Star Princess Denali Explorer, Day 3: Denali National Park

From McKinley to Denali

The Road to Denali is paved by Princess! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
The Road to Denali is paved by Princess! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports

Thursday, June 18, 2015

This morning, we entered our second full day on Princess Cruises’ 11-night Denali Explorer Tour as we awoke in our remote surroundings at the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge, situated just north of Talkeetna, within the borders of Denali State Park.

Where to? The Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge has plenty of trails to explore on-site. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Where to? The Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge has plenty of trails to explore on-site. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

For me it was a morning to catch up on some sleep, relax and explore the trails surrounding the Lodge. With Mt. McKinley still in full sun-splashed view, that’s not a bad way to spend the day. It was relaxing, enjoyable, and everything I thought it could be. Sometimes, simply sitting back and indulging in the surroundings of the place you’re currently in can be a reward in its own right. Plus, you don’t want to burn out. Personally, I’m quite adept at burning the candle at both ends…and the chance to take it easy and enjoy the lodge couldn’t be passed up.

Exploring the grounds near the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge; a great way to start the day! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Exploring the grounds near the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge; a great way to start the day! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Others set off bright and early this morning to participate in some of the many optional land excursions that Princess offers here at the Mt. McKinley Wilderness Lodge. A total of 22 optional excursions are offered here, and they range in price, duration, interest and activity level. It’s a perfect combination, particularly for families travelling together.

Here’s what Princess is offering this year to make the most out of your Mt. McKinley wilderness experience:

  • Tour A: Trapper Creek Homestead Tour. 3 hrs, $79.99 per person.
  • Tour B: Alaska Sportsfishing. 5 hours, $239.95 per person.
  • Tour C: South Denali Experience. 2.5 hours, $69.95 per person.
  • Tour D: Sun Dog Kennels 1.5 hours, $115.95 per person.
  • Tour E: Wilderness Gold Panning Adventure. 4 hours, $165.92 per person.
  • Tour F: Backcountry Wilderness Adventure. 8.5 hours; $99.95 per person.
  • Tour G: Denali Wilderness Hike. 6 hours, $99.95 per person.
  • Tour H: Byers Lake Nature Walk. 3 hours. $67.95 per person.
  • Tour I: McKinley Wilderness Trail Ride. 2 hours, $119.95 per person.
  • Tour J: McKinley Discovery Tour. 1.4 hours, $299.95 per person.
  • Tour K: Glacier Landing Explorer. 1.75 hours, $389.95 per person
  • Tour L: Summit McKinley Flight. 5 hours, $364.95 per person.
  • Tour M: Three Rivers Tour. 3 hours, $145.95 per person.
  • Tour N: Devil’s Canyon Adventure. 5 hours, $179.95 per person.
  • Tour O: Chultina River Rafting. 4 hours, $139.95 per person.
  • Tour P: Byers Lake Paddle Trip. 3 hours, $95.95 per person.
  • Tour Q: Wilderness Jet Boat Adventure. 2 hours, $89.95 per person.
  • Tour R: Talkeetna River Float. 2 hours, $85.95 per person.
  • Tour S: Black Bear ATV Adventure. 3 hours, $189.95 per person.
  • Tour T: Talkeetna Zip Line Adventure. 3 hours, $159.95 per person.
  • Tour U: Ultimate Denali Hike & Flight. 4 hours, $525.95 per person.
  • Tour V: Horse-drawn Wagon Ride. 2 hours, $79.95 per person.

Should you do a tour during your time here? It’s up to you. Personally, I had a wonderful time wandering around and enjoying the trails that surround the property. But to truly make the most of your adventure, I’d recommend doing at least one. The tours are expensive, but that’s more of a byproduct of the remoteness of Alaska than anything else. Plus – how often do you get to land on a glacier or zip line across the Talkeetna wilderness? These are very much ‘bucket list’ experiences. You know. The kind you do to propose to someone you love, celebrate an anniversary, or tick-off some other major life event.

Of course, you won’t be disappointed if you choose to hang around your wilderness digs, either.

In the afternoon, we reboarded our Princess coach for the drive to Denali. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
In the afternoon, we reboarded our Princess coach for the drive to Denali. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Service at the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge is friendly and exacting. Although the vast majority of the on-site staff are seasonal, that doesn’t mean they’re not professional or totally committed to the job. Many of the staff here came up to Alaska just once. One contract, they’d tell themselves, and then I’ll do something else.

“One contract” has a funny way of becoming 15 seasons or more for many of the on-site staff. More than not have even relocated to Alaska permanently, having fallen in love with the people and the place.

Welcome to Denali! Our home for the next two nights: the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Welcome to Denali! Our home for the next two nights: the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

One thing especially worth noting for those with early tours: with over 400 rooms and nearly 1,000 guests, breakfast can get competitive. While there was no time pressure today like there was yesterday, breakfast at the Lodge is a strictly menu-based affair. There’s no buffet, so the “quick breakfast for the busy Type-A on the go” is completely out of the question.

