Byer Lake

Byer Lake Cabin 1 at Byer Lake in Denali State Park is a short ski or snowshoe trip from the winter parking area. 

There’s no shortage of things to do outside in the Mat-Su as soon as the snow hits. But as the pleasant summer temperatures turn to cold winter days and nights you might still be missing the ease of overnight camping adventures in backcountry spots or development campgrounds. For those who don’t find cold nights in snow caves or winter tent camping at all attractive, it can be easy to get stuck in a day-trip only rut.

Enter: the State Park’s dry public use cabin system, a network of overnight escapes for adventurers of all recreation interests and levels. All you need to take advantage of them is a reservation, a few bundles of wood and the willingness to give something new a try.

“It’s a nice way to get out of town — it’s a cheaper way or a fun way to get out in a different space,” said Wendy Sailors, a spokeswoman for Alaska State Parks. “Year-round we always suggest public use cabins, and depending on the season will change how you’re going to get to them.”

The Valley is home to 20 state public use cabins, with an additional cabin near Matanuska Glacier managed by Long Rifle Lodge. Another seven cabins are well within close range for Mat-Su residents, located at Eklutna Lake and Bird Creek campgrounds.

The state park cabins are rustic, with each featuring a wood stove, wooden sleeping platform beds and a wooden bench and table. Some, such as the cabins at Kesugi Ken, might also have loft sleeping areas, while others, such as the sod-roof Byer Lake Cabin 1, do not. Heating methods vary, but users must provide fuel. Most cabins also have fire rings, but winter users should expect those to be covered in snow.

Just which cabin you choose to use is going to depend on how many people you’re bringing and how you plan to get there. The vast majority of the cabins are available only by ski, fat bike, dog sled, snowshoe, snow machine or, in some instances, ski plane. A small handful, including those at Kesugi Ken in Denali State Park and Bird Creek near Girdwood, are considered drive-up, although users might have a short walk through an unplowed area to reach the doors.

Kate Ayers, a volunteer ambassador for the state park system and regular cabin user, said she recommends users make sure to pack plenty of layers and take a very careful look at the fine print details on how to get to the cabin. Ayers has visited 40 of the system’s cabins. Her children, ages 4 and 1, and husband often travel to the cabins with her. Even if you’ve visited in the summer, she noted, directions might be different in the winter.

“You need to read carefully,” she said. “Read that fine print again.”

Stuart Leidner, the superintendent for the state parks in the MatSu region, said his favorite thing is to use the cabins as a base camp for winter adventures.

“For me, it’s getting out to ski,” he said. “It’s pretty darn peaceful.”

Cabins close to road accessibility are likely the most ideal if heading out with kids, Ayers said. And while not drive-up, Byer Lake Cabin 1 as well as Eklutna’s Dolly Varden and Rainbow Trout cabins are closest to vehicle access.

Most visitors will want to pack their belongings, including wood, on sleds with plans to tie the items down and pull them in. When packing for the trip, make sure you think about how you’re going to get to the cabin, and remember that small plastic sleds may not be ideal for the job, especially as you haul in wood.

In addition to plenty of wood to keep the cabin toasty warm, visitors should remember that the wood sleeping platforms are not padded and that they need to pack in water or plan to melt snow. It can be hard to regulate the temperature in the cabins as well, as keep plenty of layers handy to strip or add back on as required.

Prices per night sit between $60 and $100, depending on location, with an $8.05 booking fee from Reserve America. Leidner recommended booking the cabins well in advance, since they tend to fill up.

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