Making plans for an outdoor getaway to one of Alaska's public-use cabins can be challenging during the winter, especially for families new to cold-weather recreation.
We were those people once. As parents we worried a lot. Did we have enough warm clothing? Food? Water? Firewood? Everything takes longer and requires more energy during Alaska's cold months, and with kids that can translate into an adventure not everyone is willing to take. At least not right away.
In an effort to encourage everyone to give winter overnights a try at an accessible location, our family of three teamed up with a family of four and drove to Eklutna Lake in Chugach State Park to stay at one of the agency's most recent projects.
Within our group we had an infant, a preschooler, a teenager and four parents who come from different camping backgrounds. Our friends are serious backpackers, even with a new baby; we've sailed that ship and prefer a roof over our heads these days. A public-use cabin seemed the best fit for everyone.
Dolly Varden Cabin is so new it hasn't been on the radar of most public-use cabin pros. It certainly wasn't on mine until I was searching for another destination and came across a photo of this shining example of Alaska glamping.
Located within steps of the Eklutna day-use area and easy reach of the lake and surrounding trails, Dolly Varden Cabin was completed just a few months ago and is so new it is void of scuff marks on the smooth wooden floor. It's part of the park's effort to provide more accessible cabin space for visitors who would rather not, or perhaps can't, traverse a few miles or more of trail.
Dolly Varden is one of two cabins at Eklutna (the second is due to be completed by summer 2018).
During nonsnow months guests can drive right to it, which is nice if you have little ones or a lot of gear. But come winter, Alaska State Parks staff close and lock the metal gate just after the turn to the day-use area, necessitating a bit of ingenuity and adding an element of adventure to your arrival and departure.
Frankly, I like the idea of walking or skiing at least a short distance to a cabin. Physically, it warms us to the idea of the Alaska wilderness, and it provides kids enough exercise to keep them warm while shuttling gear back and forth from car to cabin.
The walk from gate to cabin is short — about a quarter-mile — and requires a sled or sturdy wagon (or backpacks, if you truly go minimalist) to navigate the sloping drive. Later, we skied and slid down the same hill for a bit of fun and to work up an appetite for dinner.
The Dolly Varden Cabin is large, sleeping 12 on downstairs bunks and in an expansive but bare-bones upper loft area, so be prepared with sleeping pads to mitigate the hard wooden surfaces. A large trestle table is perfect for both dining and conversation, and we also packed card games and toys to keep everyone, young and old, amused.
Cooking and heating are a bit different at Dolly Varden than at other backcountry public-use cabins. Instead of a wood stove, the cabin is heated via propane that must be hauled in by users. A barbecue grill tank suited the purpose well, but be warned, it's heavy on the way in. For a 24-hour stay with outside temperatures in the teens and the heat set at 55 degrees, we used nearly the entire tank, so calculate carefully if you are staying multiple days.
The hookups are on the front porch and came with tools and instructions that were simple to follow.
Because our family tends to overdo things, we schlepped our two-burner Coleman stove to the cabin and our friends brought their JetBoil stove for hot water, and we had no trouble keeping the kids full of hot chocolate while we cooked meals on the larger stove.
In between all the logistical matters, we found plenty of time for fun, since Eklutna is known for year-round activities that span the gamut of recreation. I already mentioned sledding, but Nordic skiing, fat-biking and snowshoeing are also excellent from the cabin, as is utilizing the outdoor fire pit for an evening marshmallow roast at below-zero temperatures (why not?).
Another advantage of the location is the absence of artificial light save for your own lanterns and headlamps (bring at least two lanterns and a headlamp for every person). The aurora borealis has been in top form this winter, and we enjoyed the chance to walk a few feet away from the cabin and bonfire to stand in awe at Mother Nature's most amazing gift to Alaskans.
We stayed up late and fell asleep nestled in the kind of comfort that comes from good friendships, fresh air and sticky marshmallows. We woke up the next morning to sunny skies and a collective of chatty gray jays and magpies perched in the nearby spruce trees.
The coffee was boiling, the bacon was sizzling, the baby was laughing and all was right in the world.
I've already made my next reservation.
If you go
Eklutna Lake: Head north on the Glenn Highway 23 miles to the Eklutna exit. Bear right and continue another 15 miles to the State Park entrance.
The Dolly Varden Cabin: The cabin is located right off the road in the day use picnic area at Eklutna Lake, tucked behind the trees as you enter the picnic area immediately on the right. Guests may unload at the gate, then park in the ATV lot directly across the road. The cabin sleeps 12. No pets. Pit toilets are located a short walk from the cabin.
Fee: $91/night with a maximum stay of three consecutive nights and/or one weekend per month.
Winter access: Plan on a quarter-mile walk, ski or sled: During the winter the road to the cabin is closed to vehicles, so guests must park in the ATV lot and walk to the cabin. Bring a wagon or sled to haul gear to the cabin.
Must-bring items: Propane, lanterns and/or headlamps, sleeping bags/sleeping pads, stove and fuel, all utensils and cooking items, warm, waterproof layers for all family members, indoor slippers or shoes, all drinking water.
For more information: Alaska State Parks website dnr.alaska.gov/parks/cabins/anch#yuditna or Reserve America, the reservations system now used by the agency, reserveamerica.com/camping/chugach-state-park/r/facilityDetails.do?contractCode=AK&parkId=1180246
Erin Kirkland is author of the Alaska On the Go guidebook series and publisher of AKontheGO.com.