Built on North America’s highest mountain and only accessible by helicopter, The Sheldon Chalet luxury lodge offers guests an unparalleled winter escape.
by Sara Jarrell
Decades ago, legendary Alaskan bush pilot, Don Sheldon, acquired a plot of land within the Denali National Forest under the Homestead Act of 1950. He and cartographer Brad Washburn surveyed and mapped out the land. Sheldon dreamed of opening a vacation spot on the property. In 1966, he built the famed Mountain House, which quickly drew attention from the likes of National Geographic.
He hoped to build additional structures, making the property a destination for tourists. He planned to fly guests from the nearest town to the property himself. Sadly, Sheldon passed away in 1975 of cancer before his dream could be realized.
Sheldon’s wife Roberta held on to the land and the Mountain House but never developed the resort her late husband had envisioned. Following her death in 2014, the Sheldons’ children, Robert and Kate, along with Robert’s wife Marne, decided to pursue their father’s original plans. In 2018, they opened the Sheldon Chalet.
The luxury lodge is only accessible by helicopter or plane as it is in one of the most remote places on earth. Located 6,000 feet above sea level, the Chalet sits atop a rocky area exposed within a glacier, called a nunatak.
“(The nunatak) is super strong, and that’s what we’ve anchored the Chalet into,” says Robert Sheldon. “That’s why we have such confidence in this engineering marvel. In this case, the nunatak is not only unique up there; it is the only reason we’re able to exist.”
Using old blueprints and plans their father had drawn up before his death,Robert and Kate started designing the Chalet. “We adapted those drawings to what was necessary, but Sheldon Chalet is within 10 percent of the footprint of the original design, and we’re really excited about that,” Robert says.
Materials for the hotel were flown in by plane or helicopter. The Sheldon family made sure that the hotel would withstand high winds and extreme weather. The construction team selected the best materials for the protection and preservation of the hotel, the guests, and the natural surroundings. “We ended up going with steel and glass because it will last the longest— we hope it will last at least two generations, if not longer, and we designed the building to withstand tremendous forces of nature,” Robert says.
While starting on the foundation of the Chalet, the team discovered that Sheldon had already begun building before he died, and were able to repurpose some of the materials that he had used. It almost seemed as if Sheldon was guiding the project.
Now open, the Sheldon Chalet houses and provides guests with a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Guests start their journey in either Talkeetna or Anchorage with a helicopter ride that takes them through mountains and valleys as deep as the Grand Canyon. On the ride over to the Sheldon Chalet, pilots give guests a short history of the lives of Don and Roberta. The helicopter might feel as if it’s going to crash into these massive granite mountains with icy peaks, but it’s all about depth perception. Pilots caution guests that their perception is thrown off due to the magnitude of their surroundings. “So the flight in whisks you away with a whole lot of geography, place, and story,” Robert says. “And about 35 minutes later, you land at the Sheldon Chalet. It’s all frequently described by guests as, ‘I feel as if I’ve just entered a James Bond movie.’”
After landing, guests are treated to fine dining by chefs who prepare the freshest Alaskan seafood, paired with other locally sourced ingredients and outstanding wines. The luxury chalet includes five bedrooms, a kitchen, a sauna, an observation deck and helicopter pad. The observation deck offers breathtaking views that can include the aurora borealis from mid-September to mid-April.
Guests choose from one of two daily activities, led by local guides, that may include glacier treks, skiing, sledding, and a mountain ropes course. “We believe folks should have three types of exploration,” Robert says. “The first is, of course, geographical. The second is place—sensing who you are and how you fit into the environment. And the third is story— and that’s what you come away with.”
After a day of exploring and adventure, guests unwind in the chalet’s common living area, relaxing and reading by the fire. Or they may prefer to head to their bedroom for a nap or to gaze at the peak of Denali.
While enjoying all that the Sheldon Chalet has to offer, guests are asked to unplug. In fact, the lodge does not have wifi, TV, or cell service. “It takes between six hours and a full day for people to relax enough to deprogram and become their natural selves, to let go of the pressures of the world and their design to be connected,” Robert says.
He stressed that the experience of staying at the Sheldon Chalet is rooted in his family’s history. Decorated with family photos and heirlooms, the entire structure of the Chalet pays homage to Don and Roberta. Staff members also open the historic Mountain House for guests to see where it all began. They can sign the guestbook and feel that they’ve become part of the place.
Robert Sheldon is excited to share with visitors his family’s special connection to Alaska. “It’s really a magnetic place—our philosophy as a family is that everything we do needs to derive from the magnificence of the place, that is what the luxury experience is.”