Denali Backcountry Lodge: My Experience

Ignorance can sometimes be bliss. This definitely rang true for my visit to Denali Backcountry Lodge. Upon planning this trip, my mindset really had one end goal and that was to visit Denali National Park. I figured spending two nights within the park would give a wonderful taste of what Denali had to offer. What I did not realize is the scarcity of lodging options within the park itself. They are few and far between outside of camping. Two other options are Camp Denali and Kantishna Roadhouse. During my decision making process, I did look into Camp Denali. They require stays for a fixed number of nights with the shortest stay being 3 nights. This didn’t work for my schedule. Also, they do not accept credit cards for reservations, which I found rather odd. After ruling Camp Denali out, I came across Denali Backcountry Lodge, which is part of a collection of lodges by a company called Pursuit. They have other locations in Alaska, the Canadian Rockies, Montana, etc.

While Alaska doesn’t have a paucity of luxury lodges, the options available for an elevated experience come with quite the price tag (usually over 5K per person). They also are typically remote and require a boat, plane, or helicopter to arrive. For me, arrival in anything small that flies is not an option. And, the prices were just too steep. Denali Backcountry Lodge does come at a price, but it was more affordable in comparison to some of the other options that I explored. In addition, your arrival into the lodge is via bus. You have to call for reservations, and they detail your arrival for a 1pm departure from the Denali Cabins at milepost 92.5 along the Parks Highway. The arrival time to the lodge is all dependent upon wildlife sitings along the route. You will receive some instructions via email for the basics. Some important points are that luggage should be soft shelled and weigh 35 lbs or less. There are space limitations on the buses. Now, I had a ton of luggage for our trip, so I had to break down my items into a smaller carry on for this portion of the trip. We left the remainder of our luggage in the car. Or, you can store luggage at Denali Cabins where the bus leaves from. The rules didn’t seem steadfast, but it is something to keep in mind for packing.

The bus was there for a prompt departure. I recommend sitting on the left side of the bus on the ride into the park and the right side of the bus on the way out of the park. This allows for the best views. After leaving the Denali Cabins for the park, I found out that the first 15 miles of the park road are paved. The remainder is a primitive gravel road. Denali Backcountry Lodge is located at milepost 92. For those wanting to explore the park on their own, once you reach the end of the paved road, you would have to take one of the buses for additional exploring. Part of the variance in trip time depends upon animal sitings, as I mentioned. Most of the people riding on our bus brought their own binoculars. I still enjoyed the sitings, but animals that were rather far away were very difficult to see without them. We saw a bear with her two cubs, and they were so small due to distance. Also, rather you are a photographer or not, this might be the place to bring an additional camera. Typically, I take all of my photos on my iphone, but I wish that my Nikon was with me on this trip. These were both items I would have wanted available to me.

During your ride, the bus makes several stops for bathroom breaks and snacks. I never felt like there wasn’t availability to a restroom along the ride. And, there were plenty of snacks and drinks provided. Outside of the bathroom breaks, we stopped at polychrome pass for photos and also the Eielson Visitors Center. The visitors center is located at Milepost 66, and it has the most refined bathrooms. This is where you can view Denali on a clear day. It was never clear enough to visualize the peak during our stay at the lodge. Keep this in mind. As we made our way past polychrome pass and closer to the area of the visitors center, the road started to make me a little nervous. There are some pretty dramatic drop offs (don’t look down), blind curves, and the road is rather narrow. Imagine passing another bus on an already narrow road! We did find out later that there has not been a single accident related to a passenger bus going off the road. I found this temporarily comforting. On our drive into the park, we had animal sitings of caribou, moose, bears, and a beaver. The only animals I did not see that are found with frequency were the Dall Sheep and wolves.

Our arrival to the lodge was close to 8pm. As we were driving in, I noticed two people walking towards the lodge with mosquito nets over their faces. Now, we were at the start of our trip, and I was aware that mosquitos can be abundant in Alaska. But, I can tell you that they had those nets on for a reason. Once we arrived at the cabins and began unloading the bus, I have never in my life seen mosquitos to this degree. Hundreds of them were there to greet us as we stepped off the bus. The staff were lined up to get our luggage off the bus and another was yelling out our cabin assignments. I felt like a child arriving to summer camp. After grabbing our bags as quickly as possible, we made a run for our cabin #22. We were already instructed that after settling into our cabins, dinner would be waiting for us in the main lodge. The cabin was relatively small with two double beds. When I booked in March for our trip in July, it was the last cabin available for my requested dates. So, book early! There wasn’t anything particularly incredible about it, but it had a cozy middle of nowhere feel. The bed was fairly high quality and comfortable. The bathroom had a very small shower. Bugs definitely got into the room. We killed a number of mosquitos as one might imagine and also found multiple yellow jackets in our room, which I didn’t love.

