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When visiting Denali National Park & Preserve, I’ve often had to overnight in Denali Canyon, a business strip that is Alaska’s version of Las Vegas’ “Glitter Gulch.” Its terraced restaurants and rows of souvenir shops and lodges are a strange precursor to visiting one of the world’s great wildernesses.
High above the strip, however, on a road less traveled, is another option: Grande Denali Lodge, which offers the best of Denali without the heavy traffic that is found at accommodations closer to the park’s entrance. The turnoff at Mile 238 on the Parks Highway is easy to miss, so tell clients to pay attention — and for good reason.
The gravel road that snakes up Sugarloaf Mountain exhibits the hairpin turns of a grand prix course. Yellow street signs depict a giant mosquito carrying away a tourist and a huge bull moose head-butting the front end of a car; and a cautionary, radar-enforced sign screams a 13 mph speed limit. Additional signs continue to set up the suspense for a spectacular finish at the road’s end.
And the mountain does not disappoint.
No views can match that of winding river valleys, emerald forests and the Alaska Range scenery stretching into the horizon. Grande Denali Lodge’s low-hanging profile finally eases into view and, unlike the canyon below, ticks in harmony with its mountaintop nature.
“Most road travelers don’t know we’re here, but they eventually find us,” said Dee Dee O’Brien, director of sales and marketing for Grande Denali LLC, which owns Grande Denali Lodge, Denali Bluffs Hotel and the new-for-2017 RiverView at the Bluffs hotel, all located on Sugarloaf Mountain.
Featuring marvelous log architecture, Grande Denali Lodge offers a main lobby of handcrafted cathedral ceilings, panoramic windows and a rock fireplace that appears to rise out of the mountain itself. And given the property’s view into the heart of Denali country, it only makes sense that the lodge also incorporates Alaskan native decor.
The panoramic windows at Peak Spirits Lounge are surpassed only by the appetizers and wine that clients can enjoy on its open-air deck while taking in the fresh wilderness air wafting in from Denali. Natural light is king in the Land of the Midnight Sun, and at the lodge’s Alpenglow Restaurant, ceiling skylights illuminate the dining area late into the evening. The menu features New American cuisine that highlights Alaskan seafood and local produce. Don’t pass up the fried Brussels sprouts and Alaska salmon cakes.
Mountaineer Grill & Bar at nearby sister property Denali Bluffs Hotel offers some of the region’s best barbecue plates. Its early breakfast at 5 a.m. is an hour before most early bird tours depart, and it stays open until 10:30 p.m. for midnight sun revelers.
Grande Denali Lodge guestrooms come with either a canyon or hillside view. Larger families or those who want to soak in the beauty in solitude can choose from several secluded cabins with a variety of amenities.
Grande Denali Lodge and Denali Bluffs Hotel are open from mid-May to mid-September and offer agent commission. A free shuttle service is available for guests with tour, bus and rail connections, as well as for shopping and local sightseeing.
The property may be a bit of off-the-beaten-track, but it’s the perfect primer for those about to step foot into Denali’s wild beauty.
Impress the GuestService is what makes a lodge, and Dee Dee O’Brien, director of sales and marketing for Denali Hotel Properties — which owns Grande Denali Lodge, Denali Bluffs Hotel and the forthcoming Riverview at the Bluffs Hotel — oversees a lodge program called “Impressionist,” where lodge personnel strive to “impress” guests when they first meet them.
“Whether they are getting off the train or bus, or need info on tours, our goal is to embrace them as family, rather than guests,” O’Brien said. “They are empowered to do something special without having to ask for permission, such as a voucher for two cocktails to celebrate an anniversary.”