Last February I was researching a place to stay inside Denali National Park. I had read that the best place to see wildlife is as deep into the interior as visitors can go. There is only one road into the park, and it’s 92 miles long. The first 15 miles is open to car traffic, but the next 77 is open only to the buses that ferry almost 600,000 visitors a year in and out. With stops for wildlife viewing and other necessities, these buses don’t average much more than 10 mph on a bumpy, gravel, single-track road. I started thinking: 92 miles at 10 mph—the drive could take nine hours in one direction! I planned on visiting the park every day for four days, and I had no intention of living on a bus. We were going to have to stay in the park.
There are only three places to stay inside the park, and one involves cabins without plumbing. Scratch that—an outhouse down a dark path on a cold, windy night was not in my plans either. We chose the North Face Lodge, the camp’s sister lodge just down the hill. I read something about guided hikes on the website. Not sure where, when, or how that would work, but if it didn’t suit our needs, we could always do our own thing.
We discovered that the lodge had our entire four-day adventure planned down to the personalized napkin pins. We were met at the park entrance, assigned to a bus, relieved of our luggage, and welcomed aboard—along with 30-some other people. The 17 rooms at the lodge would be occupied for four days by the same group of people. Everyone arrives on the same day and leaves on the same day. We were greeted at the lodge by two energetic, young hosts who, over the course of our four-day visit, told us where we needed to be next, and what we had the option of doing there. They were supported by a whole passel of staff who rotated through various tasks: naturalists, guides, bus and van drivers, cooks, servers, gardeners, dishwashers, housekeepers, and more. The lichen expert may be your bus driver/hiking guide one day, and the next morning she’s serving you stuffed French toast. They were an incredible team, so enthusiastic about spending their summer in the great outdoors.
We were delighted to be part of this little family. We ate our meals together, and at each meal we were seated with someone we hadn’t had a chance to talk to yet. Each day after breakfast we chose our own level of adventure: strenuous, moderate, or foray. Or we could choose to stay at the lodge and hike their nature trails, bike, canoe, or just sit by the fire and read. Selecting our own tempo provided a different way of mixing us up. After finishing a moderate hike on the tundra the first day, we were a bit envious of the forayers who did less walking and more riding around in vans to carefully selected locations where large mammals were known to hang out. So the second day we chose to foray, and we had an opportunity not only to see wildlife, but also to get to know a different group of people. Normally I like to call the shots about what we do and when we do it, but this was so well orchestrated and so congenial that I felt a bit sentimental on the day we departed. What a marvelous group of people—both guests and staff—and what an enjoyable way to share a common passion! I’m going to miss them. Sometimes it’s fortuitous not to know what you’re getting into.