An August 2004 trip
to Denali by ssullivan
Quote: Denali National Park is known for being the home of Mt. McKinley, the highest mountain in North America. But the park is just more than just one mountain. The park and surrounding area offer great opportunities for hiking, camping, seeing wildlife, rafting, and experiencing the beauty of this majestic place.
For hotel accommodations near Denali National Park, there are not a lot of choices. Most of the accommodations are in an area along the Parks Highway nicknamed "Glitter Gulch," about one mile north of the park entrance.
The Denali Bluffs offers basic, but clean and fairly comfortable, accommodations. Keep in mind that this is Denali, and you are in a pretty remote part of the country. None of the Denali area accommodations offer five-star rooms and service, and you cannot compare a $200 or more per night hotel room here to a similarly priced hotel in the lower 48. Still, for what I paid for the Denali Bluffs, I was hoping to get a little more.
Check in was very slow, and after waiting for a while I found out that my room was not yet ready. After lunch in the hotel's Mountaineer Grille, I went back to the front desk. My room was available but now the desk attendant could not find my key. Each day guests are pre-assigned rooms and keys are sorted based on your expected arrival. If you are coming on one of the trains, make sure the hotel knows this. They seem to assume that all guests who arrive on the train will be on a tour package booked through the railroad. This was not the case for me, so when I arrived on the bus from the train depot, the staff was totally confused as to why I was not on the list of Fairbanks train arrivals. It took nearly 20 minutes to get things sorted out.
After checking in I found my room, which was very clean, but small. All of the rooms at the Denali Bluffs are without air conditioning. A good hint is to close your room's curtains during the afternoon. In the evening, opening the balcony door and placing the fan in front of the door aimed into the room helped cool the room quickly.
On the first morning I quickly found one of the hotel's major drawbacks - the bathroom linens. Never before have I seen smaller bath towels. My hand towels at home are almost as large, and certainly thicker! Rooms are only stocked with two sets of these tiny, thin towels. With one person this was not a major problem. Two of the bath towels were able to get me dry after my shower. I know this is the Alaskan wilderness, but for $200 per night, I would at least expect decent towels, not something that looks like it came from the clearance table at Dollar General.
Overall I was satisfied with my stay. Yes, the staff could have been more competent, towels better, and beds more comfortable. But my room was clean, and the bus transportation and baggage service to/from the Alaska Railroad was fast and efficient. But for $200 per night, there are probably better choices in the area.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on August 19, 2004
Denali Bluffs Hotel
Parks Highway Mile 238
Alaska Cabin Nite is one of several dinner theater programs at the Denali National Park area lodges, and from the reviews I've read, the best of the bunch. This three-hour program features an all-you-can-eat menu of grilled salmon, barbecued pork ribs, vegetables, and dessert served by the actors and singers who present a musical theater program after dinner. The theater program is set at the Kantishna Roadhouse in the early twentieth century and is hosted by an actress in the role of Fannie Quigley, proprietor of the roadhouse. Other characters in the production are also based on other real-life figures from the Denali area's history, including the park's first superintendent and the leader of the first expedition to climb Mount McKinley. During the show each of the characters tells the story of how he or she came to settle in Alaska through a variety of songs and skits. There are also some humorous portions with audience participation, including an enactment of Robert Service's poem "The Shooting of Dan McGrew." Throughout the dinner and theater program, the character Rosie sits at the piano banging out song after song.
I hesitated to book a reservation for Cabin Nite, as I was concerned it might not be worth the money. I've done some programs like this in the past and sometimes the food suffers and the performances are not very good. Thankfully, I was wrong to be suspicious. The food was all very good, starting with the freshest salad I had the entire trip and a bottomless basket of delicious buttery biscuits. Salad was followed by skillets and bowls of ribs, grilled salmon, corn on the cob, and mashed potatoes. All of the food is served family style, and if there's not enough the table waves their napkins over their heads and yells in unison "Hey Charlie!" (or that table's server's name) and the server will bring more. After the main course, a big skillet full of blueberry cobbler came out. While it was good, I've had better, and this was the one thing I ate that I thought could have used improvement.
Being a single traveler, I worried a little about attending this program by myself, but I was very comfortable and fit right in. Each table seats twelve guests and all table assignments are made in advance. At my table were people from Houston, San Antonio, Anchorage, Ohio, Kansas, and Melbourne, Australia. Everyone is encouraged to get to know their tablemates and make new friends. After several nights of dining alone, it was refreshing to have some company.
