Reflect on an image in Alaska's colorful history, and the roadhouse almost immediately comes to mind.
Scattered throughout the territory, roadhouses provided weary travelers with lodging and a square meal for man and beast, a beacon of light in the darkness for hundreds of explorers, miners, and mushers since the late 1800's.
Improvements to the Alaskan Highway, the influx of tourism-based hotels and more reliable forms of transportation have led to a decline in the number of active roadhouses along the state's byways.
A few have, however, retained their charm and sense of Alaskan hospitality through thoughtful remodels capturing the spirit of the 49th state as it was and is. AK Fam visited one such place last winter, and has returned since, lured by the warmth of its owners and the breadth of its vistas.
Sheep Mountain Lodge sits on a gentle curve of the Glenn Highway, one of three main Alaskan thoroughfares and the quickest land option for travel between Canada and Anchorage. In existence since 1946, Sheep Mountain Lodge is currently owned and managed by the Steer family.
Zack, a top-finishing Iditarod musher and his wife, Anjanette, combine rustic and modern to create an atmosphere of relaxed luxury. We ought to know; both our visits to the Lodge, once for a mid-winter getaway and once for a lunch/hike on our way back from Valdez have been joyous exits from the daily grind.
The Steers operate a thriving summer business, hosting travelers from around the world in one of their 11 cabins complete with private bath. Four of the cabins, little log havens with a drop-dead view of the mountains and Anjanette Steer's flowerbeds, are equipped with full kitchens that make family stays more affordable, convenient, and affable.
Two queen beds and a fold-out sofa are available in these as well, making a family of up to six perfectly happy.
During the summer months Sheep Mountain offers a full-service restaurant serving the best in down-home, comfortable food that will cater to even the most picky kid, and the desserts are, to be perfectly honest, some of the best stuff this side of grandma's house. How about a triple berry cobbler with a few scoops of vanilla ice cream and some Kaladi Brother's coffee on the side? Or perhaps a soft-serve ice cream cone, a treat made even better out on the sunny front porch of your cabin?
Winter brings a bit more simplicity to the Lodge, as the Steers rely on only themselves to manage operations.
The restaurant closes except for pre-arranged groups of 12 or more, and seven of the 11 cabins shut down all water for the winter months, making the four log cabins the easiest way to go for families. Never fear, though, power is available in all. But a stay is definitely a bit more work if one chooses the "dry" cabins.
The property also offers a bunkhouse suitable for groups of up to ten, a hot tub, shower room, and wood-fired dry sauna, just right after a day hiking, mountain biking, or glacier-viewing. Kids will enjoy the reciprocating buddy-factor from the Steers two young sons, who jump for joy whenever potential playmates appear and to whom AK Kid is indebted for use of their sandbox and sled.
What's a family to do way out there, away from all electronic media and stores except the Glennallen grocery?
Ah, here's where things really get fun.
Part of the allure of Sheep Mountain Lodge is unlimited access to the great outdoors, which, by the way, is right out your door.
Thinking way, way ahead, the Steers brushed out 15 kilometers of trail around, behind, and through their property and towards the adjacent Sheep Mountain Air Strip, and whoa, baby, is there ever some family-friendly hiking, mountain biking, skiing, snowshoeing, sledding, wildlife watching good times.
Our trip last winter netted us Cabin #4 on the end of the front row, leaving us with access to the beginning of the trail system, sigh, an arm's reach from the door. Zack Steer grooms the trails every few days, making skiing pleasant for even the most timid beginner.
A wonderful series of interpretive maps and signs explaining our location and a brief history of animals, geology, and flora of the area made for an exceptional family ski. Caves carved out of far-off cliffs made for interesting conversation, and helpful information from Anjanette Steer gave us some high hopes for summertime hikes later in the year.
The Steer's host a number of popular fitness-related events, including the wildly frenetic Fireweed 400 bike race, where scores of road bikes meet up with Anjanette Steer's homemade pizza on a ride to Valdez each July.
Some people never make it out of the parking lot, I'll wager, preferring instead to put their feet up for a little more of that charm that is for sure roadhouse-worthy.