Breakfast this morning took approximately 90 minutes from start to finish. Plan on at least that if you’re heading out on a tour, and work your way backwards from there to determine what time you should be eating. On the bright side, my stack (and I do mean ‘stack’!) of Blueberry pancakes was sumptuous.

The views from the hotel are magnificent, looking out over Denali National Park. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
The views from the hotel are magnificent, looking out over Denali National Park. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

After a morning of exploration and some time spent outside on the patio admiring the views of Mt. McKinley, we hopped onboard our bright-blue Princess Cruises motorcoach. It’s newer and sexier than you might expect from a North American-based coach, having been built by European manufacturer VanHool. It’s also comfortable: an important point given that we traveled four hours by coach yesterday, and this afternoon spent another two hours in the coach en-route to Denali National Park and the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge.

The Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge is comprised of two main lodges and several outbuildings, and has 656 rooms on the property. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
The Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge is comprised of two main lodges and several outbuildings, and has 656 rooms on the property. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
It's also directly across the street from the small Denali village. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
It’s also directly across the street from the small Denali village. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Unlike the secluded Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge, the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge is nestled right in the heart of the small village that is Denali. It’s not actually within the National Park itself, but rather located just outside of it – as all properties in Denali are. But the Denali Princess arguably has the best views of the entire area – even though it may not look like it on the outside.

From the street, the Lodge borders the highway and the small village itself. It’s not big, but it is crowded. However, once you step into the lodge, your own private oasis awaits. The Denali Princess, you see, directly borders the river – and the wilderness that awaits tantalizingly beyond it.

Some photos of the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge:

Reception area in the main lodge at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Reception area in the main lodge at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
The lodge has plenty of Alaskan charm...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
The lodge has plenty of Alaskan charm…Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
...and stunning viewpoints. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
…and stunning viewpoints. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Rooms are functional, if not particularly inspiring. I'd love to see the bedspreads go by the wayside; they're one of the few things that unnecessarily date the room. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Rooms are functional, if not particularly inspiring. I’d love to see the bedspreads go by the wayside; they’re one of the few things that unnecessarily date the room. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
My room's bathroom: pretty much what you'd expect. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
My room’s bathroom: pretty much what you’d expect. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Cruise ship-style pump soap dispensers in the shower. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Cruise ship-style pump soap dispensers in the shower. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
My home for two nights: the combined Lodges A & B. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
My home for two nights: the combined Lodges A & B. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Divided into a number of outbuildings clustered around two central main lobbies and a collection of shopping and dining experiences known as Princess Village, the Denali Princess has over 600 rooms on-site, making it the largest accommodation provider in the area. Princess has worked hard to ensure that the same level of commitment and quality that is found aboard their cruise ships has translated to their land product, and they’ve done that – quite successfully – for several decades by operating their own hotel and motorcoach product.

Arriving in the late afternoon, we had a few hours to explore the property before enjoying cocktails in the lobby of Lodge A and B, where we’ll be staying for the next two nights. Then, it was off to an on-site attraction for an entertaining dinner experience.

Located on-site, Princess Village features shopping, gifts and dining venues all in one convenient location. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Located on-site, Princess Village features shopping, gifts and dining venues all in one convenient location. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

The Music of Denali is a family-style dinner-theatre experience that tells the story of Denali and Mt. McKinley (or Mt. Denali, if you prefer) by using both modern and historic characters. It’s not supposed to be haute cuisine or take on Broadway, but it’s just good, clean, campy fun for the whole family.

There’s also audience participation. I never know how this happens, but I seem to be selected to be the slightly-unwilling participant on a lot of these things. So, sure enough, halfway into the meal the spotlight shines on me as I’m chosen to be…I don’t know what. Some sort of Amish-looking prospector surrounded by women. I tried to play along and do some funny gestures and motions, but really I was just praying to the Mt. Denali gods that I could disappear back into my seat and finish my beer in relative anonymity. I won’t quit my day-job!

Getting ready for dinner at the Music of Denali. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Getting ready for dinner at the Music of Denali. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

As I hang up my acting hat, I’m excited for the full day of adventure that awaits tomorrow. We’re off at 7:00 in the morning on a 6-hour tour of Denali National Park, which is included on all Princess Connoisseur Alaska cruisetours. This journey is an absolute must-see for anyone coming here; after all, Denali National Park is arguably Alaska’s crown jewel.

Then – we’re going flightseeing and landing on a glacier!

It’s a full day of adventure as our Princess Connoisseur Alaska Cruisetour continues tomorrow!

Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Star Princess, Denali Explorer

Day 1 & 2Anchorage & Mt. McKinley
Day 3Denali National Park
Day 4Double Denali
Day 5Boarding the Star Princess
Day 6Hubbard Glacier
Day 7Glacier Bay
Day 8Skagway
Day 9Juneau
Day 10Ketchikan
Postcards from Star Princess

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