Our tricked-out school bus traveled the same road as the Denali National Park’s Tundra Wilderness tour but continued past the Eielson Visitors Center. At mile marker 89, we pulled up to Camp Denali. Log-hewn cabins dotted the steep terrain. Wonder Lake, made famous by American photographer Ansel Adams, sparkled in the distance. And beyond that, Mount McKinley towered above the tundra at 20,320 feet.
Family-owned Camp Denali was built before Alaska annexed the land for park use. It began in 1952 as 10 canvas-frame structures that eventually became log cabins. Down the mountain, North Face Lodge, bought by the family in the 1980s, was originally in McKinley Park and served as the head ranger’s homestead. In a special agreement with the family, the state grandfathered both properties special access to the surrounding wilderness when Denali became a national park.
Camp Denali is Alaskan backcountry at its finest. Cabins have wood-burning stoves, hand-sewn quilts, sinks and propane lights. Next to each cabin, private outhouses sport Corian seats — the most meticulous outdoor facilities I’ve ever seen. Gourmet meals are served family style in the lodge dining room. North Face Lodge offers traditional hotel-style accommodations, and guests dine at Camp Denali.
Experienced naturalists led us on daily hikes into the park that no other backcountry accommodation was privy to. One evening after dinner, McKinley’s fog cleared, and we had a postcard-perfect view of the mountain from the lodge deck, a sight that isn’t visible from the park entrance.
“People visit us from all over the world and leave with a sense of real community because of how they’re treated by our staff,” said Jenna Hamm, co-owner. “Our goal is to help further our guests’ understanding of the far North and to encourage stewardship of the land.”