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Camp Denali
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Reviewed November 7, 2010

I spent 3 nights at Camp Denali Wilderness Lodge with 3 other friends. We all had a great experience in the wilds of Denali Park. From the time we were picked up at the Denali Visitors Center to the time we returned our every expectation was met. The bus ride in is long and can be harrowing on the narrow roads, but they have it down to a science. We stopped for all wildlife sitings; and we were lucky enough to see bears, wolves, Dall sheep, moose, and many birds, a late afternoon picnic, and potty breaks. We arrived to warm drinks and a snack. The food is home made and very good. We were introduced to all the staff and they discuseed the level of activities offered. Then to our cabins which have propane lights, wood burning stove, and a water faucet outside the door. The pit toilet is down a short path. We spent 2 days hiking at 3 offered levels that are suited the stroller to the peak bagger. We arrived in overcast weather, and left in overcast weather, but were lucky enough to have one day of sunny weather and could see the magnificent view of Mt. McKinley. This is a great vacaton for individuals, honeymooners, and familys. It is a bit pricey, but what isn't in Alaska, and worth every penny.

  • Stayed: August 2010, traveled with friends
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5  Thank Kathryn B
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.
Reviewed September 7, 2010

When I first started looking into visiting Denali National Park, I have to admit I was shocked at the costs of staying at Camp Denali. But after reading so many fabulous reviews (and after a lot more research revealed how expensive lodging is, in general, around Denali), we decided to take the plunge. Was the cost worth it? Yes. Was Camp Denali what I expected? Not entirely.

First, I cannot recommend Deneki Lakes B&B highly enough if you are looking for a place to stay in “glitter gulch” prior to and following your trip to Camp Denali. Marianne and Fritz, the owners, both worked for Camp Denali for several years and she was a great source of information for us. I’m going to write a review of Deneki Lakes, as well, so I’ll just leave it at that for now.

Second, several other reviewers have talked about the great naturalist guides at Camp Denali, the outhouses and the wildlife so I won’t say much on those topics. We saw several bears, two golden eagles, several herds of caribou, 3 or 4 moose, several groups of Dall sheep and, finally on the trip out, one wolf. (We were told by several naturalists that bald eagles don’t live in Denali because there are no salmon, but we were lucky enough to see one close up in Anchorage.) All of the wildlife we saw was on the bus rides, either in and out of the park or on our way to and from the guided hikes. We didn’t see any big wildlife on any of the hikes, though other groups did. We were also fortunate that the mountain was out on our first day there, but we didn’t see it for the rest of our four day stay and the weather was never calm enough for us to do the flightseeing trip around the mountain. I have to be honest that, if we hadn’t seen the mountain or all of the wildlife that we did (which many people do not), I probably wouldn’t be so positive about the experience.

The first thing that surprised me was that the whole Camp Denali/North Face Lodge operation is much slicker that we expected, though I certainly don’t mean that in a negative way. Their web site makes a lot of the fact that they are family-owned but in our four day stay we only met Simon briefly the first night and he happened to be our bus driver on the way out. They have a staff of over 50 people and you see many of them only once – this is a VERY efficient operation. The buses are washed every day and they have a paint shop, a full-service garage, etc. Also, EVERYTHING is branded. You can buy all sorts of gear with the Camp Denali logo on it. I’m not saying this is a bad thing – it just surprised me. The whole experience was much less rustic than I expected. I grew up camping all over the country and this is not the half-step up I expected; it was several leaps and bounds.

I was also surprised by how spread out the camp was. We had a solid 10 minute walk up a steep hill to get to the dining hall and shower house and there were four cabins further down the hill than us. If you aren’t up to that kind of trek, make sure to request a cabin near the dining hall.

