If you’ve ever visited Denali, you might have wondered something…
Or perhaps you’re planning your Alaska vacation and plan a few nights in Denali and are curious…
Why is there no grand lodge or hotel in Denali National Park?
After all, many of the great National Parks across our country – especially in the west – have beautiful, historic lodges that carry the heritage of early travelers into the present day. Think of Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Inn, or the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite. Surely, if any park deserves a lodge like that – it’s Denali, right?
Over the course of researching other stories from my recent trip to Alaska, I came across the fascinating history of hotels in Denali National Park. This story, unlike my normal posts, isn’t aimed at helping you plan your trip or book your Denali hotel. Instead, I wanted to share my learnings to help answer why Denali doesn’t have its own grand rustic lodge.
Read on to learn the history of hotels in Denali National Park and the McKinley Park Hotel.
In this post, I promote travel to a national park that is the traditional lands of the Tanana and Dënéndeh peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
Timelines of Hotels in Denali National Park
Like so much of Alaska’s tourism infrastructure, the first chapter of hotels in Denali National Park begins with the commission of the Alaska Railroad (AKRR). Originally founded in 1903, Congress agreed to fund the expansion of the AKRR to connect Anchorage and Fairbanks in 1914. At this point, what would be called McKinley National Park had not even been established (that would occur in 1917). But it’s in 1914 that the first “hotel” in the area of the future national park began.
Mount McKinley Park Hotel (1914-1950)
In 1914, Italian immigrant Maurice Morino established a homestead along Riley Creek, near today’s park entrance. Upon learning it would be the site for the AKRR crossing, he expanded his homestead cabin and rename it the “Park Gate Roadhouse.”
Over the next few years, he expanded his enterprise to greet the Alaska Railroad and the guests it brought. On Thanksgiving Day 1921, the renamed “Mount McKinley Park Hotel” opened to the public.
Guests during the hotel’s early years described the two-story, flat-roofed Mount McKinley Park as “Italian-Alaskan.” Rooms in the log structure had balconies, glass windows, and electric lights. There were two dozen rooms, as well as a mercantile, lunch counter, kitchen, and storeroom. For its time, it was rustic but of a sufficient standard that President Warren Harding stopped for a night here on his Golden Spike tour of the Alaska Railroad in 1923.
In the early 1930s, the hotel shut its doors after the rustic accommodation could no longer meet the standard of travelers. (For this time until the next hotel opened, visitors stayed at camps located near Riley Creek, Savage River and Mt. Eielson.) In 1947, the property title was passed to the National Park Service, and in 1950, a transient set a fire that destroyed the remains of the building.
Today, you can see the hotel’s former site along the McKinley Station Trail which is an easy hike from the Visitor Center.
Curry Hotel (1917-1957)
Simultaneous to Morino’s Mount McKinley Park Hotel, the Alaska Railroad constructed and operated its own hotel. This is a lesser note in the broad chapter of hotel operations in Denali, but important since it too provided a stop-gap when the first hotel closed but before the next iteration opened.
As railroad workers reached the area south of then-McKinley National Park in 1917, the Deadhorse Roadhouse was built to accommodate the construction of the work. Sensing a commercial opportunity, in 1923 the Alaska Railroad opened a hotel at roughly the halfway point between Anchorage and Fairbanks, renaming the town from unappealing “Deadhorse” to “Curry” and calling it the Curry Hotel.
Far more luxurious than other properties of its time, the Curry Hotel became a popular stop for guests, and had plenty of outdoor amenities including a suspension bridge across the Susitna River, ski hill, and hiking trail that provided breathtaking views of the Denali mountain (then Mt. McKinley).
The mid-1930s saw expansion, adding a number more guest rooms and bathrooms, and in 1945, the lobby and several rooms were remodeled and a cocktail bar and lounge were added. The Curry Hotel remained a popular overnight accommodation along the AKRR until 1957 when a fire destroyed the building and killed three people. The Railroad decided to raze the buildings and clear the land; today you can see the meadow where it once stood, as well as a few plaques explaining the area’s significance.