Reservations for the Cabin Nite program must be made in advance. Call the phone number above to reserve seats. There are two shows nightly at 5:30 and 8:30 PM. More information is available on the Denali Park Resorts website. Free transportation is provided to nearby hotels. The price for adults is $49 for dinner, the show, and nonalcoholic beverages; a cash bar is available with beer, wine, and cocktails.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on August 22, 2004
Alaska Cabin Nite Dinner Theater
McKinley Chalet Resort
The Mountaineer Grille is the restaurant at the Denali Bluffs Hotel, located about one mile north of the Denali National Park entrance on the Parks Highway. The restaurant is open daily during the summer season from 4:30 AM-10:00 PM, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Breakfast is served from a buffet, with both full hot breakfast (around $10) and a cold continental (around $6) options available. Lunch and dinner feature a "pub" menu, with pizzas, nachos, burgers, hot and cold sandwiches, pastas, salads, and a few complete dinner entrees. Beer, wine, and cocktails are available from the bar. There is also a nice patio area with a good view of Mt. Healy and the park entrance area. Finally, the hotel's website states that the Grille can pack box lunches for park excursions, although I never saw this listed on the menu or the guest services guide in my hotel room. I chose to go to the Lynx Creek General Store and Deli for my park bus tour food, but it's worth asking in the Grille if you're staying at the Denali Bluffs about this option.
I ate three meals, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, at the Mountaineer Grille since I was staying at the Denali Bluffs. In general the food was very good, but the service was slow and less than attentive. Like the hotel, the Grille hires much of their summer staff from Eastern Europe. These employees were all very friendly (and some were very nice to look at) there were sometimes slight language barriers when ordering or requesting condiments or drink refills. The staff seemed to have difficulty keeping drinks refilled or quickly seating customers who arrived at the hostess stand. When I arrived for lunch, my first meal, two servers were more interested in rolling silverware in napkins for the dinner shift than showing me to a table and taking my order. But once my salmon burger came, I was pleasantly surprised by the large, thick filet of grilled salmon and delicious potato salad served with the burger. For dinner I had the deluxe pizza, a 12" pie featuring a good, crisp, homemade crust and topped with pepperoni, reindeer sausage, artichoke hearts, onions, bell pepper, mushrooms, four kinds of cheese, and more. It was delicious and too big for me to finish by myself. The breakfast buffet was good, although they were out of orange juice for a few days until the weekly shipment of food arrived.
The Mountaineer Grille is not a bad choice for a meal if you're not in a hurry and can be patient with the staff. It could be a great place with some improved training and customer service skills, but until that happens, it gets only a "recommended" rating from me.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on August 23, 2004
Denali Bluffs Hotel
The Horseshoe Lake Trail is a fun, easy to moderate hike in the park entrance area from the park road down to an oxbow lake that was once part of the Nenana River. In contrast to the river's white water rapids and swift current, Horseshoe Lake is very tranquil and its beauty is enhanced by a backdrop of steep rocky cliffs and Mount Healy. The lake is a good place to see animals, which are attracted to its clear, smooth water. There is a large beaver dam at one end of the lake; to get to it continue following the trail until it ends at the edge of the water and the beaver dam will be directly in front of you. Unfortunately I did not see any beavers while I was there, but the beaver lodges in the lake are still active and inhabited.
The trail to the lake starts out along the Alaska Railroad tracks, turning right and crossing the tracks and proceeding uphill. From this point forward most of the trail is in the forest. After several gradual inclines you arrive at the top of the hill and an incredible overlook of the lake below. Now the hard part starts. The trail descends very steeply down the hill into the valley. The grade is steep enough that even walking downhill can be a little difficult in places. After reaching the bottom of the hill the trail levels out and continues until you reach the lake. The return trip to the park road is more intense, as you have to get back over that steep grade that you came down, and there are not many good resting points along the way. Fortunately the beauty of the lake is worth the effort, and once you get back up to the overlook area the benches there provide a good resting point before continuing on.
A map of the trail and more information can be found on the Denali National Park website.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on August 22, 2004
Horseshoe Lake Trail
Denali National Park Road at Alaska RR crossing
The Denali National Park Visitor Transportation System was created to help preserve the park's wildness by limiting access to the park road and interior sections of the park. While this does make Denali more expensive to visit than other national parks, the bus system has helped discourage people from trashing the park, destroying the fragile tundra ecosystems, and protected wildlife. As a result, bears, caribou, and moose that have never been hunted do not see people as an automatic threat to their safety or as a source of food. By keeping the animals wild, they are more likely to be visible from the park road and to not run and hide when a bus full of tourists approaches.
A visit to the interior sections of Denali is a real adventure. Unlike the more structured Tundra Wildlife and Natural History tours, the shuttle buses give you the freedom to get off the bus wherever you want (provided no wildlife is nearby) to hike and then get back onto another bus later. You are also able to go further into the park on the shuttle buses than you are on the narrated tours. The downsides are buses that are slightly less comfortable and have no included meals or "official" narration. However, if you luck out and get a great driver like I did, this will not be an issue.