The schedule of events was also MUCH fuller than I expected. I envisioned plenty of time spent on our front porch just hanging out and that really didn’t happen. Breakfast is every morning at 7:30 (and the food is just as awesome as everyone has said it is). Then, they clear the breakfast dishes and lay out the stuff for you to pack your lunch. The hikes leave right after that and you aren’t back until at least 4:00. In fact, two of the days we were told we would be back at 4:00 and we weren’t back until nearly 5:30, which barely gave us time to shower before dinner at 6:30. Then the scheduled talk started right after dinner and it was time to get ready for bed because you had to be up again at 6 AM. If you wanted to opt out of the hikes, you could, but you still had to pack a lunch because they don’t serve lunch at the camp. The third day we did not hike because we wanted to canoe Wonder Lake. And there were some more surprises. One of the buses for the hikes was willing to drop us off but we had to find our own way back so we ended up lugging bikes, helmets (they won’t let you bike without one), paddles and life vests with us on the bus and then had to strap the paddles to the bike (that was interesting) and wear the life vests to bike back. (And, yes, biking in a life jacket and helmet looks just as ridiculous as you would imagine – HA!) We stopped at North Face Lodge on the way back just to check it out and they kindly let us leave the equipment there so we didn’t have to haul it back up the hill to Camp Denali; we only had to haul ourselves and our day packs, which was plenty. (One note is that wandering through the greenhouses at North Face is pretty interesting, if you get the chance.)

There are no options for half-day guided hikes or anything like that. You either go the whole day (regardless of which level hike you choose) or you are on your own, though they do have trail maps for paths that leave from the camp. This isn’t entirely up to Camp Denali; they are only allowed to take people into specific parts of the park at specific times and some of those places take 30 minutes by bus to even get to. Still, it would have been nice to have more options. It felt like the schedule was pretty inflexible and, while we had a fantastic time, we left totally exhausted! Also, there was a lot more lecture on the hikes than I expected. I got the impression that the naturalists get a little tired of all the guests only caring about big wildlife, and we heard a lot about glaciers and wildflowers, etc. I will say this varies quite a bit depending on which guide you get. Oh, and they won’t tell you which guide is leading which hike until you sign up. The guides will tell you at breakfast they don’t know.

I was also surprised that the guides don’t carry any kind of radio on the hikes. When I asked our guide about it the first day, just out of curiosity, she said “you’re just supposed to not get hurt”. Well, um, ok. Obviously, cell phones don’t work once you get a few miles in the park road (we have Verizon and had lost our signals before we got to Savage River) but there are all sorts of other radios that would work so it really surprised me they don’t take that safety precaution when they have a groups of 15 people of unknown fitness levels up in the foothills with the ever changeable mountain weather.

The final thing I’ll say about the hikes is that the level of effort was exactly what I expected. This is not a cruise where anything that requires you to move your body at all, even to stroll through a craft market, rates as moderate activity. We did the strenuous hike the first day and gained about 1,500 feet of elevation in the first mile, then hiked along a ridge with very uneven ground before descending the 1,500 feet along another trail. Frequently, the trail was no wider than 12 inches and we had tall brush on both sides. Several people did the strenuous hike every day, but they were definitely not couch potatoes back home.

The one other surprise that comes to mind is that, on the final night, they ask you to tip the staff. As someone who just paid about $4,200 for four days for two people, that seemed a little excessive to me to be asked to leave a tip. The staff is wonderful, don’t get me wrong, I just think the whole tipping thing has gotten a little out of control.
A few other items: we picked up a couple of bottles of wine in Fairbanks and most of the guests at Camp Denali brought wine to dinner (though you obviously don’t have to). Camp Denali does have corkscrews and wine glasses so no need to purchase a corkscrew like we did. Also, they give each guest a clothespin with your name on it that is used as a place card and they rotate where you sit each day for breakfast and dinner – you just show up and find your clothespin. It was nice to meet pretty much everyone that way but you get really tired of the standard where-are-you-from-and-what-do-you-do conversation after the seventh or eighth repeat. I would have preferred if they rotated us the first couple of meals and then let us choose our seats. There was also at least one staff person, usually a guide, at each table and that was very nice to get a chance to just ask questions.

One last thing (I promise): comply with the packing list on Camp Denali’s web site!! For most of the country, it has been an unusually hot summer but it did not break 60 degrees the whole time we were in Fairbanks and Denali. On one of our hikes, it started sleeting and we were VERY happy we had hats, gloves and rain gear.
All in all, an excellent experience that was worth the money and we would highly recommend it to certain types of travelers.

