Denali Backcountry Lodge

Tuesday, June 20 through Saturday, June 24, 2006


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No telephones. No television. No Internet. No newspapers. Remote. The Denali Backcountry Lodge is roughly 75 miles (6 hours) by bus from the Denali Park Entrance. The Lodge's staff if helpful and friendly. They did a good job of making me feel welcome. The guides who accompany guests on hikes and other activities are GREAT!

Not only is the Lodge staff excellent, but the other guests were interesting people. The guests were the kind of people that are able to make casual interesting conversation. It was a joy to be thrown together with them at meal times, happy hour, and during nature outings.

Food came with our stay. There are no restaurants or alternative food services in the area. You are definitely at the mercy of the cooks in Denali. The cooks are good enough. However, meals felt a bit repetitious. We stayed four nights. Every dinner seemed the same as the other dinners except that the entree had changed. One word of caution. If you don't eat pork as some religions don't you are in trouble. Pork is common. The kitchen tries to accommodate vegetarians by providing a vegetarian entree alternative for dinners. I suspect vegetarians have trouble getting enough nutrition.

So far as I could tell, there are three types of visitors to the Lodge. Day trip people get on a bus at the entrance to Denali at 6 AM, ride out to the Lodge arriving around noon, eat lunch, and finally leave the Lodge around 2:00 PM to return back to the park entrance. That is a lot of bus riding for one day. We saw people doing this trip every day and they didn't seem to mind the bus ride. In fact, the trip in and out of the Lodge might be the highlight of their visit to Denali because of the wildlife viewing opportunities. It would be a nice day trip if you were staying at the park entrance.

Another type of Lodge visitor is the Safari people. They stay a few nights in the Lodges located near the park entrance, come to the Lodge for a night, and return back to the park entrance lodge the following night. These folks all seemed to enjoy their travel package as well.

We were in the third and final group. The Overnight Guests. The Denali Backcountry Lodge is NOT a resort. You can't get a facial. There aren't restaurants or movie theatres nearby. In fact, there are quite a few NO's:

NO TELEPHONES!

NO TELEVISION!

NO INTERNET!

NO NEWSPAPERS!

NO NOISE!

NO KEYS!

Don't get me wrong - it isn't uncomfortable. The accommodations aren't totally spartan either. The accommodations are simple. Uncomplicated. Uncluttered.

The Main Lodge, shown below, is where guests sign up for hikes, eat breakfast and dinner, meet for happy hour, and just generally hang out. There is a second story deck that covers a screened in porch. The screening is important because of the mosquito problem. Lunches are normally held in the Day Lodge nearby.

Guests can take part in a number of activities. Bikes are available for guests. There are a number of calf length boots as well has hip waders available for guests. The boots and waders are often necessary because much of the area is marshy. Like one big giant wet land.

Cabins are typically arranged in rows. The cabins are off the ground a few feet. Wood decking connects all of the cabins together so you don't get wet or muddy going between the cabins and lodges. Unless guests specifically ask for room/cabin keys, all of the guest cabins are unlocked. I got a key. Not because I'm uncomfortable with the staff or overnight guests having access to my room. There are day tours in and out everyday. Locks assist people in staying honest. I didn't want my trip ruined by loss of computer or camera. At some level, the lack of keys are sort of cute and nostalgic. It helps create a nice atmosphere.

Rooms are cabins. We had two queen sized beds in our cabin. While we made reservations about as far in advance as possible, we were unable to secure a single King Sized Bed. It looks cramped in the picture. It was cramped but in a cozy sort of way. We didn't have enough electrical outlets to be totally happy. If you travel with lots of electronic equipment like we do, you may want to consider bringing a power strip. We ended up unplugging lights. Electricity is by generator. The lights flicker all the time. That takes some getting used to. I wouldn't use electronic equipment that was really sensitive to power fluctuations. We didn't have trouble with our laptop computers or battery chargers.

The bathroom was wee bitty. No place around the sink to keep beauty aids. The sink top only supported toothbrush and toothpaste. The lodge was really stingy with towels and the towels sucked. This is something they probably ought to improve.

I would imagine the folks staying in these cabins alongside Moose Creek had to pay extra. They appear to be larger than the other cabins and have a nice view from the porch and windows.

There is a suspension bridge over Moose Creek. Workers have housing across the creek. Campers can use a screened in room and deck located across the creek.

 

Bus Ride In/Out

The bus ride in and out of the lodge takes six hours to travel the 75 miles of mostly dirt and gravel roadway. The lodge picks up and drops off at the Denali Train Depot. Most of the wildlife viewing occurs during these long bus journeys. As an added bonus, the views are extraordinary.

If you suffer from motion sickness, this can be an extremely long drive. Because of the road conditions, these buses are extremely rugged. These are not comfortable tour buses like you would find in the lower 48. The buses ride like school buses.

 

Bus Ride Alternative

If riding on a bouncy bus for 6 hours isn't your cup of tea, you should consider hiring an airplane to take you in or out. Up the hill from the lodge is Kantishna Air Taxi. A six hour bus ride can be transformed into a one hour plane ride. We used Kantishna Air Taxi to get us from the Wilderness Lodge back to the Denali park entrance.

 

Flora and Fauna

There is a rumor floating around that the mosquito is the Alaska State bird. The rumor may be untrue but that doesn't change the fact that mosquitoes are a big problem. In Denali, you should have bug repellant (30% DEET) and mosquito netting for your face. Even when we were slathered in DEET, mosquitoes were literally in our face all the time we were outside. The lodge provided mosquito nets for guests to use anytime they wanted. Guests could also purchase $10 mosquito nets in the main and day lodges.

This little Lady Bug landed on one of the guides. Good day for good luck. To bad the Lottery Tickets are sold only eight hours away by bus.