Some things to keep in mind when planning your trip. Food and beverages are not available inside the park, so stock up with enough to last you for the full duration of your trip. Drinkable water is available at the Eielson Visitor Center, although after 2004 the center will be closed for construction of a new building, so do not count on getting water here until Eielson reopens. You will be riding on a modified school bus. There are fewer seats and more legroom than the average school bus, and surprisingly with my long legs (I'm 6'4") I was comfortable all day long. Luggage racks have been added above the seats to store your things. There is no air conditioning, so expect windows to be open, letting in dust, so expect to get "gritty". Also, at each rest stop (about every 90 minutes) be sure to get out, walk around, and STAND the entire time. This will go a long way toward avoiding a bad case of "numb butt." Finally, do not wait until you arrive at the park to book a bus tour. You may have to wait several days to get on a bus, especially during the height of the season.
Overall the Denali bus system gets five stars from me. However, I was very lucky when it came to getting on a bus with a good driver that was not 100% full and having gorgeous, clear weather all day long. My trip was not typical; but even if it I had not been as lucky my trip to Wonder Lake and back would still be an adventure I’d never forget.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on August 23, 2004
Denali National Park Visitor Transportation System
The Rock Creek Trail provides a moderately challenging scenic hike from the area near the railroad depot and park visitor center to the park headquarters area and sled dog kennels. The route takes you through beautiful stands of spruce and birch, over several steep hills, and to several gorgeous overlooks of the surrounding valleys. Along the way you're likely to see some wildlife, with everything from small ground squirrels to moose and possibly even a bear, in the area.
The park service website and maps indicate that this trail will take you two hours to hike one way. I think that's a little on the long side, but then I'm a fairly fast hiker. I made the entire 2.3 miles in about 55 minutes, still slower than my normal walking speed when exercising but with the steep inclines on parts of this trail don't expect to move extremely fast. I also stopped several times to take pictures and admire the beauty of the area.
This trail makes an excellent alternative to taking the bus to the sled dog kennels and demonstration area. My suggestion would be to take the bus one way and the trail the opposite direction; you may want to take the bus in and hike out to make sure you get to the demonstrations in time if you want to see the dogs actually run with the sled.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on August 23, 2004
Rock Creek Trail
Denali National Park Road at Rock Creek Bridge
In an area filled with tacky souvenir shops selling a lot of junk, there are a few standouts. Three Bears Gallery, along with the Arctic Traveler's Gift Shop in Fairbanks, is one of the best gift and souvenir shops I found in Alaska. Everything in this unique shop is made in Alaska by Alaskan artists, craftsman, and photographers. The gallery exhibits and sells a wide variety of framed and matted photographs, paintings, soapstone and wood carvings, handmade wood boxes, and more. The prices are a little higher than average, but then, the quality is much higher than what you see in most other gift shops. I found many things that I wanted, but unfortunately the budget did not allow for very many purchases. Still, I did walk out with an unframed, unmatted signed and numbered photograph of Mt. McKinley reflected in Wonder Lake to remember my trip by. It soon will be framed and hung in my home office as a beautiful reminder of my incredible trip to Alaska.
Three Bears Gallery is located along the boardwalk group of shops and restaurants in "Glitter Gultch," about a mile north of the park entrance on the parks highway. The gallery is open for the summer season only. They can be reached by phone at 907/683-3343.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on August 25, 2004
Three Bears Gallery
Parks Highway, Mile 238.6
Lynx Creek Store, also locally referred to as the Tesoro station and the "general store" is basically a larger-than-average convenience store with a deli catering to park visitors. This is the only place to buy gas for miles in either direction, and, along with the Riley Creek campground store just inside the park, one of the few places in the area to purchase light grocery items. Given the remote area, and the fact that this is Alaska, I expected prices to be higher than normal, which they were. However, the $2.95 I paid for a single-serving size carton of Yoplait yogurt did seem pretty ridiculous. Still, for about $30 I was able to get some yogurt and a bottle of juice for breakfast, a small bottle of Excedrin to cure my slight headache that I did not want to get worse on my bus trip into the park, a sandwich from the deli, bag of chips, huge chocolate chip cookie, and two liters of water. The turkey sandwich from the deli was actually pretty good; my only complaint was that by the time I ate it four hours after it was made, the tomato had made the bread soggy on one side. But the turkey, cheese, lettuce, and fresh whole wheat bread were quite good. Condiments are left off all sandwiches being sold to be taken into the park for later consumption, which is good considering mayo can spoil very quickly and the interior of Denali National Park is not where you want to be with a case of food poisoning. I had no ice chest, so I packed everything deep inside my backpack, and the two cold water bottles did a great job of keeping the sandwich chilled until I was ready to eat it.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on August 25, 2004
Lynx Creek Store
District of Columbia County, District of Columbia