As part of my research, I also found a cool book series, The Heart of Alaska, which is set in Curry, Alaska in its heydey.
McKinley Park Hotel (1939-2001)
Part of the reason the Curry Hotel lost popularity and was never rebuilt was that it had competition: the McKinley Park Hotel. Funded in 1937, the hotel opened on June 1, 1939, with a capacity of 200 guests. At the time, overnight rates were $7.50 for a double room with bath, $5 for a single room with bath, and a dollar less for each room without bath; meals ranged from $1 (breakfast) to $2 (dinner).
However, major complaints noted the building’s utilitarian/industrial (not rustic) architectural style and that the hotel had no view of Mount McKinley. Much like today, guests boarded buses that took them into the park for wildlife viewing and mountain views. Additionally, the hotel was plagued by incompetence throughout its construction and operation. Some concessionaires made money, others lost it exorbitantly. This oscillation between profit and insolvency lead the hotel to operate under far more concessionaires than most park properties.
During the war years (1942-1945 for WWII and again from 1950-1953 for the Korean War), the Army and Air Force used the hotel as an R&R site for enlisted men. In 1953, the National Park Service assumed control and began hiring concessionaires again; these too had varying levels of financial success operating the property.
In August 1957, the Denali Highway was completed (not to be confused with today’s more popular route, the Parks Highway) and increased park visitation five-fold (from 5,205 in 1956 to 25,906 in 1958). 438 vehicles visited the park that first month, and the average stay was 6 days.
Left photo courtesy of the Alaska State Library Collections
The increased popularity continued through the late 1950s and 1960s, and by 1970, the hotel needed an expansion. That year, a new wing was added with 48 new rooms – just in time for the completion of the Parks Highway in 1971, which tripled park visitation again (from 44,528 in 1971 to 137,300 in 1973).
Right photo courtesy of Wally Cole
Under the strain of operations, the neverending cycle of permafrost, and earthquake activity, old wiring in the building ignited a fire in 1972. This fire destroyed the majority of the hotel; only the 1970 wing addition, the powerhouse, and the employee dorm survived. As you can imagine, this significantly changed the style of the hotel: the 1970s weren’t known for their fabulous architecture, especially in Alaska.
For the 1973 season, a “temporary” hotel opened with the surviving structures and an assortment of railroad cars to serve as both administrative buildings and guest rooms, along with some new modular units. The hotel had room for 200-300 guests, but was never meant to be a final solution.
However, the hotel operated in this way for 28 years – almost as long as the 33 years in its first incarnation – until it was closed and destroyed in 2001. Long plagued by the property’s operation cost and with better hotel options outside the park, the National Park Service used the land to build a new Visitor Center. Today, the only remaining building – the Powerhouse – is in the National Register of Historic Places and still visible near the Visitor Center.
Denali Park Hotel (2001-Present)
Was that it for the park hotel? Actually – no. The story goes that a private investor asked to purchase parts of the old hotel after it was razed. The NPS agreed, as long as he removed it himself.
Today, as far as my research can tell, you can see some of the original remnants of the McKinley Park Hotel in its new home of Healy, 10 miles north of the park entrance. The Denali Park Hotel claims a heritage to the original park hotel, and has three railroad cars on its property (like the old hotel) including one from 1943. Today’s Denali Park Hotel is a single-story motel rather than two stories.
Wonder Lake Lodge (Never Built)
What about that majestic lodge in the park that we all imagine? As it turns out, the National Park Service and intrepid concessionaires always dreamed of building such a property – but nobody could get an idea funded sufficiently to make the dream a reality.
Click for larger views of each image.
The Wonder Lake Lodge was designed in rustic style, with plans for a main building with expansive views of Denali and the Alaska Range. Cabins and other rooms were planned on the property too, all out at mile 85 of the Park Road. As you can imagine if you’ve ever traveled to Kantishna on a Denali park bus, the cost to move all of those materials would have been exorbitant – even in the 1930s when the idea was originally proposed.
