One of my favorite ways to get outdoors in Alaska is by staying at public use cabins. I’m not sure exactly when I discovered public use cabins (PUCs) in Alaska. I’m sure I was a new transplant to Alaska, trying to figure out all the cool secrets for getting outdoors and visiting new areas. I can’t even remember the first one I booked (although I suspect it was Nancy Lake Cabin #3). But honestly, discovering PUCs has changed my life! I’ve visited so many gorgeous places and spent so many fun nights out in nature and I’ve made the best memories at each one. And Elliott loves staying at them too and will ask me to go to “the cabin” every weekend!
What is a public use cabin? I can’t speak for what these are like in every state, but in Alaska these are basic camping cabins. They are wood cabins that have a stove inside (usually wood powered but some cabins have kerosene stoves), wooden tables and benches, and wooden platforms to sleep on. Basically, all that’s inside is hard wooden furniture and it’s up to you to bring your camping gear to make it comfortable and cozy! Most of these cabins do not have electricity, and none that I know of have running water (there are outhouses nearby). These cabins are often located right on the road system, and you can drive right up to a few of them which makes it easy for a lot of people to spend their first night in the wild. Some of them you have to walk a mile or so to get to, and some are so remote that you need to take a long bike ride, long hike, or even a boat or float plane ride to reach them!
I have booked so many PUCs here in Alaska that I’m starting to think of myself as an expert (seriously, I’d rather camp in a PUC than a tent and love how remote and beautiful some of them are!). Figuring out which cabins to book and how to book cabins can be really overwhelming if you’re just starting out. So here’s a few FAQs that I had when I first started booking these and my take on those questions:
How do you book a PUC? There are a few websites where you can book these cabins:
- Reserve America is where almost all of the Alaska State Park cabin reservations happen. These cabins are sorted by either state park name or geographic area (for example, you would search “Denali State Park” to book the cabins at Byers Lake, but “Kesugi Ken” to book the cabins and campsites at Kesugi Ken – even though Kesugi Ken is located inside Denali State Park). The cabins are usually around $100 or less and can be booked 7 months in advance starting at midnight.
- Recreation.gov is where the national forest cabin and campsite reservations happen. These are some of the most popular cabins – like the cabins along Resurrection Pass, the Crow Pass Cabin, and the Dale Clemens cabin. The cabins can be booked 180 days in advance starting at 6:00 AM.
- Many of these cabins sell out FAST, sometimes instantly! My pro tip for snagging the most popular cabins is to keep checking for cancelations and be flexible on dates. I literally checked my recreation.gov app daily last summer to see if anyone randomly canceled the Crow Pass cabin – and that’s exactly how I got it for two mid-week days this July!
Why would I book a PUC instead of tent camping? Everyone has a preference, but I love PUCs over tents because you can stay in them in all kinds of weather and you’re much more comfortable than in a tent! I mostly book PUCs in the winter so that I can go camping year round, but I also love booking PUCs in the summer because they are often in gorgeous locations and I know I can enjoy myself even if it’s rainy, cold, or windy. The cabin gives me more protection from bears and mosquitos as well. And now that I have Elliott I love having the extra space for him to run around in there versus being inside a tent! I’ve also booked PUCs like the ones along Resurrection Pass Trail so that I wouldn’t have to carry my tent for four days.
What do you bring to a PUC? It honestly depends on how far I have to carry gear. For many PUCs, I pack as if I’m backpacking. For some that are less than a mile, I’ll still pack as if I’m backpacking but will also bring either a fold up wagon or a Jet Sled to pull extra gear like water and firewood to make life a little easier and more comfortable in the cabin. For drive up cabins I’ll pack all the extras I can think of! If I can drive up to a cabin I’ll bring camp chairs to make sitting more comfortable, a kayak if the cabin is on a lake, heavier pre-cooked food and a full camp stove, and sometimes even a bike. When booking a cabin think about what gear you’ll need and how you will get it there and book according to your abilities.
What are some notable PUCs in Southcentral Alaska to add to your bucket list?
- Serenity Falls Cabin is one of the most remote PUC I’ve stayed in. It is 13 miles from the parking lot at Eklutna Lake, and we reached it by bike. It’s amazing being so far back in that area! Note: you have to book this one by bunk instead of the entire cabin, but we lucked out and were the only ones there mid-week.
- The cabins along Resurrection Pass are amazing, especially Devil’s Pass (the views!) and Juneau Lake (you get a rowboat with your cabin rental!)
- Crow Pass Cabin was very difficult to book and took a lot of effort to get up to, but it was well worth it for the views, the remote location, and the fact that mountain goats came right up to our porch!
- The cabins at Kesugi Ken in Denali National Park have insane views of Denali (when the mountain is visible), connect to the fabulous Curry Ridge Trail, and you can park right next to the cabins! Pro tip: the Denali Cabin has electricity and lights which is so useful in the winter months!
- The Matanuska Glacier Cabin has to be booked over the phone, but you can drive right up to it, it has a mattress on the bed, AND there’s electricity and a refrigerator! Plus it has views of the glacier and makes taking a tour of the Matanuska Glacier easier.
- The Dale Clemens Cabin was absolutely incredible in the winter! It wasn’t as hard to reach as I had imagined (the winter trail is packed down by snowmachines) and hauling kerosene up there was way easier than bringing wood. And the views of Seward and Resurrection Bay were unbelievable!
Don’t get me wrong, some of my favorite nights of camping have been in a tent. But I love PUCs because they provide comfortable camping in some seriously gorgeous places around the state. Reservations for this summer have already started, so make sure to start booking ASAP! Unless you want the same cabin on the same weekend as me, then I’ll have to fight you…
Have you ever stayed at a public use cabin? Which is your favorite?