  • Stayed: July 2010, traveled as a couple
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26  Thank tripgirlMichigan
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.
Diapensia, Manager at Camp Denali, responded to this reviewResponded February 2, 2011

Dear tripgirlMichigan,

Thank you for your very comprehensive review of your stay at Camp Denali. You cover some of the finer points that often get overlooked. It's helpful for everyone to hear that yes, in fact, you may actually need those hats and gloves, even in the middle of summer in Denali!

I’m going to address a couple of the other points you made, just for clarification.

The summer of 2010 was indeed an especially chilly and rainy season, more so than our average cool and sometimes inclement summers. Even so, given that our guests stay with us for 3-, 4- or 7-nights, the overwhelming majority of our guests caught a glimpse, if not several, of that ever-elusive mountain. It is staying for multiple days that makes all the difference, especially when there is a stormy weather system in the neighborhood. As you said, your mountain views were only in the first day. Imagine if your one day visit to the park happened to be on the second day.... it would have been a mountain-less experience!

While Camp Denali is very much owned and managed by the Hamm Family, we do strive for it to be a professionally run operation. Simon and Jenna, the owners/managers are intimately involved in the operation and live with their two children at Camp Denali. You may find them hosting your stay, driving your bus, chasing their kiddos around, enjoying an evening program along side guests or with sleeves rolled up underneath the engine of one of our buses. When we say "operated by the owner," it means they are literally making things operate! Simon and Jenna strive to be involved in each guest stay and enjoy carrying on the tradition that was passed to them from Jenna's parents, but the degree to which they are able to very much depends on which "fires" need putting out.

The guided hikes and outings are a significant part of what we offer. Each morning, we make a tentative plan for where we will send our guided hikes, however it always remains tentative for a few reasons: 1. We never know how many of our guests will sign up for each level; 2. We never know what we might run into while out on these hikes (such as wildlife that prevent us from accessing an area, or localized fog that deters us from a ridge hike); and 3. Sometimes we realize once we've started our hike that the abilities of the participants might be stronger or weaker than expected, and therefore adjust the plan accordingly. These are far too many variables for us to make a firm plan and actually assign guides prior to when we ask our guests what they want to do. The short story is our flexible and competent guides literally don't know which hike they'll lead until sometimes minutes before they walk out the door to greet their group! We also attempt to rotate our guides around so that guests can have a variety over the course of their stay.

Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to address our approach to safety in the backcountry. It is something we have considered frequently over Camp Denali’s nearly 60 year history and continually reassess. We feel that being safe in the backcountry starts with our initial communications with guests: through marketing on the website, photos and verbally over the phone. We want our guests to have not only the proper attire and equipment, but also realistic expectations about what the terrain will be like so they can prepare and then choose an outing that is appropriate. This is followed up by on-sight descriptions, guide assessments of abilities, footwear and confidence levels, and a hike introduction, including proper behavior in bear country, etc. Once out in the field, safety is the primary concern. All of our guides carry extensive first aid kits and airhorns that can be used as a noisemaker (three long blasts are a standard for indicating distress). All guides are Wilderness First Aid certified (the industry standard), and most of our guides are certified Wilderness First Responders (an intensive 80 hour course). All of our vehicles are equipped with extensive first aid equipment, as well as CB radios. They serve as our “base” when we are on our field trips since we are rarely more than an hour’s hike directly to the road or the lodge. In the mountainous surroundings, line of sight radios are often rendered useless, and the park has not allowed us access to their repeater system. Instead of relying upon equipment that may or may not be reliable when we need it, we focus on sound planning, attention to safety, medically trained staff, and a plan of response.

I feel badly that your perception was an expectation to tip because that is not the impression we hope to make. We frequently receive questions regarding whether it is appropriate or necessary to tip the staff and how that works, so much so that our hosts include something about tipping in their discussion with guests on the final night. We recognize tipping as one way to express gratitude directly to the staff and we offer that opportunity to our guests with no expectation. Our approach is to let guests know that while they may have personally interacted with around 10 staff, there are 50 making the place run smoothly, many behind the scenes. Any tips that are received are divided equally among all staff.

Thank you for writing about your experience at Camp Denali! Hopefully we’ll see you back someday, maybe next time for a full week so you can do all the activities and have some time to relax!

