In 2021, the Pretty Rocks Landslide on Denali Park Road in Alaska shut off the only driving route to the old mining town of Kantisha. The closure is predicted to continue until 2026, cutting off access on the iconic 92-mile road in Denali National Park. This means that Kantishna, previously a popular destination for day visitors to the park, is now only accessible by air. It takes a helicopter over the glaciers, braided rivers, and multi-colored mountain peaks with America’s tallest mountain, Denali, in the background. In short, it’s become an exclusive destination that only a small percentage of visitors have a chance to access.
With the exclusivity comes the chance to see Denali National Park’s backcountry in a near-people-free way that wasn’t possible when there was more access. And there’s no better place to base a trip here than at Denali Backcountry Lodge.
A stay at Denali Backcountry Lodge an all-inclusive luxury experience. With a max capacity of 24 guests and over 17 staff members, it’s an intimate and a truly idyllic getaway for scheduled two-to-five day trips.
On a recent visit, my stay started in the frontcountry of Denali National Park at Denali Backcountry Lodge’s sister property, Denali Cabins. Here, I acclimated with a hike around Horseshoe Lake and incredible Alaskan salmon from Prey, the on-site restaurant. Pursuit Alaska Collection manages both properties, making for a seamless transportation experience.
The next day, a helicopter transported me to Denali Backcountry Lodge. The friendly staff greeted me as I landed and immediately showed me to my comfortable and spacious room. The rooms come equipped with hiking backpacks, bug nets, and reusable water bottles for the duration of the stay. In the main lodge, there are also trekking poles and a hiking snack station complete with granola bars and dried fruit. It was quickly clear that everything I’d need would be taken care of.
What it’s like to stay at Denali Backcountry Lodge
The stunning property sits on the river and has a spa, game room complete with pool and board games, and a screened-in fireplace room, as well as plenty of mountain bikes, paddleboards, and kayaks for guests to use.
The staff schedules each day with morning and afternoon guided and self-guided activities. Guided activities include hikes (and there’s no shortage of incredible Denali hikes), historical tours, gold panning, botany walks, and daily educational talks. Self-guided activities include fishing, barrel saunas, paddleboarding or kayaking (or a quick cold plunge for the brave), biking, a pool table and game room, and time in the hot tub.
Dining at Denali Backcountry Lodge
Breakfast, at a place like this with long and activity filled days, is hearty: an omelet with salmon, chives, brie, fresh fruit, and potatoes; avocado toast; or brioche French toast with lingonberry jam and birch syrup made from native birch trees.
The lodge has specific meals times each day, with staff happy to provide you with what you need throughout the stay. A buffet-style lunch with wraps and sandwiches, quinoa salad, fresh fruit, and a bite-sized dessert was served on my first day shortly after settling into my room. There’s also a much-loved espresso machine, with various milks and alt-milks for various coffee drinks.
Lunchtime is also the time to decide dinner. A daily educational presentation occurs each evening before dinner where you can enjoy hors d’oeuvres like scallops and crab cakes while learning all photography and mountaineering in Denali National Park. For the main meal, options include choices like Alaskan salmon or Alaskan halibut, with desserts like Baked Alaska. There are cocktails on the menu for drinks, and ingredients for s’mores are provided by the screened-in fireplace deck.
The upstairs bar serves a variety of Alaskan beers, wine from around the world, and incredibly crafted cocktails. I enjoyed an Alaskan pilsner and raspberry gin smash outside while listening to the blissful sounds of the river.
Seeing the Alaskan wilderness up close
After dinner on the first night, the staff at Denali Backcountry Lodge ran a shuttle to Reflection Pond for golden hour. It was here that I caught my first real sight of Denali. Words can’t describe the feeling of seeing the 20,000-foot-tall reflected in the still waters. As great as the sights were, staying still and enjoying is not the only option.
The staff encouraged me to explore the surrounding Alaskan tundra. Staying on the trail is paramount in most national parks in order to minimize damage to the environment. Denali National Park is different. There are few maintained trails, and off-trail exploring is encouraged. Lines of hikers walking single-file, in fact, can cause more damage. The tundra is a magical place to wander—and the wild blueberries are magical to pluck and eat.
During the property tour, we learned that we could have the staff transport paddle boards, kayaks, and mountain bikes to Wonder Lake so I decided to head on an adventure. My group were the only people on the lake, and having the untouched beauty to ourselves was remarkable. Denali was hidden behind clouds, but the reflection of the surrounding mountains in the still water made for a breathtaking scene.
After fueling up one morning, I took one of the most beautiful bike rides of my life on a scenic road with not a soul around. It felt too good to be true with incredibly clear skies and a backdrop of Denali’s peaks for the entire ride. A staff member even helped me find a hidden waterfall that involved some light bushwacking and an unmaintained trail through the tundra to get to the turquoise water.
Each evening, the staff presents the guided hiking options for the following day, and there’s always an easy, moderate, and difficult option. The guided hikes by the naturalists give guests a deeper understanding of the Alaskan wilderness. The lodge’s commitment to sustainability and environmental stewardship shines through the knowledge imparted by the naturalists, including wildlife and hiking safety and information about the native flora and fauna.
On my final morning, I opted for an early wake-up call to fit in one last adventure. It ended up being my favorite of the whole trip. One of the naturalists took me on a guided hike on the McKinley Barr Trail, one of the few maintained trails that doubles as the beginning of the original mountaineering route to summit Denali. Denali showed up and I had some of the most unobstructed and clear views of Denali and the Alaskan range of the visit. The easy, but wonderfully picturesque, trail allowed a final look at the Alaskan wildflowers and an up-close look at the McKinley River Bar where we found moose, wolf, and bear footprints in the mud.
I can’t think of a better way to cap off such a trip.
Getting to Denali Backcountry Lodge
Denali Backcountry Lodge is in Kantishna at Mile 92 of the currently closed Denali Park Road. The only way to access is by flying in by helicopter that takes off near Denali Cabins, which is about a two hour drive from Fairbanks.