Paige Drobny and her husband Cody Strathe, who own the Susitna Adventure Lodge, are two such examples. [Editor’s note: Drobny and Strathe are friends of the author.] Between the two of them, they’ve completed Alaska’s iconic 1,000-mile dog sled races 23 times, with Drobny having done the Yukon Quest five times and the Iditarod eight. Susitna, which is almost precisely in the middle of the highway, caters to adventurous travelers who crave a high-end experience—and a slice of the Alaskan lifestyle Drobny and Strathe live and breathe. Cross-country and backcountry skiing (on trails they groom themselves, or off-trail for an added adrenaline dose), snowmobile tours, ice fishing, and, of course, dog mushing are all on offer here.
“If [guests] want to mush their own teams and do multi-day trips, we can put that together for them,» says Strathe, who provides hands-on instruction to guests. «But if they just want to go for a ride in the sled with Paige or I in order to feel the magic of silent travel across the countryside with 12 of man’s best friend in charge, we do that too.”
While the Susitna Adventure Lodge offers a fully-guided experience to guests who can afford it (rates at the Susitna Adventure Lodge start at $2,000 per person, per night). Self-sufficient travelers on a tighter budget can head to Alpine Creek Lodge, or—in spring, summer, and fall—Maclaren River Lodge. At both, visitors will find themselves surrounded by locals enjoying one of the most beautiful parts of the state.
Alpine Creek Lodge and Susitna Adventure Lodge offer transportation services to bring guests in—crucial when winter road closures mean access is most commonly via snowmobile—but to get to Maclaren, you’re on your own. This is fine with most guests, who are often nearby residents seeking a home base from which to ride their snow machines (the local term for snowmobile) and enjoy the beautiful scenery, like that on the ride up to Maclaren Glacier.
“In the winter and spring we rely mainly on repeat customers,” says Susie Echols, who owns the Maclaren River Lodge with her husband Alan. “We are usually booked out a year in advance with these groups, most of which are Alaskan.” Private cabins at the Maclaren River Lodge for four people start at $150 per night. Food is not included with the stay, though there is a full-service restaurant serving the hearty fare you’d expect after a day in the cold.
“Most of our visitors also arrive by snow machine,” Jennifer Bondy at Alpine Creek Lodge says. But it’s also a popular spot with recreational and professional dog mushers, many of whom come to take advantage of the great conditions for long distance training. She says they «get a lot of big-name distance mushers” coming through.
And that’s really what the Denali Highway offers that can feel hard to come by in Alaska these days: an accessible but off-the-main-tourist-track experience where you can hang beside residents, who are also on vacation, in a rugged piece of Alaska. If you’re willing to make the trip outside of summer, that only becomes truer.