The Dall Sheep are plentiful. In general though, Dall Sheep and other wildlife are pretty far from the road and binoculars come in handy.

We saw two caribou off in the distance. Both were fooling around in the stream beds. This is the best picture of the bunch. The caribou were to far away to get a good picture.

Arctic Ground Squirrels are very plentiful in the park. Like hares, squirrels provide food for fox, coyote, wolf, and bobcat. I hear they taste like chicken.

On the bus ride in from the park entrance, we saw two sets of Grizzly Bears up hill away from the road. The following picture shows a Mother Grizzly Bear and two cubs. The bears were high up on the hillside above the road.

The Alaska State Bird is the Willow Ptarmigan shown below. Contrary to popular belief, if isn't the mosquito.

This little Magpie is reflected in the beaver pond below.

While we had many Moose sightings, only this one was close enough to the road for us to get a really good look at. This female moose was happily munching on tasty moose food in the pond.

Evidence of beavers are easy to find. Although beavers are somewhat shy, I did manage to see busy beavers building and maintaining their lodges. Small streams are plentiful in the park and provide beavers with the raw materials for their habitat. These two beaver dams on the same stream are typical of dams found around active beaver lodges.
According to our guides, beaver lodges with grass growing on top are abandoned. Lodges without grass growing on top are active. There is a challenge in determining if a lodge is abandoned or active when there is some grass growing on top of a lodge.

The term busy as a beaver is well deserved. Beavers are constantly working on their habitat. Making improvements here and there. This beaver pulled grass and mud out of a marshy area and took it inside its lodge. Beavers bring food inside the lodge during the summer for use during the winter.

This baby beaver is a child of the beaver above.

Paper Birch Trees are common in low lying areas of the park. At this time of year, the leaves and bark of the tree are absolutely beautiful.

These spruce trees have the most amazing red bud that will ultimately grow into a pine cone. The first time I saw one of these, I had a double-take. Didn't know if it was a berry or what.

I am often amazed at the color and shape of mushrooms. This fungus, growing from the base of a tree, appeared on our botany walk. None of the folks on the walk could identify the mushroom. Neither guests nor guides had mushroom books with them. While often pretty, most mushrooms are deadly poisonous.

We were a bit early in the season for a good wildflower showing. This brave volunteer was found on Blueberry Hill adjacent to Wonder Lake. The flower is growing in the Tundra. The Tundra is interesting all by itself. Is this a Bluebell, Forget-Me-Not, or somthing else?

Foot Prints and Scat

While we didn't see as much wildlife as we wanted, we did see evidence of wildlife (the fun big kind) on many of the trails and hikes. Maybe you already know this. I had heard the term before but didn't know what it meant. Scat is animal excrement. Naturalists can tell a lot from scat. Each animal type has very different scat. To a hunter or naturalist, scat can tell as much or more than foot prints about animals. The scat pictured below is from a moose. To a person skilled in scat, they could tell you not just that it was from a moose, but what the moose had been eating, how long ago the scat had been left, and how large the animal was.

Fresh (within 24 hours) bear print. It is exciting to find evidence of an animal that could very well consider you lunch.

While Linda and I were not lucky enough to see a wolf, the day trip folks who left the Denali entrance at 6:00 AM, did. They got to see a pack of wolves hunting Dall Sheep high up on the mountainside. They were all quite excited by the drama. While they were watching, the wolves were unable to kill any of the sheep. Just watching the hunt was very exciting for them. This is a fresh wolf paw print.

 

Hikes and Activities

Every evening, guests and guides gather in the main lodge to discuss the day's events. I enjoyed sharing experiences. Swapping stories. Both guests and guides were interesting people and good story tellers. I found the lodge guests and staff to be interesting and engaging. We had wonderful casual conversations whenever we were together.

All guests are invited to try their hand at gold panning. This area of the park supported a few gold claims that were worked long ago. One of the guided walk and talks is around the area's mining history. It turns out that our lodge and other lodges within this area of the park are in a historic mining area called the Kantishna Mining District.

One of the most notable and interesting miners living in the Kantishna Mining District was Fannie Quigley. Fannie's last cabin, shown below, was built in the early 1940's. Fannie lived here for four or five years before she died.

I've used an outhouse like Fannie Quigley's before. I'm very happy to say, I don't have to use these much now-a-days.

Many of the guided hikes start a few miles away from the lodge. Guides will drive the Lodge's vans with up to ten passengers out to the trail heads.

Every evening, a van would take guests down to Wonder Lake for a few hours. Wonder Lake provides one of the best venues for seeing Denali. Since Denali is often shrouded in clouds, the evening pilgrimages to Wonder Lake became yet another chance to experience the great one. We never did see the mountain. It was always covered up.

On the Botany Trail, a guide and guest work together to determine the name of a plant.

On the Moose Creak Nature walk, we saw beaver dams, beavers, animal tracks, scat, and beautiful views of hills and dale.

The Blueberry Hill hike takes hikers to a nice overlook of Wonder Lake. Here, our group is going up-hill while another group that had an hour head start on us is coming down-hill. They try to keep the groups under ten people. On the day I went on this tour, we had a total of 13 people so the Lodge added another tour on to accommodate the extra three people. Very nice.

Below, the Wonder Lake Ranger Station as seen from Blueberry Hill.

From time to time, we saw flightseeers overhead. I understand from discussions with the lodge staff that there is a 2,000 foot minimum altitude. It is unlikely that animals would be visible. Some airplanes and helicopters can and do land on the glaciers. From an airplane, some of the views are breathtaking. We flew back from the Lodge to the park entrance.

Copyright © 2006 Larry Pearson, All Rights Reserved