Forest Service Cabins Provide Affordable Alaskan Vacations
Author: KEVIN TRACEWSKI

Reprinted from the Maine Sportsman Magazine

Kenai Fjords National Park If cost has been a prime factor preventing you from embarking on a vacation to Alaska, U.S. Forest Service cabins may help provide a solution to your problem.  Located in nearly 200 prime recreational areas throughout southern Alaska, these public use cabins are available for rent at $25 per night per party.  Considering most sleep between 4-8 people, costs can be less than $5 each.  And, they can be reserved for your own private use up to 180 days in advance.

When I first heard about this deal I was a bit skeptical.  But, after several successful visits, and a number of conversations with people who have relied on them for years, I’m convinced these cabins are one of the best travel values that can be found anywhere.  For prospective, consider that on a recent trip to Alaska, it cost my wife and I just a few dollars more to spend a week at the McKinley Trail cabin near Cordova, than to spend one night at the airport motel in Anchorage.

Cordova Alaska CohosOf course, if you are looking for an elaborately furnished Shangri-la, public recreation cabins are not for you.  Most are simple A-frame or Pan-Abode style structures that have either wood or oil stoves for heat and no lights or running water.   Each includes a table with benches, sleeping bunks, tools, cleaning equipment and a pit toilet.  Cabins on lakes also provide a 12′ or 14′ aluminum boat with oars.

Aside from their value, the primary attraction of these cabins are the scenic areas in which they are located.  From remote beaches to mountain summits, hot springs to secluded islands, Forest Service cabins provide access to some of the best backcountry adventures in Alaska.  And most receive a lot less use than you might expect.

In fact, while making some last minute changes in travel plans during June a few years ago, I was shocked to discover that many cabins on the Chugach National Forest still had a significant number of vacancies for that summer season.  Of course, some locations are more popular than others, and a few cabins must be secured through a lottery drawing of reservation requests.  But generally, as long as you can display a bit of flexibility in scheduling (permit applications list 1st, 2nd and 3rd choices of cabins and dates) and get your application in early, you should not have any trouble.

Planning Your Trip

Literature available through U.S. Forest Service offices in Anchorage or Ketchikan can be very helpful in determining the specific cabin that is right for you.  I recommend using the large scale maps of the Tongass and Chugach National Forest in the early stages of planning because they show the location and principal attributes of each cabin.  Then, by interfacing this general information with the specific activities you are interested in (fishing, hiking, sea kayaking, etc.), you can narrow the list of possible choices down to a manageable few.  At that point, detailed fact sheets on individual cabins can be obtained to help you arrive at your final choices.  U.S. Forest Service recreation facilities handbooks   RG 69 and R0-R6109 also provide useful descriptions of most cabins.

Visitors should keep in mind that the majority of Alaska’s public recreation cabins are located deep in the bush.  Many are not road accessible and require that you either hike or be transported in to them.  Of course, hiking is the most inexpensive option and trails into cabins are usually well marked.  But for first-time travelers, or groups with a lot gear, I’d probably recommend the convenience and security of a floatplane or water-taxi shuttle.  Some cabins in extremely isolated settings can only be reached in this way.  Low budget travelers should be aware that transport fees into many remote locations can exceed the cost of the cabin rental itself and make their choices accordingly.

Finally, it’s important to realize that when you arrive at one of these cabins you are on your own.  No phones, no TV, no emergency medical support, nothing.  Obviously, this is not the right situation for everyone.  But for independent and capable outdoors-people, these public recreation cabins can provide an outstanding, and cost-effective, way to experience the Alaskan wilderness.

Pubic Use Cabins Profile

Location:

South coast of Alaska from Ketchikan to Kodiak Island.

Season:

Although some cabins are available year-round, the peak season for most cabins is from mid-June to mid-September.

Activities:

Hiking, wildlife viewing, sea kayaking, fishing, hunting, berry picking, clam digging and relaxing.

Safety:

Rain gear and warm clothing are essential.  Extra food and a first aid kit are recommended.  Drinking water should be treated or boiled.  Be wary of bears, particularly in high probability areas such as salmon-spawning streams and berry patches.

Equipment:

You must bring your own food, bedding and cooking gear.  A gas cooking stove, insect repellent, candles and a mouse trap are also recommended.  Oil is not provided in most cabins that use oil stoves for heating.

Information and Reservations:

Information for cabins located within the Tongass National Forest (southeast Alaska) can be obtained by contacting the SE Alaska Visitor Center in Ketchikan. Similar services for the Chugach National Forest (south-central Alaska) are available through the Alaska Public Lands Information Center in Anchorage.