Weekend at Base Camp: McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge

05/04/2010
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Some Alaskans think of Denali as many New Yorkers fondly regard Times Square: a treat best reserved for entertaining out-of-town relatives. But while the mountain does draw thousands of travelers and hopeful mountaineers each year, the area offers much more to those who may have seen “the Great One” against the skyline once or twice before. In the midst of 146 acres of spruce forest seems an unlikely spot for the fourth largest hotel in Alaska, but here you’ll find the 460-room McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge. Nearby Talkeetna is a town you adore for its quirky hometown feel and abundance of recreation — and food — and just two hours north is the main entrance to Denali National Park and Preserve. And much like Times Square, no matter how many times you’ve been there before, Denali lives up to the hype.

Friday

5 p.m.  Not far from home

Before you arrive at the lodge, make a pit stop in Talkeetna, a place that resembles the quintessential Alaska and always feels like coming home. It’s a popular stop for visitors, but the town hasn’t seemed to notice. Aside from a few gift shops — which are a treat even if you generally avoid Alaska’s gift shops — and various tourism businesses housed in quaint log cabins, you won’t find Talkeetna to be what you might call a “tourist trap.” You’re sure to see a mountaineer or two — clearly identifiable by their specialized packs and wary expressions — walking the dirt streets or bunkered down awaiting departure over steaming cups of joe.

6 p.m.  So much to choose from

Once you check in at the McKinley Princess Lodge be sure to stop by the Tour Desk to plan out your weekend adventures. The helpful staff can answer questions about all of the activities and book the perfect mix of excursions to make your stay a true escape.

7 p.m.  Food for thought

The name 20,320 sounds odd for a restaurant unless you know your Denali trivia. If the mountain-climbing decor doesn’t give it away, the 20,320 Alaskan Grill is named for the height of Mount McKinley. The newest in dining options at the lodge, 20,320 offers breakfast, lunch and dinner and stays open late. Impress the out-of-towners by pronouncing the name “twenty-three-twenty.” The menu cover reminds you that you’re just 40 miles from North America’s highest peak and inside, offers up some of your hometown favorites such as salmon cakes, fish and chips and one standout in particular, reindeer lasagna. (It’s nice to have someone else catch, clean and cook the fish for a change.) If the restaurant name has piqued your interest, peruse the menu pages for more Alaska fun facts. Did you know that the Alaska Law prohibits pushing a live moose out of a moving plane?

10 p.m.  Walk it off

An evening on the Botanical Walking Trail is the perfect way to rejuvenate the senses and work off a few salmon-cake calories. Located near the lodge, the half-mile trail follows fairly even terrain and some interpretive placards identifying some 25 different plants. Or for a more strenuous hike, the Hill Trail takes off right from the front door of the lodge and offers many scenic overlooks and views of the Alaska Range. Moose are a common sight along the 1.2-mile trail as are bald eagles and over one hundred different birds.

Saturday

7 a.m.  Art shows and tasty doughs

Take the McKinley Princess shuttle into Talkeetna for a breakfast experience you won’t soon forget.  The Talkeetna Road House was made famous for its gigantic cinnamon rolls, hand-rolled bagels and other specialty breads and sourdough hotcakes bigger than the plate they’re served on. In the intimate setting of the roadhouse, you might even have the pleasure of sitting down next to a climber who’s just back from the 20,320-foot level — talk about working up an appetite. The local artist scene thrives in Talkeetna and is celebrated on the second Saturday of every month. Check out this month’s featured artist’s work at the Sheldon Community Arts Hangar, but you’ll have to return between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. for the art opening reception and live music at the Roadhouse.

10 a.m.  Lift off

There is no way around it; if you haven’t been on a flightseeing tour of Denali, go. The Discovery Tour is just over an hour, flying by the south face of Mount McKinley and descending into the immense Sheldon Amphitheater. Or tack on a glacier landing for a slightly longer tour and stand at 5,600 feet atop Ruth Glacier with views of the amphitheater’s granite walls and Mount McKinley. The most dramatic is the Summit Flight, climbing to 20,000 feet, where only a few of the most successful climbers have come.

Noon   Dog, eat, dog world

Talkeetna is a haven for dogs. It’s not only the home of Sun Dog Kennels offering mushing demonstrations and possibly even some puppy-holding, but pets roam freely in the streets in packs countable from three to eight at any given time. And why wouldn’t they? With an abundance of tasty eateries, there’s never a shortage of pizza crust-laden or scrap-discarding patrons coming and going. Grab a slice at Mountain High Pizza Pie affectionately known as the “purple pizzeria” for obvious reasons (the building is purple) and if you’re there on a summer evening, you might get to catch a live music show from the outdoor beer garden. Don’t forget to take your crusts to go.

2 p.m.  Not your average boat ride

From air to land, it seems only natural to include a water-based adventure. The Wilderness Jet Boat Adventure whisks you 20 miles along wildlife-inhabited shorelines to a short trail leading to an authentic trapper’s cabin where Alaskans before you lived just over 100 years ago, and the tour ends right back at the lodge. Or if you prefer to be a bit more airborne, board a fully enclosed airboat that jets through narrow channels of just inches of water (and in some cases, none at all) on the Susitna River Airboat Adventure. Float trips in Talkeetna, such as the Talkeetna River Float Trip or closer to the lodge, for instance the Chulitna River Rafting offer a relaxing seat to view wildlife and the Alaska Range, including Mount McKinley.

7 p.m.  Alaska-style relaxin’

Even the sky looks bigger here, while relaxing with a nightcap on the outdoor deck or hot tubs or at the Base Camp Bar, where fish tales are as free-flowing as the fish and chips. Exchanging a story or two with travelers or locals will not leave you disappointed and will likely leave you planning your next trip. Indulge in an Alaska-style cocktail like a Chocolate Moose Martini, a Mosquito Mojito or the Grizzly Nudge Kahlua coffee drink.

Sunday

9 a.m.  Keep it light

Grab a quick bite at the McKinley Cub Café, a quick, casual dining experience with a morning breakfast buffet or a variety of light salads and sandwiches. Or relax with a book and coffee in the Great Room with its massive stone fireplace, sitting areas, tables for games and floor-to-ceiling windows that look out on Mount McKinley. With wireless Internet available in common areas, feel free to send a few emails (if you must), but try and keep them non-work related if at all possible.

10 a.m.  End on a high note

For a real treat, (other than the libations mentioned above) “Denali: Song of the Land” is a 35-minue slideshow of Alaska imagery set to classical music located in the lodge’s Mount Foraker Room. The show features views of Denali, natural scenery, wildlife and even glimpses of the northern lights. For your shopping enjoyment, indulge in Alaska art and fine jewelry, ulu knives and other mementos at the McKinley Gift Shop. And before you head out of town be sure to start stocking your freezer with king, silver or red salmon or trout with an afternoon fishing trip on the Talkeetna River.

The Basics

The Mount McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge is a convenient two-hour drive from Anchorage or 4.5 hours from Fairbanks. Princess Rail Tours combine one or more nights at the lodge with a ride in domed rail cars from either Anchorage or Fairbanks. Each of the 460 guest rooms contains two double beds, nine-foot ceilings, sitting area and more. Residents can take advantage of shoulder-seasons to avoid the crowds and reap some great discounts, make sure to check out current specials.

The Mount McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge will be open this summer from May 19 – Sept. 15.