One of the most luxurious lodges in Alaska, and one of the most remote anywhere, has just opened on a rocky glacier outcropping, or nunatak, smack in the middle of Denali National Park.
From its wraparound windows, the resort's guests — a maximum of 10 at a time, in five bedrooms — can watch the aurora borealis dance around the sky or survey an endless horizon of jagged peaks blanketed in untouched snow. The only thing between them and the nearest summit is a sheer vertical rock wall that's more than a mile high.
It took more than a decade to secure the final permits to build Sheldon Chalet. Construction took three additional years. To get there from Anchorage – and getting there can be a journey in itself – you'll drive two hours to the tiny and charming town of Talkeetna and then fly by helicopter for an hour to Don Sheldon Amphitheater, a 35-square-mile valley carved by glacial ice in the shadow of North America's tallest mountain.
Robert Sheldon built the Chalet with the help of his wife, Marne, and sister Kate. The Sheldons' father, Don — a trailblazing Alaskan pilot – died when Robert was 4: "I only have a couple of memories with my father, and the earliest one was taking off from the village strip in Talkeetna on a very small airplane, zooming through the puffy white clouds."
Don Sheldon came from a farming family in Ohio, but his son says he "wanted to go for the easier life of hunting and trapping in Alaska. … He very quickly learned that, in Alaska, you could fly an hour or walk a week."
He'd eventually survey the region with photographer and cartographer Brad Washburn, a contemporary of Ansel Adams. This meant identifying places where planes could land amid the jagged peaks, building landing strips, and even developing specialized aircraft for the job.
"All the flying that happens around Denali National Park today can be traced back to his efforts," Marne Sheldon said. "It's what has allowed for present-day tourism in Alaska."
When Don Sheldon died in 1975, the governments of Alaska and the United States named not just a mountain after him but the 35-square-mile amphitheater filled with dozens of peaks.
The primary landing strip in Denali National Park — built by the elder Sheldon to facilitate explorations with Washburn — is a half-mile from Sheldon Chalet.
"That's the provenance of the interest in this area," explained Marne Sheldon, who ran point on logistics as the hotel took shape. Everything from the drawer pulls to the heating system had to be flown to that landing strip.
The family's long history in the area explains how the Sheldons earned commercial rights in such a protected place. Back in the 1950s, well before Denali was a national park, the family acquired five acres of land under the Homestead Act; it included the glacial outcropping that would be called Sheldon Nunatak.
Don Sheldon and wife Roberta started with a basic operation for passionate mountaineers and explorers. Don had bigger plans but died before he could execute them. Everything the younger Sheldons knew of their parents' onetime aspirations came from a National Geographic television clip from the '70s in which he referenced a broader vision for tourism on the nunatak, as well as a prototype travel brochure for Mountain House #1.
"We were sorting through a warehouse full of stuff in Talkeetna after Roberta died in 2014," Marne Sheldon recalled, "when I came across an odd roll of paper." Inside were decades-old blueprints for a hexagonal structure on Sheldon Nunatak: Mountain House #1.
Sheldon Chalet, at 6,000 feet elevation, is an upgraded vision of that. (Nightly rates from $2,300 per person include accommodations, food and beverages, and helicopter transfers.)
The helicopter ride takes arriving guests through narrow slots in the surrounding canyons. "One of my favorite things is seeing people's faces when they land," Marne Sheldon said. "Their brains can't quite comprehend what their eyes are seeing."
Inside is a living room called the Commons, anchored by a special Finnish fireplace that doubles as a high-efficiency, clean-combustion heating system. A family-style dining space is built around a beautiful birchwood table handcrafted in Talkeetna. The rooms are sparsely designed, with faux fur throws and panoramic views, to keep guests' focus squarely on the beauty outdoors. The Sheldons want the property to be carbon-neutral and believe they're close to accomplishing this, thanks to solar panels and a runoff-powered water supply.
"It's simple but elegant," Marne Sheldon said. "Pretty much everything was challenging" when it came to building the state's first luxury highland lodge. "The simple things in life, like running water, are actually quite luxurious when you're 6,000 feet up on a glacier," she said. The lodge has only three bathrooms to serve the five guest rooms.
During aurora season, mid-September through early March, days are spent "flightseeing" around the national park, snowshoeing, ski touring, and visiting remote hot springs. (You can also build an igloo.) During "Adventure Season," from early March through mid-July, additional thrills include rappelling, glacier trekking, visiting a mastodon boneyard and fishing.
Evenings can include warm-ups in the rooftop sauna, stargazing sessions, and elegant meals by Alaskan chef Dave Thorne.
"My mom and dad were people worth remembering, but their desire for this property had nothing to do with their own legacy. They just wanted other people to experience this place that's majestic beyond anything else on the planet," Robert Sheldon said. "Alaska has been in a recession for four years, but tourism is a bright spot. Hopefully, this shows that we can still do great things for the state of Alaska."