North Face Lodge sits almost at the end of 92-mile road in Denali National Park. Access is via converted school buses that are driven by Lodge staff who also just happen to be the naturalist guides for the walks and hikes that are at the heart of the experience here. The lodge was the second stop on a high school graduation trip – a present to my niece Kristen. For those of you traveling with teenagers (and tweens) -- be prepared for the horror that ensues when they realize that they’ve been cut off from the outside world! My niece actually found – and then asked about – the hidden network that the Lodge uses to conduct its business and that lodge staff use to stay connected with the outside world. For me, on the other hand, being disconnected was pure bliss.
North Face is a Spartan place as befits a lodge that is off the grid. Don’t expect air conditioning or fancy toiletries. Do expect good food, mountain views, knowledgeable guides, and activities for almost all levels (more on that “almost” in a bit). Travelers who land here are looking to see pristine Alaska, hike on the tundra (there are two kinds), and escape the crowds that are rumored to swarm at points closer to the entrance to the park. If they are lucky, Mount Denali (or Mount McKinley, depending on whom you are talking to) will come out from behind the clouds. We were very lucky – the mountain was out on our first full day in the park – reflected in all its glory in both Wonder Lake and Reflection Pond.
If I were in charge of North Face, there are two things I would change – particularly given the long days that mark the Alaskan summer. The first has to do with the “almost” that I mentioned earlier. The lodge offers three options when it comes to activity choices – foray (very easy adventures with a lot of on/off of buses or smaller vans and good for photographers, those with limited mobility, etc.), medium (3-5 mile hikes that may include difficult terrain), and hard (destination hikes where it’s not so much about the scenery but more about the getting there). The problem is with the “easy” and the “medium” or moderate options. One is all too often too easy and the other can carry a risk of a fairly huge jump in difficulty -- particularly when walking on the Alaskan tundra (think of it as walking on a giant sponge. I’d like to see some 2-3 mile hikes in the mix of offerings or be
The second has to do with the timing of activities and meals. Although the hot breakfast was really yummy, I would have much preferred to get out on the tundra given that animals are most active in the early morning and later in the day. At North Face, breakfast is at 7:30 am and you leave for hikes and forays between 9:00 and 10:00 am. I just didn’t get it – I’d traveled all this way to see not just the scenery but also the animals. Although we did spot moose and caribou and a lone grizzly, I can’t help but think we might have seen more if we’d been out and about a bit earlier in the day.
The lodge has mosquito headgear (a must), rain gear, backpacks, gaiters and trekking poles available to borrow. Sometimes they’ll mix folks who are staying up at Camp Denali together with you depending on who is interested in what activity.
Bottom Line? If you have a hankering to go deep into Denali, North Face is a good option. The naturalist guides are great and they make an effort to tailor what you see to your expectations. It can feel a bit regimented at times and be prepared for the rotating breakfast and dinner companions (they rotate you so you have different dining companions every night). Rooms are functional and clean (the aforesaid naturalist guides double as housekeeping staff during the guest changeovers). Definitely spend time talking to the staff – they know a lot about the flora and fauna.
- Official Description (provided by the hotel):
- Located near the end of the unpaved, mountainous 90-mile road into Denali National Park, North Face Lodge is one of only two in-park lodgings in view of Mt. McKinley. It specializes in learning adventures for active travelers, featuring naturalist-led hikes and field trips for visitors who wish to explore Denali in-depth. ... more less
- Also Known As:
- North Face Hotel Denali National Park And Preserve