Play Denali

Putting together the perfect Denali experience

Options abound for customized fun in the park

Whether you’d like to stay in a beautiful suite with views of the Nenana River, or tent camp in the park amid the wild animals, or go to a remote cabin off the beaten track, there is a Denali adventure for you.

For a top-of-the line experience, you might want to try a luxury suite at Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge. It has a living room, dining room, bedroom with a deluxe king-size bed, bathroom as big as an office, Jacuzzi tub, two televisions, several sofas and a loveseat, single-serve coffee, refrigerator and a beautiful deck overlooking the Nenana River and valley below. From your room you can watch snowcapped mountains turn red with the rising and setting sun, enjoy rafters below and see the Alaska Railroad chug through the valley.

It is comfort at its best.

Other options are available as well. In fact, the DPWL is the largest hotel in the state, located just one mile from the entrance to Denali National Park & Preserve. With 565 rooms, there is something for everyone.

It offers modern comforts and a huge offering of dining experiences, including the King Salmon Restaurant with its fresh seafood and other signature Alaska fare; the Base Camp Bar and Grill, with indoor and outdoor dining and a lounge open to 11 p.m. daily; Music of Denali Theatre, a musical/comedy experience that describes the first ascent of Mount McKinley while diners enjoy a hearty Alaska meal. There’s also the Lynx Creek Pizza and Pub, which serves some of the finest pizza around and features a Denali Red microbrew. The Sourdough Breakfast Buffet is open for an all-you-can-eat breakfast, perfect before an early-morning outing.

If a tour or two are desired, there are dozens for every athletic ability—from visiting Iditarod musher Jeff King’s kennel to hiking with a guide through the park to river rafting. Guided bus tours motor through the park. (For more information on Denali tours, see page related article.)

There are also outdoor hot tubs, guest laundry, spa, wireless Internet access, shuttle service to the park’s visitor center and several coffee shops and gift stores. Many visitors like to walk the park trails or cross the walking bridge above the Nenana. A lot enjoy sitting on the deck drinking cocktails.

Bonnie Westlund, general manager of the DPWL, started out as a front-desk clerk for Princess 12 years ago when she came to the state for a summer job.

“I fell in love with Alaska,” Westlund said. “Never in all my years prior to coming up here did I think I would end up in Alaska and that it would turn into a career. So many of us have that similar story who are in the hospitality industry, especially here in the hotel.

“I fell in love with the area, the mountains, the hiking, the wildlife sightings and meeting people from all over the world, here in Interior Alaska. We are welcoming the world here at Denali.”

Many Alaskans and those from other parts of the U.S. visit the park, as do people from Europe, Australia and Asia. Most employees at DPWL are American, though there is an Alaska-hire preference. International employees are also hired, primarily Eastern Europeans.

Holland America/Princess Alaska hires about 3,000 individuals each summer. The chain operates 14 properties in Alaska: nine Westmark hotels and five Princess lodges.

The Quiet Touch

For an off-the-beaten path experience, try EarthSong Lodge in Healy, which is open year-round and offers a variety of dog-sled tours and a gift shop.

It features rustic but comfortable cabins connected together via a wooden boardwalk above the tundra. All furniture is hand-crafted and owners Karin and Jon Nierenberg built and decorated it. They offer up to seven-day guided backpacking and dog-sledding trips, dog-sled demonstrations and tours and can arrange other types of trips, such as flightseeing.

Enjoy breakfast, a packed lunch or dinner at Henry’s Coffeehouse, which also offers evening naturalist programs and wifi. The chef, Earl Hammer, once was a personal chef/driver for actor/racer Steve McQueen and his family.It is almost universally positive,” Jon said. “What we offer here is not necessarily for everyone. But the people who are attracted to our place are independent travelers who want to get away from the congestion of the park entrance.

“We get people from all over the place, but we are really looking for a specific kind of visitor, the ones who tend to spend a day or more up here, who are not in much of a rush, have more questions of more things, want to do more hiking. Our guests are the ones who are more like the ones who want to get off the shuttle bus.”

Jon said his cabins are more like an ecotour environment.Karin and Jon like the quiet atmosphere and try to help guests relax. They said they have met some incredible people and often stay in touch with them

“We have a lot of returning guests,” Karin said. “I think what a lot of people like about our place is thee coziness and comfortableness of our cabins. It’s not the traditional hotel.”

“One of my dearest friends I ever met in my whole life was a guest here. One day I remember it was early spring and I was walking around planting all my flowers and she just followed me all day planting our flowers. We walked and talked and I just fell in love with her. I thought she was the sweetest woman ever.

“And when she left I was so grateful to meet her that I actually wrote her a letter,” she said. “She wrote back to me and we just became dear friends and to this day we write every single day by email to each other just to keep in touch. It’s been a real rewarding business, very difficult but very rewarding because we’ve met some wonderful, wonderful people.”

Rustic and Loving It

For a more rustic adventure, try a hostel or one of the workshops taught through the Murie Science & Learning Center in Denali National Park.

One interesting place to stay is Denali Mountain Morning Hostel, located about 15 miles south of the gate. “It’s an opportunity to meet and mix with people all over the world at the hostel,” said Nichelle Seely, a visitor to the park.

“There’s dorm rooms or you can rent a cabin or you can rent a wall tent.

“You can just hang out around the campfire and meet different people and get great conversations with people all over the planet. Or play games around the table with total strangers from the other side of the world.”

The Murie Science and Learning center is another option.

“I went on a workshop there through the center,” Seely recalls. The three-day field surveying class allowed her to take biological field notes while trekking through the park.

“We stayed in these wall tents and there are bunks and you are provided with breakfast and a sack lunch and then you go out into the park and have a guide, an instructor,” she said. “We were looking for particular biological regions, so we went to the riverside and also to a lake, and we went into the hills at a higher elevation.

“You know it teaches you to see things that you don’t normally see, like the signs of the animals. It teaches you to see the biodiversity of the park in a way you just don’t see as a tourist. Because you are not trained to see it, most people are not.”

On that particular trip, Seely, her guide and other students followed wolf tracks into the hills. “We got a chance to see them interacting with some coyotes,” she said. “The wolves were very patient until they got fed up and then chased the coyotes over the hills to where we couldn’t see them. We heard this yelping cry and the wolves came back without the coyotes.”

Seely also learned how to draw sketches and identify sounds and other park features. “Take scat for instance,” she said. “There is scat all over the park, literally, but you don’t really see it because it looks like it belongs there.”

There are also campgrounds and independent camping throughout the park. For more information, visit Denali National Park & Preserve’s website at

Debbie Cutler is editor of Alaska magazine.

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