Alaska is hands down the most exotic you can get in America without a passport, a northerly paradise where the mountains are twice as big, the skies twice as vast, the days twice as long (or don’t happen at all), and the best places are exponentially more remote. Nature, at its most epic and glorious, is still king here, with the state accounting for more than half of the US’s protected wilderness areas. Locals don’t mention highway numbers, as there’s basically just one major artery, which runs in a loop from Anchorage to Fairbanks and Denali, that everyone simply calls “the road”.
While plenty of cruise ships ply the waters of the southeastern panhandle, and a good number of visitors opt for camper vans or cheap and cheerful cabins with shared bathhouses, the quintessential luxury Alaska is found by going off-road. Catering to sportsmen and photographers, the best lodges are reached only by floatplane, helicopter or 12-seater Cessna—which makes the fact that people managed to build these outposts of refined rusticity all the more remarkable. Here are three of the finest.
Ultima Thule Lodge
Quite possibly the most isolated lodge anywhere, Ultima Thule Lodge takes its name from the “unknowable realm” beyond the northern bounds of ancient Greek maps (and a Longfellow book inspired by same). Getting there requires perseverance: A six-hour drive northeast from Anchorage to Chitina, then a 90-minute flight from the airstrip to the lodge, in the Wrangell-St Elias Wilderness. By the time we arrived, the other 11 guests and I were congratulating ourselves for having made it.
Tordrillo mountain lodge
Olympic gold medallist Tommy Moe was ski royalty when he and some friends headed into the Tordrillo Mountains, about 60 miles west of Anchorage, with a Bell Jet Ranger helicopter and ten barrels of jet fuel nearly 20 years ago for a week of corn skiing and king salmon fishing. By the end, they knew they wanted to return—and were sure others would follow.
Since then, the partners, who also include Alaska heli-ski pioneers Greg Harms and Mike Overcast, have turned Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, on the banks of Judd Lake and the Talachulitna River, into one of the most acclaimed bases for exploring and adventuring. The topflight backcountry guides and pilots are known for pioneering more heli-ski terrain than anyone else in Alaska. Although it’s just a 40-minute floatplane flight from Anchorage, it feels spectacularly remote.
That’s not a coincidence. Several of the owners operate bigger fishing lodges, and Tordrillo is their “toddy house”—where they take their families to escape the fishing tourism scene—built on five acres they self-scouted, on the edge of national forest with views of two 11,000-foot volcanoes and Mount McKinley.
The draws are isolation, excellent fishing and access to terrain that’s challenging for accomplished skiers and other world-class athletes—a recently retired Major League player who pitched a winning World Series game was there during my stay, and Laird Hamilton and Karl Malone are also in the guest book. Hamilton insisted the owners buy a stand-up paddleboard (SUP)for guests to explore the lake and river; my guide confessed that it gets little use, SUP being a sport only for those with excellent balance and tolerance for cold, even during my visit in August.
Favorite Bay lodge
This southeastern fishing lodge isn’t quite as remote at Tordrillo—there are scheduled floatplane flights from Juneau to Admiralty Island, and the nearby community of Angoon is home to a few hundred people—but is no less placid. Favorite Bay Lodge is in a sublime spot on the inside passage, near the Tongass National Forest, and it’s impossible to choose a favourite of the bays that surround it.
As at Tordrillo in summer, fishing is the big draw: Freshwater for Dolly Varden, cutthroat and steelhead trout, and saltwater for salmon and massive halibut. One frequent guest I met proudly showed me his photo with the 375-pound fish he caught several years ago. (It’s impressive enough to be on the lodge’s website.) The guides have spent their lives on these waters. And here guests get to keep much of their haul (though the chef may take some for dinner); rates (which begin at $3,750 for three nights) include processing and shipping up to 100 pounds of fish to Juneau.
But it’s also a full-on luxury lodge, with 12 individually decorated guest rooms with native cedar walls, lodge-pole furnishings, big bathrooms with soaking tubs, handcrafted rugs and excellent bedding. The pretty dining and great room has a sunken fireplace area, double-height ceilings, three full walls of windows and spectacular views over Favorite Bay, especially for late-night sunsets.
The activities extend far beyond rod and reel, with many guests exploring the bays by kayak or motorboat, hiking or scouting out the bald eagles and bears—both are here in huge numbers.
There’s no way I’m going to haul in a 375-pound anything, so I cruised over to a nearby island for a bear-spotting expedition with lodge owner Dana Durand, who built the lodge with profits from his catering business in Monterey, California. This is a be-careful-what-you-wish-for proposition, and I was relieved to come across little more than freshly killed salmon, whose hunters had been scared off by our voices. Seeing the majestic, fearsome animals by boat is enough. Durand happens to be a mycologist, so we stopped off to forage, filling a bucket with a perfect porcini (soon a delicious carpaccio) and so many chanterelles that it was hard to carry.
On the way home, we cruised through the fishing waters of Chatham Strait, where the krill and herring that draw fish also attract humpback whales. Within 15 minutes, we saw a pair fully breach and spin in perfect synchronicity. You couldn’t choreograph a better show.