Sincerely,
Anne Beaulaurier
VP & Program Coordinator
Camp Denali & North Face Lodge

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This response is the subjective opinion of the management representative and not of TripAdvisor LLC.
Reviewed September 4, 2010

We stayed at Camp Denali for four nights in late August. The staff was friendly and well-trained. Initially a staff member is assigned to the occupants of each cabin. "Bob" carried our bags for us, then explained the workings of the wood stove and propane lights. We loved the whole experience of Camp Denali. The outhouse was clean as promised and proved to be no problem at all. Mt. McKinley started to clear off the first night we were there, then was out every day! We were privileged to get a glimpse of the Northern Lights early one morning (following an outhouse visit). The staff was great, we enjoyed all the fellow guests, the food was exceptional, and the scenery spectacular! The only non-adult guests were two well-behaved, intelligent siblings. All in all, well worth the substantial cost!

Stayed: August 2010, traveled as a couple
3  Thank midwestnature
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.
Reviewed September 2, 2010

The Camp Denali experience is not to be missed. To be clear, staying there is not just about having a warm bed to fall into. There's a history to Camp Denali and they have their way of doing things that makes you feel like you are welcomed to become a part of a very special place for the short time you can stay.

It was a huge splurge for us, but worth every penny to experience Denali Natl Park in such a signifcant way. We stayed 3 nights and Denali was "out" for two of the days. The other positive reviews have already said most of what can be said about Camp Denali. The only thing I'll add is that our kids aged 8 and 11 loved it.

  • Stayed: July 2010, traveled with family
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4  Thank Frah4
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.
Reviewed July 10, 2010

June 21-25, 2010. What a great experience! We enjoyed the bus ride to The Camp(and back out) which was narrated by Brian, the driver and naturalist. The scenery was amazing as was the animal life: caribou, dall sheep, grizzlies, moose, wolves including pups, golden eagles and a trumpeter swan. The lunch break was delightful and a nice time to stretch our legs and enjoy a picnic.
When we arrived, we were welcomed, oriented and assigned to our cabins. Beautifully rustic and very clean. The beds were incredibly comfortable. The view was amazing, especially since Denali (Mt. McKinley) was “coming out”. Even the outhouse had a view of the mountain,
By 11pm the mountain was out in all her glory and we could not go to sleep. Hiked up Cranberry Ridge and took pictures then back to our cabin to enjoy the view until after 1:30 am (it was June 21- Summer Solstice). We were afraid the mountain would hide itself again …it did not! We were blessed with it’s magnificent presence every day.
The staff : very accommodating and friendly.
The meals: superb. Breakfast and dinner were excellent and we loved making our lunches for our day hikes in the park.
The excursions in the park: fabulous, a choice being given to the level of activity we wanted to do. Brian, Matt and Maria were excellent and knowledgeable guides. We saw large bull moose, grizzlies, a fox hunting ground squirrels, many wild flowerers and the birds (lesser yellowlegs, red-throated loon, a long-tailed jaeger on a nest, lapland longspusr, golden plovers, wandering tattler and MANY more).
We also were privileged to fly around The Mountain with Kantishna Air Taxi which was just incredible. To see the glaciers, Denali up close, the climbers down on Kahiltna Glacier and all the other amazing mountains in the Alaska Range was beyond our imagination.
One day we chose to ride bikes back to the Camp after our hike. It was so quiet and peaceful riding by beautiful Wonder Lake and seeing the waterfowl in all the ponds around the area.
Mosquitoes: yes, a little pesky in the evening but no worse than in Illinois. We put on repellent only one time in 4 days.
The shower house: never had to wait for a shower. We took them at night. Nice and private.
The programs: for their Special Emphasis series we had two geologists who gave interesting talks on glaciers and tectonics. Very informative. And then the last night Brian gave a personal slideshow of his Denali pictures which was spectacular.
The outhouse: no big deal to us. Cold seat in the morning, pesky mosquitoes in the evening but who can relive themselves while looking at Denali in all her glory?
Would we go back? In a heartbeat if time and budget allowed, but for a whole week.

  • Stayed: June 2010, traveled as a couple
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2  Thank catsforkids
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.
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