a cabin devoted to the
history of the complex.
It was somewhat
obvious the Lodge is the stepchild of Camp, but returning to the
Lodge, I felt a stubborn pride in its warm, comfortable lounge.
Someone had lit a fire, which was crackling away, and the giant
floor-to-ceiling windows gave me an awesome view of
It was 10:30 p.m.
-- the perfect time for a bike ride down to Wonder Lake.
ride was all uphill, but I finally huffed my way to the lake.
Several photographers of professional caliber had had the same
idea: Capture Denali with the lake and evergreens in the foreground
and the mountain -- given a pinkish hue by the ubiquitous sun-
reflected in the waters.
photographers had thought of something I hadnt: Theyd all brought
mosquito nets, while I was getting eaten alive by bugs. Still, I
was able to snap several dozen photos of Denali before zooming
downhill to the Lodge around midnight, the sun barely setting
behind the hills.
Rebecca Tobin, managing editor of the print edition of Travel
Weekly, send e-mail to [email protected].