Unfortunately, this means that there will probably never be a grand old lodge in Denali National Park. The hotels available near the park entrance meet the demands of today’s travelers, and the National Park Service general management plan doesn’t allow for development like that in the park. The best we can do is stay at one of the great hotels in the frontcountry, trek out to one of the properties in the backcountry, or stay in the Denali Park Hotel in Healy for a slice of history still standing today.
You might be wondering about Kantishna, the small community of private residences and accommodations deep in Denali’s backcountry. Located at mile 89-92 of the Park Road, Kantishna is within Denali National Park, but operates differently since it existed long before the park was established.
Settled as a gold mining camp in 1905, there are 3-4 accommodations in Kantishna today: the Denali Backcountry Lodge, Kantishna Roadhouse, Skyline Lodge, and Camp Denali. I couldn’t find much history on any of these properties, though they vary in both historic importance and modern amenities.
Where to Stay in Denali (Today)
Even today, there are no hotels in Denali that offer a view of the mountain; everyone is denied that experience and must ride a bus to access the park. This is a nice equalizer, and has helped keep any one property from becoming a financially-out-of-reach experience for most Denali Visitors. Based on my experience, here are the hotels I recommend in the Denali area; I also have a post a few more options for where to stay in Denali.
Grande Denali Lodge
You can’t miss the Grande Denali Lodge. Perched high on the slopes of Sugar Loaf Mountain, this property overlooks the entire Nenana Canyon and out toward Denali National Park. They have standard or deluxe rooms, with double queen or king beds – but the real pro-tip is to book one of six private cabins on the property. We stayed in one and it was honestly the most delightful and quintessential place to stay in Denali.
Additionally, the Grande Denali Lodge is home to Alpenglow Restaurant, which has the best view – and some of the best food – in town. Even if you don’t end up staying here, I recommend trying to enjoy dinner and drinks from their restaurant.
Honestly, the only thing that I didn’t love here is the drive up to the property; it takes about 10 minutes on a bumpy unpaved road with five hairpin turns. However, they offer a free shuttle that runs down to town, the Park Visitor Center, and the Denali Bluffs Hotel, so you don’t need to hike or drive it yourself.
Denali Bluffs Hotel
The Denali Bluffs Hotel is a sister property to the Grande Denali, so it’s a great option if the Grande is fully booked (or you want to stay closer to town). They offer Hillside rooms (standard) and RiverView rooms (premium); both classes of rooms are gorgeous and decorated in a rustic style with modern touches. Our cozy room had vaulted ceilings, two queen beds, and a cute little balcony where we ate breakfast and shot photos (of course!).
Their property is built into the hillside, so you may encounter some slopes when walking around, but they’ve modified all walkways to provide traction even when it’s rainy or (in early/late season) frosty. There’s also the Perky Moose Cafe (great for breakfast) and Mountaineer Grill & Bar (best salmon chowder I had on the whole trip!) to keep you fueled for adventure.
As mentioned above, there’s a free shuttle that takes you to town and the Park Visitor Center (as well as the Grande).
Denali Backcountry Lodge
I was uncertain about whether to include the Backcountry Lodge in this post, as I’m 90% sure they won’t open in 2022 – but I want to include them since they are one of the places I recommend if they open and if you can get there (likely by Air Taxi).
Situated deep in the Backcountry at Kantishna, Denali Backcountry Lodge offers guests individual cabins (Traditional, Superior, or Creekside), all situated together on the bank of Moose Creek, along with fire pits and two barrel saunas. The main lodge serves meals throughout the day (included with your stay) and offers happy hour drinks each afternoon (at an additional cost). It’s like the coolest summer camp for adults!
Additionally they offer guided walks and hikes in the area, bikes to rent, and your stay (typically) includes the 6-hour bus transfer through Denali National Park to/from the property. (Again, not sure what’s happening for 2022…)
Have any questions about the history of hotels in Denali or where to stay in Denali? Let me know in the comments!