Ptarmigan Tracks

The Newsletter of Camp Denali,
North Face Lodge & Parkside Guest House

Online Version 2019

North Face Lodge: A Chapter Concluding, A Mission Fulfilled


With this issue of Ptarmigan Tracks, we share the news that North Face Lodge will cease its current operation as a guest lodge at the end of the 2020 season. Going forward we will focus our energies on Camp Denali, striving to fulfill its longstanding legacy and recommitting to its sustainability.

North Face Lodge sits on private land that was homesteaded in 1957 by park superintendent, Grant Pearson, upon his retirement. Grant hand-selected the location for its views, its crystalline spring water, and its proximity to grayling fishing in Moose Creek. Little surprise that he gravitated to the area - he had recommended the site of Camp Denali to its founders six years prior. Of less concern to him, but not lost on speculators who would follow, were the road access and the eminently buildable, level, well-drained and frost-free ground below.

The property changed hands following Grant's tenure, and a rough precursor of today's lodge was erected under the second owners. A dozen years on, in 1986, the property abruptly came up for sale, drawing the attention of several would-be developers. Among them, the park concessioner, Outdoor World, had plans on the drawing board for the addition of hundreds of guest rooms, posing a clear and immediate threat to the character of the area and to park use limits.

Despite the park's own mandate to acquire the property and appeals made by Camp Denali owners, Wally and Jerryne Cole, to land conservation organizations, neither the NPS nor conservation funders stepped up to protect the land from looming development.

Further complicating matters was the fact that oil prices had plummeted and Alaskan banks had frozen their lending. In the end, the Coles purchased North Face Lodge with private loans from 14 former guests and staff of Camp Denali, rather than allow industrial-scale tourism to become the face of the Wonder Lake area.

North Face Lodge, circa 1971
North Face Lodge, circa 1971

In the years since, North Face Lodge has operated in tandem with Camp Denali, sharing its mission to provide active learning experiences and to foster stewardship of the natural world through a tradition of community, excellence and place. Since their acquisition by the Cole family, and now the Hamm family, neither Camp Denali nor North Face Lodge has increased in capacity. As owner-operators inside a national park, we firmly believe that we are best guided not by what the market will bear, but by longstanding park purposes and the carrying capacity of Denali's wildlands.

North Face Lodge has existed for a third of the park's 100-year history, and Camp Denali for two-thirds. Tremendous change has occured around us in that time, including statehood, the advent of road access to the park entrance, Wilderness designation of the park's core, and a tripling of the park's land area which turned our lodges into islands of private land surrounded by national park land. Annual park visitation has increased from 6,000 to more than 600,000 since the founding of Camp Denali. At present, the Kantishna and Wonder Lake area is beset by a fresh round of development pressure on multiple fronts, prompting questions of capacity and sustainability.

North Face Lodge, circa mid 1990s
North Face Lodge, circa mid 1990s

The National Park Service, in managing public lands, toils under a "dual mandate" to preserve resources while also providing for their enjoyment. The challenge, amidst changing conditions, is how best to balance these objectives - to inspire and educate to greatest effect while not diluting the very source of that influence, the wildlands that visitors come to explore. As visitor service providers within a national park, we must ultimately answer the same stewardship questions.

Even among Alaska's national parks, Denali is celebrated for its wildness. More so than for its high peaks, Mount McKinley National Park was established for the purpose of wildlife protection. It was subsequently expanded, including the northern additions surrounding our lodges, expressly for wildlife and habitat protection. Most of these lands were potentially eligible for Wilderness designation and were to be managed as such until Congressionally designated. Accordingly, we believe the responsible course when navigating Denali's "dual mandate" is to err on the side of protection.

The Coles' acquisition of North Face Lodge 33 years ago sought to support Denali's conservation mission by taking prime land off the open market, thereby doing a small part to limit development in the heart of the national park. In this, it succeeded, inviting the question of what happens now that the goal has been met. Given current realities of aging infrastructure, that question is more than hypothetical. In the choice between reinvestment and downsizing, we find that the course of action most in keeping with values on which Camp Denali was founded and North Face Lodge acquired, is to recommit to sustainability and quality through a lighter footprint on the land.

It has been an immensely rewarding privilege to welcome park visitors from around the world and to share Denali's subarctic ecosystem with North Face Lodge guests for 33 years. It is our intention to continue this work at Camp Denali for many years to come.

- Simon and Jenna Hamm


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