What is an Alaskan roadhouse?

The road tripper’s Alaska seems more like a different planet than merely a different landscape from that which might be experienced by the majority of travelers who visit via cruise. In place of technicolor icebergs, breaching sea life, and lively port cities, one might experience endless stretches of lonely highway flanked by jagged peaks and sooty inland glaciers, the occasional moose encounter, and a smattering of relics recounting Alaska’s storied past: chief among them, the roadhouse.

In case it doesn’t seem like I am making a case for by road rather than by sea here, let me be explicit: I wouldn’t trade a single roadhouse for dozens of the most dramatic floating ice cubes. Why? What Alaska’s remaining roadhouses may lack in cinematic scenery, they more than make up for in local color and baked goods. At least in the ones I was lucky to visit.

Roadhouses in Alaska sprung up mainly during the gold rush of the early 1900s, out of necessity to provide amenities for the prospectors and trappers who were flooding the area in search of fortune. Spaced about a day’s journey apart, roadhouses became all-purpose oases for these travelers, serving not only as an opportunity for food and lodging, but also for trade and community. A legacy that the few that remain standing continue to this day.

The Talkeetna Roadhouse, situated just a couple of hours south of Denali National Park, has everything that the weary mountaineer might need: beds, showers, laundry, a quirky/cozy living room for recounting hiking stories, and complex carbohydrates, specifically in the form of epic baked goods.

“You don’t close a roadhouse,” says Trisha Costello, owner of the Talkeetna Roadhouse. Talkeetna is a bohemian community with a downtown about a block long, where the roadhouse is situated at the far end. The charming cafe and bakery at Talkeetna Roadhouse serves as a beacon for both travelers and locals alike, and indeed the connection to both the community and to history is a “huge responsibility,” as described by Costello, who has owned and operated the 1917 Roadhouse since 1995. Staying there indeed feels like slipping into the past, replete with creaky stairs, footed tub, and community breakfast tables. But then you quickly slip back into the present with the promise of Instagram photos of cinnamon rolls bigger than your head. Whether you are planning on scaling Denali by foot or merely seeking photo ops closer to sea level, you’ll want to stock up on any of the homemade pies, rolls, and breads that are offered daily by Costello and her staff.

If you’re a really intrepid traveler who finds herself just outside a less popular, but no less staggering national park, you might find yourself passing through Gakona, Alaska. And indeed, the detour is a worthy one for another taste not only of Alaska’s past, but of a genuine experience in Alaska’s present.

Gakona is a small town of about 200 people situated between Fairbanks and Valdez, just on the precipice of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Clif Potter, who, with his wife Rebecca, currently own the Gakona Lodge and Trading Post, a site that used to be known at the Doyle Roadhouse, built in 1904. According to Clif Potter, the key to the ongoing success at Gakona Lodge is “adaptability,” especially since “so many (of the former roadhouses) have gone by the wayside.” In their case, the Potters have created a space that is an anchor of community life, where local events and products mirror the very community it serves. (Author’s note: Any town with a population of 200 people where one of those 200 people brews beer commercially is alright by me.) Even a NYC interloper can be treated as family during a local music festival where everyone else there entirely knew each other. Evidence enough that the spirit of the Roadhouse lives on in Gakona.

Alaska’s geography is seismic, literally, and of the hundreds of roadhouses that once existed, only a small handful remain, most of them casualties of earthquakes and fire. Those who would be their modern caretakers then are all the more committed to their on-going. For a true experience of Alaska both past and present, get off the boat, and get thee to a Roadhouse.

Related Video: How to Make a Jumbo Cinnamon Roll

Header image courtesy of Planet Earth Adventures.

See more articles