Flying high above, looking out the window of our Beaver plane, Tordrillo Mountain Lodge is nestled into the corner of Judd Lake in remote Alaskan wilderness. You can’t get to Tordillo by land and the main mode of transportation is helicopter. A visit here is not for the reticent.
Tordrillo is a magical place, full of Alaskan guides and staff from around the US who care, who are engaging and who have a big impact on the experience you will have.
Arrivals to Tordrillo happen via air. In the summer the main method is by float plane, although a helicopter is also an option. We were coming from another remote lodge near Homer, running about 90 minutes behind schedule due to weather delays. Once airborne, our private floatplane charter was a beautiful 1 hour 20 minute flight over mountains, plains and water. Our pilot pointed out a moose and her baby en route. Other than that, we just saw vast wilderness.
If you are like me and like to get a feel for places before you visit, you may watch a few videos or read articles and have a vision of what your destination looks like. The videos don’t prepare you for Tordrillo. As you circle over the lake to land, you spot the lodge, the cabins, the helicopter and the enthusiasm bubbles up!
Landing as gracefully as a swan, we touched down. We were greeted by Jennifer, Tordrillo’s manager, at the dock with a warm welcome and shown the lodge and our (tiny) rooms.
The rooms may be the smallest rooms we’ve ever stayed in :). However, we didn’t mind at all. The point of Tordrillo is to be out and about experiencing nature or enjoying conversations with other guests and staff in the main part of the lodge, and a small bedroom encourages that.
Jason and I were in Room 4 with a king bed (it converts to twins too) and our kids were next door with 3 twins. Tordrillo has the feel of being a guest in your (very) wealthy uncle’s Alaskan lodge. I would say that no expense has been spared in every detail about this place.
After we quickly settled in we met our guide, Troy, to receive an overall briefing and a helicopter safety briefing. We realized later how lucky we were to have him as our guide.
The choices are vast!
Because the weather was clear when we arrived, a true blue sky day, we opted to do the via ferrata that afternoon. The via ferrata and seeing bears were my top activities for this trip. A good idea to remember for Alaska:
It’s essential to do the things that require good weather when the weather is good.
A couple we’d met when we arrived – had gone out to the via ferrata before us. On our flight over we heard over the radio there had been a change of plans. So the plan was we’d get dropped off and they’d get picked up at the same time.
It’s worth noting this was our family’s first time in a helicopter. We all loved it! It never got old. We probably video’d every take-off and landing and each flight through the air. It’s an incredible experience to see such beautiful wilderness from a helicopter.
The via ferrata
I’ve talked about via ferratas a lot. I know where they are all over the world and have a long list of which ones I want to scale. However I’d only gone through one before. In Spain. It was a few hundred feet in the air. Tordrillo’s is 4000+feet up. I didn’t allow myself to be nervous.
As we exited the helicopter we met our ferrata guide – Desi. We didn’t know it yet, but we were in the best hands. Also, we lucked out and Melanie, who works for Tordrillo, (we’d met at a travel conference), happened to be at Tordrillo this week and she joined us on the ferrata.
It takes about 90 minutes to scale the via ferrata, including vertical ascents, horizontal traverses and 2 bridges (which is actually a wire you walk across while holding 2 other wires thousands of feet up). The bridges were the most scary part, but it wasn’t too bad. It wasn’t cold or windy. I thought it would be both, but the weather was spectacular – the hats and jackets we’d started with quickly were peeled off.
After finishing we all high fived each other, signed the book that’s tucked away up top for those that finish the route and took some photos.
I asked Desi where the helicopter would land. He pointed to a tiny little patch of grassy cover next to us and said “right there.” I still don’t know how the pilot, Scott, does that. His precision is exact.
Day 2 was an all-day fishing day for us. Troy took me, Jason and our oldest daughter on the river. Our other two kids stayed back – one to work on college essays and read and the other to learn to efoil.
The helicopter landed to drop off our raft in one spot on the river and then took us to a spot further up river. We then proceeded to walk down the river, fishing along the way. We finally reached our raft and Troy set up camp – made a cozy fire, played fun music, set up folding chairs for us and opened a cooler full of sodas, seltzers, coconut water and beer. It was an magical scene. Afterwards he blew up the raft and we floated down the river to another fishing spot. We would have continued to do this for hours, however the weather was turning so we were extracted early. No matter. We arrived back to the lodge, jumped in the hot tub and then dressed for dinner.
Our two teens who stayed back at the lodge had a great day. One of the guides – Brandon, whose family has had one of the few other houses on the lake, took our kids out efoiling. He taught them both to do it. They were so happy!
On day 3 I would have loved to have gone heli hiking on the glaciers or heli mountain biking, but the weather was not cooperative. Instead we opted for a half day full family heli fishing (which was my husband’s priority so it worked out well).
As our departure time approached were put on weather hold. It wasn’t but a minute before one of the guides, Jeremy, offered to teach us how to tie flies. It’s worth noting that Jeremy has been tying flies since he was a baby. His father owned a popular fly shop since before Jeremy was born. There probably is no better person to teach you to tie flies.
Jeremy spent a very patient hour at a table set up for fly tying (with everything you could possibly want) and taught us how to make a fly. Our daughter followed his instructions and left with a fly ready to catch a fish. She finished as the weather opened up and we were told take off was imminent. The term they use is “be on aggressive standby.”
