Wilderness at Your Doorstep: Public-Use Cabins, Alaska

Photo by Paxson Woebler
With 663,000 square miles of unique landscape available for exploration, it’s no wonder Alaska attracts more than 2 million visitors each year. While about half of those decide to see Alaska from the deck of a cruise ship, others—including adventure-seekers, families and independent travelers—choose to become acquainted with the Last Frontier via its vast network of public lands, including campgrounds and public-use cabins.
 
The latter are fast becoming a popular way to “rough it” in Alaska’s wild spaces. The combination of four solid walls and a front door is a deal-maker for many visitors who may be unfamiliar with the state’s fickle weather patterns or are leery about tent camping among its famous wildlife residents.
 
While some of Alaska’s public-use cabins are in places so remote one needs a float plane or boat to reach them, many can be found along road systems or by way of a short trek from a parking lot. These facilities are perfect for the Alaska road-trip enthusiast or casual hiker; warm, safe and featuring enough amenities for a comfortable experience.
 
Alicia King, public affairs officer for the Chugach National Forest, says options there are plentiful. The Chugach is within reach of Anchorage, making Alaska’s largest city a popular starting point for cabin users.
 
“Many cabins in the Forest are within a day’s hike, plane, train or boat ride,” King says.
 
Some of those include the wildly popular Spencer Bench cabin accessed via Alaska Railroad and a 5.4-mile hike for stellar views of Spencer Glacier; or the McKinley Trail cabin, a historic structure located a short 80 yards off the Copper River Highway.
 
As a rule, cabins offer basic accommodations, usually in the form of bunk beds, a table and heat source (you may need to provide propane or firewood). Some are located near bodies of water for kayaking, canoeing, or fishing; others were built near mountain ridges or in view of glaciers so pristine guests may simply want to sit on the front porch with a cup of coffee and ogle the scene.
 
Take note, however: Alaska’s most accessible cabins get snapped up fast, so if you’d like to visit one, make plans early. Midweek slots fill up slower than weekends and holidays, so consider a Sunday through Thursday trip if you have flexibility. Pricing for public use cabins ranges from about $45 to $100 per night, depending upon the structure.
 
Public-lands officials also advise visitors to read thoroughly through each cabin’s description and requirements, as some things like access to fresh water, parking and activities can differ from location to location. Additionally, pack in your food and pack out all trash and leftover items to prevent unwanted wildlife visitors. Need gear? Alaska Outdoor Gear Rentals offers everything from stoves to sleeping bags (alaskaoutdoorgearrental.com).
 
To find public-use cabins in Alaska State Parks, visit dnr.alaska.gov/parks/cabins; once you find a destination and cabin that interests you, the website will take you to reserveamerica.com to make your reservation. For public-use cabins on federal lands, visit dnr.alaska.gov/parks/cabins/other.htm.