Summer is barreling toward Alaska, and so is the enticing promise of weekends spent enjoying the state’s plentiful wilderness.
But perhaps the realization of summer’s approach brings forth an unnerving thought: You’ve forgotten to reserve a public-use cabin for a weekend, and now all the popular ones are booked up.
Don’t give up hope. According to experts, it’s still possible to find a spot at the rustic, rentable cabins managed by a patchwork of agencies statewide — you just might have to get creative and stay flexible.
“There’s definitely always going to be something available,” said Wendy Sailors, a development specialist with the state’s Department of Parks and Outdoor Recreation. “It just might not be the exact one, unless you plan seven months out, unfortunately.”
Here are a few tips on snagging a public-use cabin, even if you are late to the game.
Be flexible with dates and locations
“The more flexible folks can be the better,” said Erin Kirkland, an ambassador for the Alaska State Parks.
Kirkland recommended looking beyond the usual choices, and instead looking at all of the cabins and using them as a way to see other parts of the state.
“Get into the directory of these cabins and use it as a vehicle for trying someplace new in Alaska,” she said.
Kirkland couldn’t find any local cabins herself one summer. That’s how she discovered the Big Delta State Historical Park north of Delta Junction, where she stayed at a cute log cabin with electricity that was still on the state’s road system.
“I just recommend people think outside the public-use cabin box a little bit,” she said.
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She also suggested taking some time off and trying out a cabin midweek instead of a popular summer weekend. According to Sailors, some spots like the Chugach State Park cabins and those on Eklutna Lake can be hit-or-miss: They book up on the weekends, but usually have weekday availability.
Look for hidden gems
Mary Kate Repetski, a park ranger with the National Park Service and a former lead ranger at the Alaska Public Lands Information Center, said the park service’s cabins tend to be on the “adventurous side of the spectrum,” but highlighted a few that are still pretty accessible.
She made note of two fairly accessible, reservable cabins in Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve (there are 14 in the park that can be flown or trekked into). Both the Viking Lodge cabin and the Caribou Creek cabin are located off of Nabesna Road. Viking Lodge is a quarter-mile walk, while Caribou Creek is a 3-mile hike. The two cabins are only reservable by contacting the park directly. Also, unlike most public-use cabins, they’re free.
Since the cabins aren’t listed on reservation websites like recreation.gov or reserveamerica.com, they may not be on everyone’s radar, she said.
It’s also important to not give up hope on a favorite cabin, even as a sunny summer weekend nears, since some people may cancel last-minute.
“I’ll just go into recreation.gov, plug in a weekend, and see what’s available,” Repetski said.
Repetski said she has been able to land some great stays because of cancellations. She once reserved the uber-popular Callisto Canyon cabin near Seward on a sunny weekend in late May.
She also recommended a Facebook page, Alaska Cabin Cancellations, where people post about canceling their cabin reservation, often just a day or so beforehand.
Think about other seasons
Many public-use cabins stay open year-round, which means thinking ahead to fall, winter and next spring could be another way to score a choice cabin.
Certain super-popular cabins, like the K’esugi Ken cabins, are booked most of the year. But the grayer seasons, like October and now, might have some availability, Sailors said.
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Repetski suggested the Willow public-use cabin, only available in winter. It is a 7-mile trek by foot or ski in Kenai Fjords National Park. The cabin has gas, a cabin caretaker stocks it with water, and there are even kitchen tools for making breakfast. If the forecast is good, there’s the possibility of aurora viewing.
Similar to the Wrangell cabins, it’s also only reservable by directly contacting the park, and not listed on reservation sites, meaning people may not be as aware of it.
Other ways to enjoy the “public-use cabin lifestyle”
There are a vast number of cabins in Alaska. While getting a public-use cabin can be a “little cutthroat,” other options like Airbnbs are available, too.
“There are certainly Airbnbs on there that do not have electricity or running water,” Repetski said. “So if folks want to dabble in the public-use cabin lifestyle that could be a way too.”
Mark your calendar for next summer
Some cabins get booked up several months in advance, as soon as reservations open.
That means the most popular state-managed cabins go quick, like Callisto Canyon and Derby Cove cabins near Seward, the K’esugi Ken cabins off the Parks Highway, said Sailors with the state’s parks and outdoor recreation department
“That’s really where the struggle is,” Sailors said.
Some people are planners, Sailors said, whether it’s because they have a big family, people visiting or for other reasons. People who aren’t planners, or can’t be due to their circumstances, are the ones who get upset when they can’t get the cabins when they want them, Sailors said.
So consider this your reminder to set a reminder: Reservations for the 93 public-use cabins managed by the state open up exactly seven months prior to the date people are reserving.
Where to start
• Many public-use cabins can be reserved through reserveamerica.com and recreation.gov.
• Cabin reservations are also available through the Alaska Huts Association.
• The Wrangell-St. Elias cabins reservations are available here.
• ADA-accessible public-use cabins can be found here.