I made sure every aspect of my body was covered for the walk over to the main lodge for dinner. Upstairs we ordered a glass of wine at the bar. Now, the resort is all inclusive with a few exceptions being alcohol and their Nest Spa. There was a decent selection of wines and a very standard small list of cocktail options. The dinner options were presented to us when we boarded the bus in the afternoon, and I made the rockfish selection. We were served a dinner salad and standard dinner roll first. It seemed like the salad did not have any dressing on it, and I noticed the table in front of us seemed to ask for additional dressing. I did the same because it appeared and tasted like I was eating lettuce only. The main course that night was lackluster, and the temperature was warm at best. I didn’t want more. Dessert of bread pudding was probably the best part of the meal. For meals, you will sit family style downstairs at tables that house 6 people. The next evening, I experienced the same thing. I was presented a salad that didn’t seem to have any dressing, the same roll, and a piece of salmon that was okay. The breakfast and lunch options also fell flat for me. The entire dining experience really missed the mark. Having been to other all inclusive places in the US where I was paying a somewhat similar price per evening, this was a huge disappointment. I understand this may not be a fair comparison because they are really offering a different product. That being said, it was hard to not think of the cost.

At dinner, the staff will discuss and present some activities for the next day. There was not an opportunity to sign up for anything in advance. I really wanted to do one of the group hikes. You could begin sign up for the hikes following dinner. We lingered at the end of dinner and didn’t jump up to look at the hiking options. If you have your mind set on something, I recommend getting up right after dinner to get into line. When we approached to sign up for a hike, there was only one half day option remaining, a morning intermediate level hike. It was a little frustrating knowing how much we paid for the experience and not being able to do exactly what we wanted. A few of the other activity options outside of hiking include gold panning, botany walk, shuttle to Wonder Lake (morning and afternoon availability), biking, fishing, and enjoying the spa or sauna. There are also a number of games upstairs in the main lodge to enjoy by the fireplace or one of the tables by the bar.

The following morning we went for our intermediate level guided hike. I asked to borrow one of the mosquito nets, which are provided on a first come first serve basis. A mosquito net is something that you may want to consider bringing. If they are unavailable or all being used, this is something you absolutely need for the hike. My opinion of the amount of mosquitos at the lodge changed when I saw the amount of mosquitos swarming on the hike. It was insanity. I would urge anyone to wear loose, thicker clothing. Do not wear yoga pants. They will get you. I returned with so many mosquito bites I couldn’t even begin to count. This is even after spraying myself more than once prior to starting and during the hike. In addition to bug spray, a mosquito net, and loose clothing, I think bringing a hat is helpful as well. It helps to bring the net away from your face. Even though I wore the net the entire hike, I still received about three bites on my face. All bug complaining aside, this was really a lovely hike with some beautiful views. It was 4.5 miles starting with a more significant elevation gain. Our guide Sebastian was really phenomenal and probably one of the staff members I enjoyed the most. He was very knowledgeable. In general, I found many of the staff members to be underwhelming. I didn’t feel the five star service or level of professionalism that, quite frankly, I was expecting. The only other staff members that I felt were commendable were the two bus drivers for the ride into and out of the park. They were both very knowledgeable, kind, and experienced. You could tell that both of them took their job very seriously and cared for the clients in addition to Denali Park.

To recap, Denali Backcountry Lodge certainly offers a product that is a commodity. There are not an abundance of lodges in the park. That commodity does come at a price. I didn’t feel that quality of the service and food met the price of admission. If you are interested in the experience of being in Denali National Park, this is one of only a few lodging options. I recommend you consider bringing binoculars, mosquito net, camera, hat, and loose clothing. If you enjoy a nightcap, consider bringing a bottle of wine or beer in your luggage.

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