I wasn’t expecting to like Tonglen Lake Lodge to the extent I hesitated to leave after a tour this morning. Maybe it was the freshly-baked thyme, apple, and cheddar scone that complimented my hot coffee to perfection. Perhaps it was a fresh breeze high in the spruce tops that brought a toasty 80F down to a managable temperature, or the carefully-nested contemporary log cabins stretched over five acres. Whatever the reason, I only know I long to go back.
Located near Mile 230 of the George Parks Highway, just seven miles from the entrance to Denali National Park, Tonglen Lake Lodge is more than a comfortable and glamerous place to rest one’s weary head. Rather, it exudes the fine art of living; from food to accommodations to community art, it’s a step toward healthy retreat for busy families who truly want to experience an out-of-the-box Alaska experience.
Owner Donna Gates has poured her soul into the mission of Tonglen Lake Lodge, believing that Denali National Park and environs are so, so much more than a mountain. It is people, senses, and adventures sculpted into a rich tapestry of being that I could feel, even during my brief visit.
Gates officially opened just over a year ago after working to construct 10 cabins, a studio, cafe’, and common area/special event venue with amazing views and serene forest vistas. Cabins are bright, yet warm, with wrought iron details (as is evident throughout the entire property) and modern touches, right down to the fluffy down covering each bed. Sleeping four, cabins are tucked away along a series of forest trails, themselves carefully aligned so as not to disturb the natural processes of this boreal forest. Inhaling the scent of spruce and bluebell, I had to concede this might just be the most peaceful place I have ever spent a coffee break.
For those wanting a true Alaska overnight experience, Gates keeps a tiny treehouse overlooking Tonglen Lake. Sleeping 4 in queen-size bunks, the treehouse has no electricity and no water, but features the same attention to detail as found in the cabins, with wrought iron handles, down comforters, and one heck of a view.
The main lodge is home to the Artisan Cafe’, a cheerful room with plenty of indoor and patio seating in full view of the Alaska Range and shivering aspen trees bordering the little lake. Bright sunshine filters through the windows, casting bright light on artwork lining the walls. Gates was adamant that the lodge be a home for artists of all makes and genres; visual, musical, and written words flow here like spring-fed streams, and it feels just right for the seeds of creation. The Artisan Cafe’ is open to the public and provides a very nice respite from large tour company menues of park entrance restaurants. Everything is handmade or homemade, from coffee cups to baked goods, and AK Kid’s hot cocoa was scratch-produced chocolate that had him licking the rim.
Upstairs in the main lodge is a great room for group events. Seating 100 or so, the space is bright and warm and acoustically charming; and I can’t help but wonder whose feet have tapped in time to dance music since the place opened for business, and how much my own toes would like to join the party.
An enormous field of green grass stretches out in front of the cafe’, and a new covered stage begs for playwrights and poets to stand in front of the broken-glass artwork and ply their crafts. AK Kid and other visiting youngsters made tracks to the platform right away with full compliments of Gates, who built it thinking community children would like to perform self-written plays for parents and guests. Lovely.
Gates currently runs a packed house. Between art presentations, speaker series, and general visitorship, Tonglen Lake Lodge is full almost every weekend, and on many weeknights. It’s not cheap, either. At $385/night double occupancy, it’s a sure stretch for many families. But – if you are looking for a truly memorable Alaska experience, in a truly delightful area outside the hustle and bustle of Denali National Park, this might be the place for you. Even one night at Tonglen Lake can rejuvinate the most exhausted of parents, and I for one think there’s something to be valued in that.
Follow the Tonglen Lake Lodge schedule of performances and workshops, here. And stay tuned for 2015, because Gates and I have put our heads together, and that will be an epic family event. Don’t you know.