Driving Alaska's 92-mile Denali Park Road is a popular bucket list item, especially during the four-day window each September that the road opens to private cars, selected randomly from thousands of applications in an annual lottery.
When, at my mother's nudging, my fiancé entered the lottery—and won!—my vegan yogi self set about strategizing how to survive a week on the last frontier during hunting season. The answer? To create my own pan-Alaskan wellness retreat, complete with luxurious lodge stays and heli-glacier yoga (yes, you heard that right).
With visits typically limited to scheduled bus tours, the Denali Park Road is as remote and wild as it gets, stretching from peaks to valleys in the shadow of Mt. Denali, North America's highest peak standing at 20,310 feet tall. Teeming with wildlife, the magnificent landscape is closely protected—hence the lottery, which, with more than 11,000 applications, offers just a one in seven shot of snagging a pass (for yourself and as many bodies as you can fit in your car) to drive the length of the park's only road just once each year.
Referred to by locals as Glitter Gulch, the town of Denali itself is geared to tourists, populated mostly by overpriced tavern-style eateries and the massive Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge. But after a 10-hour roundtrip drive through the park (most visitors line up at the entrance starting at 6am), those high-priced tourist traps are a necessity you'll crave.
The drive is a slow caravan of mostly SUVs, pulling over every few miles when a bear or moose is spotted. We saw lots of grizzlies, including bear cubs chasing each other through a red and yellow tundra, and several giant moose napping mere feet from the road. (Should you feel the need to stop in Sarah Palin's hometown of Wasilla on the trip from Anchorage, be sure to pick up a pair of binoculars.)
Ready to stretch our legs, we made the drive southeast from Denali and back through Anchorage to the popular cruise port of Seward to check off my own personal bucket list item: a helicopter-yoga experience in a remote valley sandwiched between real Alaskan glaciers.
(Courtesy of @denalibrewing)
Denali National Park is about four hours from Anchorage (aka the nearest airport). Stop along the way at the locally renowned Denali Brewing Company, in Talkeetna, for craft beer and spirits made with onsite well water. Their annual whiskey release typically sells out in about 45 minutes.
At Seward Airport, we parked the car within shouting distance of the helicopter pad where Mike Culver, pilot and founder of Marathon Helicopters, and yogi Rachel Gordon—a Colorado-to-Alaska transplant who founded Mindful Marmot earlier this year—would whisk us off to connect with nature in a wholly new and unbelievable way.
We lifted off over the water as eagles soared around us and black bears roamed beneath, flying over Resurrection Bay, some tiny tundra-covered islands, and pine-covered mountains on the 10-minute journey to Unlikely Glacier Valley, where we landed on a little pad of spongy tundra surrounded by psychedelic-colored lakes so remote they don't have names, with vast glaciers in the near distance. Gordon rolled out our garden variety yoga mats as we zipped up our water-resistant jackets.
"With this experience, you really understand just how small you are in the universe, while feeling deeply connected to it," says Gordon, whose heli-yoga classes, which are alternately gentle and brisk, are truly once-in-a-lifetime trips with the price tag ($375 per person) to match. But when was the last time you spied an adorable mountain goat while doing your sun salutations? After a one-hour practice, Culver swooped us up and back to real life, where we continued driving three hours southeast to Homer where we would board a boat, escorted by humpback whales, bound for the Stillpoint Lodge.
Take a helicopter for a glacier-yoga experience with Mindful Marmot.
(Courtesy of @travelalaska)
Stillpoint Lodge, overlooking Halibut Cove.
Stay: Stillpoint Lodge, an artsy-spiritual retreat
When the world gets too people-y for you, Stillpoint Lodge, located in Halibut Cove, is a primo escape. Your first clue? It's accessible by exactly zero roads. You'll disembark from a half-hour boat trip at the remote retreat founded by Jan Thurston about 15 years ago and turned over to her son, JT Thurston, and operations team Beka and Lucas Thoning, about four years back. Today, the luxury lodge draws groups looking to get away for morning yoga classes, workshops, nightly fireside happy hours, and local-seafood dinners—all of which go down in the two-story main lodge that serves as the property's central gathering space.
Ten log cabin guest rooms are minimally but comfortably appointed with plush linens and seating areas designed to direct your attention toward three walls of large windows that remind you nature is calling. (You'll have to walk outside to find the bathroom, as well.)
Each evening, the Thonings chat with their guests to plan the next day's activities, all of which are completely customized, whether you prefer to hike, kayak, get a massage, do a guided meditation, or go for an afternoon bear viewing—and, it's all included in the nightly rate, even your delicious, healthy meals. ( I started each morning with a tofu scramble or ancient grain pancakes topped with blueberries picked from a nearby patch.) Add-ons can include whale-watching tours and fishing excursions—give your catch to the kitchen to be prepped for that night's meal.
When it's time to depart, you may be so lucky as to hitch a ride in the owner's Cessna floatplane. Next stop: Tutka Bay Lodge.
// Stillpoint Lodge is located in Halibut Cove, Alaska. Packages start at $1,700/person per night for a three-night stay; for info and reservations, go to stillpointlodge.com.
Kayaking on Tutka Bay. (Courtesy of @staycuriouskaryn)
(Courtesy of @wheresnicnow)
Stay: Tutka Bay Lodge, a Nat Geo treasure
From Stillpoint Lodge, Tutka Bay Lodge is 13 miles as the floatplane flies; it's also accessible by boat. But you'll pretty much feel cut off from the world, and in the best possible way: The six-room property is the only Alaskan lodge to belong to National Geographic's prestigious Unique Lodges program, which includes eco-focused luxury stays from the Seychelles to Zambia.
At Tutka Bay, the experience is serene, and the service warm and attentive as owner Kirstin Dixon is also the head chef. She trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and has been cooking in Alaska's backcountry for over 20 years; here she sees to it that no dietary restriction is overlooked—they have a thorough phone conversation with each guest prior to check in—and that every meal (included in the lodge's all-inclusive rate) is an event in itself. For me, Dixon and her team prepared beautiful vegan meals from produce grown onsite, all served in the main lodge that overlooks the rugged wilderness beyond. On one particular evening, the dessert was inspired by the sunset we had chased by boat the night before; on the morning of our departure, we were served the blueberries we had foraged the previous afternoon.
In fact, the culinary program is so serious here that Dixon has converted the Widgeon II—a World War II troop carrier turned crabbing boat—into the Cooking School at Tutka Bay, which her daughter Mandy helps her run.
At Tutka Bay Lodge, all wellness activities are shaped by the landscape: morning yoga on a deck overlooking the bay; evening dips in the outdoor hot tub beneath a shower of stars. When we inquired about taking a trail run, we were advised that the local bear population might mistake us for prey, so instead we hiked and kayaked to a nearby beach where we had the water to ourselves save for a family of loons calling out in the foggy morning. Hikes here are led by scientist-in-residence Karyn Murphy and her colleagues, who have all the intel on the surrounding wildlife including the eagle family that's taken up residence in the property's pines.
Sunset brings happy hour with healthy hors d'oeuvres and well-paired wines. When the time comes to retire to your cabin, you can expect the wood-burning fireplace to already be lit—my favorite take on Alaskan turndown service. // Tutka Bay Lodge is located at the southern end of Kachemak Bay near Homer, Alaska; $5,695/person all-inclusive for a three-night stay; for info and reservations, go to withinthewild.com.
// Denali Road Lottery applications ($15) are typically accepted in May; for more information, go to nps.gov.