This Lodge Inside Denali National Park Is About So Much More Than Just Luxury

The cozy timber-frame lodge of Camp Denali bustled with morning energy just moments ago. Guests chatted with each other, lodge staff cleared the plated breakfast of pancakes with blueberries harvested from the tundra outside, and coffee mugs clinked on the long wooden tables reminiscent of dining together in someone’s home. But now the lodge is quiet. Guests have left for activities of their choosing, from guided naturalist hikes designed for a range of abilities, biking the park road, and canoeing on Wonder Lake to relaxing in their cabins and enjoying the view. It’s a good day for it; the peak of Denali, all 20,300 feet of it scraping the rare clear sky, gleams impossibly through the window like some snow-covered image of myth.

Against this backdrop, Jenna Hamm, whose family has owned Camp Denali since 1975, sits down to talk about the unique mission of this place. Located on the far side of Denali National Park in Alaska, at the end of the 92.5-mile park road, the lodge operates on a deep land ethic and aims to instill in its guests a love for wild places. Through providing guided immersive adventures in the wilds of the park, naturalist talks in the evenings, a lodge stay rooted in sustainable practices, and fostering a rare camaraderie between fellow guests and the staff curating their experience, Camp Denali hopes that guests “return home with new ways of seeing, understanding, and taking care of the natural world in their own backyards.”

The Lodge

Don’t let the name fool you. Camp Denali is far from a rustic “camp.” The luxe stay here features well-appointed individual log cabins with wood stoves, each with running water right out the front door if not inside, kettles to make your own hot beverages, and porches positioned for an unobstructed view of the peak—Camp Denali is the only lodge inside the park boundaries from which the elusive mountain can be seen. There’s a gorgeous shower house, an old historic log cabin lodge full of books and comfy couches, and a thoughtfully constructed new lodge where dining consists of high-quality plated meals made from local ingredients from Alaskan farms and ranches and the surrounding landscape itself. But the “Camp” part of the name derives from its founding more than seventy years ago, the same founders who discovered that the land itself would teach them how to steward it.

The History

Ginny Wood and Celia Hunter, who met as Women Air Force Service Pilots during World War II, and Ginny’s husband Morton “Woody” Wood, found the site of Camp Denali in 1951 as they were looking for land to homestead just outside what was then the northern park boundary. The original camp was just that: a rustic operation with a few tents where visitors brought their own food and cooking supplies, where guests could “savor the vigor and freshness of this young country and absorb its spacious tranquility.” They discovered the limitations of building on sensitive tundra atop permafrost—“The land told us what we should be,” Ginny would say—which began a lifetime of fighting for wild places and their protection. Both Ginny and Celia were founders of the Alaska Conservation Society, and Celia became the first woman to lead a national environmental organization when she was named director of The Wilderness Society.

When the founders sold Camp Denali to Jenna Hamm’s parents, Wally and Jerryn Cole augmented the natural history and education components of the guest experience—along with the amenities and level of hospitality. Then, in 1987 when the North Face Lodge came up for sale, a hotel on a 5-acre parcel of land just below Camp Denali, the Coles raised money from former Camp Denali guests to buy the property and prevent the unchecked development that was rumored to be planned for that spot.

Jenna grew up here on the property, and became a naturalist guiding guests by the time she was nineteen years old. She and her husband Simon Hamm have owned the lodge since 2009, and a stay here feels like being welcomed into their home as family guests. The parcel of land is big enough to expand into three times the operation. But the Hamms are conscious of their role as the third generation of stewards of this stunning wild place, and they choose to stay small because they believe the land is already at its capacity.

In terms of sustainability, the Hamms have overseen the installation of a comprehensive solar array that meets most of the property’s energy needs, thus muting the persistent rumble of generators generally usually part and parcel of off-the-grid operations. They’ve nurtured a thriving garden system with a greenhouse that provides many of the vegetables used in guest meals. They’ve partnered with Fairbanks Climate Action Coalition to provide a carbon offset option to guests. And they’ve curated a unique vacation experience that lingers in guests’s heart and minds long after they’ve left the park.

The Experience

A stay at Camp Denali starts with being flown in by bush plane. Since the sole park road collapsed in the middle of its 92-mile stretch in 2021, guests are now flown from the park entrance into the lodge—with a fly-by of the Denali, the tallest peak in North America, if weather permits. Staff show guests personally to their cabins upon arrival. A typical day consists of breakfast in the lodge, over which a lead naturalist explains the guided options for the day: generally, a strenuous hike, a moderate hike, and a guided foray, either out the front door of the lodge or deeper into the park in comfortable passenger vans, and all with packed lunches. Unguided biking, hiking, and canoeing are always on offer as well. Because of the road washout, Camp Denali guests can claim this far end of the park mostly to themselves—other than the occasional intrepid cyclist and backpacker, and guests from the other backcountry lodge just down the way—making for unparalleled opportunities for wildlife sightings and solitude.

Evenings, guest groups and naturalists are mixed in together at the long tables over dinner, just as they are for breakfast, to foster a sense of community among visitors. Post-dinner activities might consist of an all-inclusive volleyball game, a talk or demonstration from a visiting expert, or a presentation on Camp Denali’s inspiring history. Or, of course, there’s always the option to simply take it all in from the porch of your snug cabin.

Often when we’re immersed in the wild, time slows and we find ourselves conscious of wanting to be as present as possible to drink in every minute. Camp Denali is such a place. It’s a place that its guests are often reluctant to leave, where the landscape is imprinted upon them, and, perhaps, translates to loving and protecting those wild places closer to home.

Book directly with Camp Denali or through adventure travel companies like Adventure Life Journeys.

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