Whether a stay at McKinley Chalet Resort in Denali, Alaska, is the entirety of your vacation or it's merely one of several stops on a pre- or post-cruise land tour, it serves as a relaxing gateway to Denali National Park and Preserve.
Located just across the Nenana River from the park, the property is divided into two sections: the upper campus, which includes the main lodge and cabins A through K, and the lower campus, where you'll find cabins L through Z, the Cottonwoods and Canyon Lodge buildings (which house additional rooms), and the Denali Square social hub, offering a bandstand, dining and several shops.
After acquiring the resort from Aramark in 2013, Holland America Line renovated two-thirds of the rooms and relocated more than 90 of the original buildings, including one that was moved the length of three football fields and now serves as an onsite saloon.
During the 2.5-year period following Holland America's purchase of the 483-room resort, Carnival Corp. -- which also oversees the neighboring Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge -- rearranged the locations of many of the rooms in its lower campus, positioning them to offer river views.
Most accommodations are part of a cabin setup. Every cabin houses roughly a dozen individual hotel rooms, each with its own private access directly to the outdoors. The exceptions to this are Cottonwoods and Canyon Lodge; they both offer a more hotel-style setup with a single entrance and multiple rooms inside.
Stylishly appointed rooms -- think Restoration Hardware meets Pier 1 -- are small but well laid out. In our room, a living area included a TV, a table with a stool, a chair, a side table with a lamp and a sofa (which converted to a two-person sleeper). A small hall gave way to a shower-only bathroom with shampoo, conditioner and body wash dispensers and a bedroom area with a king-sized bed, a couple of nightstands, a full-length mirror, a second flat-screen TV and a padded bench with considerable drawer space. There was no closet, but rustic wooden wall-mounted pegs with hangers did the trick.
Rooms sleep two to four people in a variety of configurations that include combinations of double beds, twins, queens, kings and sleeper sofas. Thirteen of the rooms are ADA compliant.
The most interesting part is that all rooms, regardless of type, location, occupancy or bed setup, are the same price, which varies by season and ranges anywhere from about $150 to $400 per night. Although the resort has three suites, they aren't available for booking. They're usually reserved for cruisetour participants .
Karstens Public House: With the ambiance of an industrial ski lodge, this restaurant, located in Denali Square, offers fresh local foods with an interesting twist. High, beamed ceilings, modern fireplaces and mounted animal heads made of metal give it a contemporary and sophisticated feel. When you enter, you'll be greeted by a host or hostess who will seat you. To the left, there's a small coffee bar that serves beverages and pastries, and on the right, there's a bar that serves the usual battery of mixed drinks, as well as wine and beer; several local beers are available on tap. Named for Henry Peter "Harry" Karstens, the first superintendent of Denali National Park and Preserve, the eatery features a menu of Parmesan garlic fries, cumin- and chili-crusted spareribs, white cheddar and ale soup, king crab fettuccine, Oaxacan fried avocado tacos, caribou cheeseburgers and jalepeno cornbread, among other tasty items. Prices aren't cheap, but they're reasonable for a resort.
Canyon Steakhouse: For all things steak, seafood and fish in a relaxed, upscale, rustic atmosphere, you'll want to check out Canyon Steakhouse, located in the resort's main lodge. Menu selections include oysters Rockefeller, bacon-wrapped scallops, a stack of Dungeness and king crab, crab bisque, chopped steak salad, surf 'n' turf, rockfish and daily specials like fresh-caught salmon. An impressive wine list is also available. Menu items are priced in line with most other steakhouses; all entrees are less than $50 apiece.
Grizzly Grind: Grizzly Grind, a coffee shop in the lobby of the main lodge, adjacent to the reception desk, serves basically everything you'd find at Starbucks, including Starbucks coffee drinks and tea, breakfast sandwiches, oatmeal, parfaits, wraps, fruit, assorted pastries and desserts -- all at Starbucks prices. It's also where you'll order boxed lunches to take with you on any lengthy excursions you might book. (You'll need to fill out an order form and pay the day before by 8 p.m. and pick up your lunch the next day prior to tour departure.)
As the property is owned by Carnival Corp., you're most likely to stay at McKinley Chalet Resort as part of a land tour to Denali before or after an Alaska cruise with Holland America or Princess.
A wildlife tour of the Denali tundra is included with every double or triple Denali cruisetour booked. The duration (either three to four hours or seven to eight hours) depends on the specific itinerary of the cruisetour. Other tours -- flightseeing, golfing, visiting a dog sled camp -- are offered for a fee and can be booked at the front desk in the main lodge or in the bookstore in Denali Square. Onsite activities feature ranger talks and live music in Denali Square, where you'll also find an artist-in-residence who creates and sells original works based on his or her time in Denali National Park. Card and board games are available, too, in the main lodge.
Upper Campus: Besides the Canyon Steakhouse and Grizzly Grind, the main lodge also boasts a gift shop that sells everything from postcards and apparel to birch syrup and sundries. There's plenty of seating at tables near the steakhouse and coffee shop; you'll find an outdoor deck at the rear of the building, as well -- perfect for enjoying an alfresco beverage. Two internet-connected desktop computers are provided in the main lodge, as well. Free Wi-Fi is available there but not in individual rooms.
Lower Campus: McKinley Chalet's newest addition, Denali Square, comprises the Gold Nugget Saloon, a bar and dinner theater playhouse; Karstens Public House restaurant; Wickersham, selling Alaska Railroad memorabilia; Windy Corner bookstore, which also acts as a guest services office for the lower campus; Harvard Three Wise Guys gift shop, showcasing winter accessories (hats, gloves, scarves) and local woodwork; Pioneer Old Sourdough Studio, offering stunning photography and an area with costumes for kitschy photos; and a small building where visitors can chat with the artist-in-residence. There's also a bandstand for live performances and plenty of seating around tables and fire pits. Wi-Fi is provided free of charge in Denali Square but not in individual rooms.
The lower campus is also where you can stroll along riverside walking paths. Note that the resort does not have a pool, hot tub or fitness facilities, but it does offer for-fee laundry facilities.
The resort offers accessible rooms in both its upper and lower campus areas, but efforts are generally made to book those with mobility issues in upper campus rooms. The lower campus is located at the bottom of a large hill that's not wheelchair-friendly, but an accessible shuttle service operates within the resort grounds from 4:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily and makes rounds every few minutes.
A small strip mall is located directly across the street from the resort, offering souvenirs, sundries and food. For anyone who prefers off-property dining, a complimentary shuttle runs from McKinley Chalet Resort and neighboring Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge to a handful of local restaurants from 4:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.
Updated December 28, 2019