SHEEP MOUNTAIN — The air was crisp and sweet, smelling of spruce tips as my husband, son and I clicked into our skis and exchanged satisfied grins. For the second time this season — and not at home — cross-country skiing beckoned. Fed up with Anchorage's lack of snow and in need of respite from what we've begun referring to as "Snowless Affective Disorder" (before the big dump this weekend), we did what any winter sport-loving family would do in such dire circumstances. We left town.
Not far, though. Outside the municipality of Anchorage and up a few thousand feet in elevation lie the fluffy remains of winter, elusive but reachable. We headed north to Sheep Mountain Lodge.
Located an easy two-hour drive from Anchorage along scenic and historic Glenn Highway, Sheep Mountain Lodge lies at the base of its namesake peak at Mile 113.5. Once a roadhouse for travelers on their way to Anchorage, Palmer or Glennallen in the 1940s and '50s, the lodge boasts a rich past of warm accommodations, good food and companionship that is reason enough to visit any time, but our favorite, especially this year, is when the snow falls.
Formerly home to Iditarod mushers Zack and Anjanette Steer, who added touches appealing to independent, outdoor-minded visitors during their 15 years of ownership, Sheep Mountain is now under the progressive thumbs of business partners Mark and Ruthann Fleenor and Ryan and Rachel Cote, who purchased the property in 2015 and whose innovative leadership retains the quiet charm of previous years with a few smart upgrades appealing to today's traveling family.
Most notably, the little roadhouse restaurant that used to close between October and May now remains open 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday through Sunday year-round, and Fleenor says it's been a boon to business.
"What's better for a getaway than having access to a restaurant?" Fleenor asked. We agreed, finding this new facet of winter lodge operations to be the perfect starter to a weekend away. Pie, sourdough pancakes, homemade soup; it all warmed us from the inside out after a day of play, even though Sheep Mountain's premier cabins come with fully-equipped kitchens.
Hot tub and sauna
Accommodations are cozy. Warm, solid log cabins or guestrooms welcome visitors after a busy day on the trails, and a hot tub and sauna are mere steps away to soak away stressors or tired muscles.
But for us, and other people staying at Sheep Mountain, it was all about the snow. Snow for nordic skiing, snow for snowmachine treks, snow for fat tire biking, and snow to simply gaze upon from the enormous picture windows in our cabin. Had we been without our favorite form of precipitation so long this winter that just looking at it filled us with glee? Evidently, and we weren't alone. The sun was out, temperatures were mild and the snow was a perfect combination of powdered-sugar soft with just enough texture to support the legions of outdoor enthusiasts enjoying Sheep Mountain's 15 kilometers of groomed ski and bike trails. Jealous yet?
"We've been full on the weekends nearly all winter," Fleenor said. "People come up here, find the snowy trails and are surprised at the change from city life in Anchorage to a secluded, snowy mountain getaway. They are all looking for snow-related activities, and we've got them."
Did they ever. Our car stayed parked in the lot for two days as we settled into cabin 3, merely hopping off the front porch, grabbing skis and poles, and marching directly to the trailhead sign to determine where, from a multitude of directions, we'd head on yet another outing.
Trails suit range of abilities
The beauty of Sheep Mountain's trail systems, besides the groomed series of loops circumnavigating the property, is the diversity of options for a wide range of abilities.
• Visiting with small children or beginning skiers? The terrain is remarkably forgiving, with set tracks and a wide, level trail to help newbies find their footing.
• Consider yourself a skate-skiing expert? Don't worry, there's plenty for you too. Long, sloping hills extend near the base of Sheep Mountain itself, where those craving distance can put several kilometers of snow between themselves and the lodge before returning in time for lunch or dinner.
• Don't ski at all? This too is no problem, as Fleenor and company pride themselves on an inclusive atmosphere for "all comers," making Sheep Mountain Lodge a good place for a winter walk, fat bike ride, or snowshoe trek among the trees in full view of the sweeping Chugach and Talkeetna mountains.
• Dog teams and snowmachine riders have their own set of trails too, and the parking lot was a testament to this with a yipping collection of sled dogs mingling with the click and clack of nordic skis and the sound of revving machinery. The scene was one of satisfying, comfortable commotion, and we reveled in the atmosphere.
Later that night, tired from hours of snow play under a bright Alaska sun, the three of us snuggled under comforters from our cabin beds and, lights off, watched evening stars begin to blink in the heavens above. We heard that aurora displays often sweep across the sky in a lively swirl of green and red, adding to the magic, but we couldn't stay awake long enough to check.
Sheep Mountain Lodge: If you go
Directions: Take the Glenn Highway two hours from Anchorage to Milepost 113.5. You'll pass through Palmer, the mining community of Chickaloon, and along braided banks of the Matanuska River until gaining elevation where the Matanuska Glacier makes an appearance.
Accommodations: Sheep Mountain Lodge offers three styles of overnighting. Premier cabins feature indoor plumbing and a full kitchen and sleep five guests. Classic cabins have small kitchenettes and no indoor plumbing, but a bath house is a short walk away. They sleep up to three guests. Guesthouse rooms are akin to a hotel room and are located near the restaurant. Sleeping up to four guests, these rooms also share a bathroom. A hot tub and sauna are located in the bath house.
Cost: During winter months, plan to spend between $99-$149 per night, depending upon the number in your party and the style of lodging you book. However, Fleenor is offering a deal April 1-May 14, with $50 off any two-night stay. During this time the restaurant will be closed for extensive renovations, so renting a premier or classic cabin and doing your own camp cooking is advised.
Pets: Whereas pets were not allowed previously, Fleenor welcomes furry friends for a $15 surcharge in select cabins. "We know pets are family," he says.
What to bring: Sheep Mountain can be an area of bright sunshine or driving snow and wind, so dress your family appropriately. Add indoor shoes or slippers for cabins and a swimsuit for the hot tub (a sign-up sheet ensures you'll have exclusive use).
We usually cook breakfast and lunch in a cabin, using the restaurant for dinner and dessert, but the current menu can always shift our plans. Homemade breads, soups, pasta, and seafood tacos are our favorites, and, of course, the famous Sheep Mountain Lodge pie is a must. A good rule of thumb is to plan your own snacks, beverages and a few meals to keep costs down, and supplement as necessary. Even guestrooms offer coffee makers and small refrigerators.
Online: Fleenor has added wireless Internet to the restaurant area of the lodge but do not count on service inside cabins or rooms. Instead, bring games, puzzles, or books for some quality family time.
Other seasons: Sheep Mountain Lodge is a popular place for outdoor enthusiasts during the summer and fall as well, with cabins booked nearly solid May through September. Those wide and accessible ski trails become excellent places to hike, bike or view the Dall sheep on the rocky mountainsides above the lodge. Matanuska Glacier is only 13 miles from the lodge too, where guided treks on the ice make for an exciting day. Travelers also like to stay at Sheep Mountain Lodge as an overnight stop between Glennallen and Anchorage, with the added bonus of RV parking for those who wish to go mobile. Visit the lodge website at sheepmountain.com, or call 907-745-5121 for more information.
Erin Kirkland is author of Alaska on the Go: Exploring the 49th state with children, and publisher of AKontheGO.com, an online family travel resource. Look for her next book in 2017.