With our whole family, which is five, they suggested we take a second guide. Because of this we had to take 2 helicopters. The fishing hole is only about 5 minutes away (thank you helicopter) so we all quickly were back together at the river. We were grateful to have both Troy and Brandon with us.
This was the first time one of our kids was fly fishing (and I now had a one day experience under my belt), so she was learning the craft while the rest of us were set up in the river casting. The rivers were FULL of salmon. There are trout too – but they are harder to see because of their coloring and they are generally crowded out by the salmon. Our goal today was to fish down the river until we reached a “honeyspot” called Chicken.
One of the many things we learned on this trip was about the life cycle of salmon. At this stage of the summer, they are swimming upstream in fresh water to spawn. Once they are in fresh water, their body begins to deteriorate little by little until after laying their eggs, at which point they will die. Why is that important? Because they are not seeking out food. We fished for both trout and salmon and learned the salmon don’t bite the fly out of hunger, they do it out of aggression. I didn’t keep track of what we caught that day, but we all caught fish.
About an hour in to fishing, Troy saw a bear on the river and intentionally scared it away. I just caught a glimpse of his ears and I’m intensely curious about bears so I began slowly walking in the river in that direction.
It was then that I made a rookie move. I didn’t quite realize that it was getting deeper and deeper and once I decided to turn around it was too late and I was chest deep with waders full of water. I walked myself out – no rescue needed, but it was not my best moment.
Ever the attentive professional, Troy offered to help then offered to make a fire so I could warm up. It wasn’t that cold and I rallied. But about an hour and half later when one of our kids was ready to go back to the lodge, I was happy to go too. Troy called for the heli, three of us went back and the others stayed for more fishing.
Outside of the via ferrata and fishing, there are many additional activities on and off property. On property watersports include wakeboarding, waterskiing, wake surfing, efoils (I think 10 efoils), tubing, kayaking, SUPs and snorkeling with salmon in the mouth of a river.
Off property activities center on helicopters – heli-hiking on mountains and glaciers, heli-fatbiking and heli-rafting.
Although a visit to Tordillo is about being active and out in nature, there are also opportunities to relax. I recommend a long soak in the hot tub before or after dinner (they just installed a large, brand new, metal hot tub), heating yourself up in the sauna or going out for a late evening casual paddle. Jason and I went out on the SUPs at about 9:30p one night. We were out until 10:30p and it was just getting dark. There are no powered water sports after dinner which adds to the serenity of that time of day.
We also participated in daily stretching class at 7:30a and we had multiple massages. It’s worth noting that you sign up the day you want a massage, but not really for a specific time. They will never pull you out of “the field” to get you back for a massage. The massage time will just change to accommodate your return time. Priorities.
Other favorite activities are relaxing in Adirondack chairs around the firepit or reading in the cozy living room.
Every meal is at a big family sized table. I took that as a natural way to encourage guest connection. Each morning you talk with others about all of the amazing things you are all going to do that day. Then at dinner, you talk about what you did. That is exactly what we did.
In the evenings at 6:30p it’s time for appetizers and cocktails (alcoholic beverages are an extra expense) and it’s quite social and very fun. Reed, our bartender was engaging, skilled at cocktail making and an interesting guy. Dinner at 7p follows. The dinner table includes some guides and Scott, the helicopter pilot, and presents an opportunity to get to know everyone better.
A few examples of our culinary delights – one cocktail hour we had peel and eat shrimp, another was a Mediterranean platter. For dinners we had Wagyu steaks and fresh halibut. Every meal was incredible! Our daughter is a vegetarian and she had grilled King Oyster mushrooms that were buttery, salty and unbelievable and cauliflower steak. Desert follows and my favorite was the chocolate pot de crème.
The lodge is not a loud place in the evenings after dinner. People are beat from the day’s activities and tend to go to bed early or participate in one of the relaxing activities.
By our last night, we knew everyone and cocktail hour was particularly fun. We had pheasant for dinner (a first for me).
The refrigerator in the dining room is stocked full of drinks – juices, RedBull, seltzers with caffeine, sodas. There is also a snack shelf full of healthy and fun snacks.
In the morning you can help yourself to a cup of coffee or make an espresso with their Nespresso or a latte with their espresso machine.
On the bar was an always replenished bowl full of cherries and another of Lindt truffles (my kids’ favorite).
The people are hands down amazing at Tordrillo. My kids universally agreed the favorite people they met on our trip included Troy, Desi, Brandon and a fellow guest, Pat. Although Brandon wasn’t our main guide, he is a great fisherman, efoil teacher and guide, and he is also an adventure photographer and videographer. Super talented all around. It also happens that he went to a local boarding school 30 minutes from our house.
We learned Troy is a born and bred Alaskan, his family owns the Alaskan Walking Company group of stores and he guides at Tordrillo on his “vacations” from the store. He loves it that much and it shows.
Scott, our pilot, is from NH and keeps his personal plane at the airport 20 minutes from us. And Emery, who works in the dining area, is a student at Dartmouth College where we live. We connected with a lot of people from NH and New England on this trip.
On our last morning we went to stretching class, packed up, had breakfast, chatted with the other guests and then were put on weather hold. After about an hour delay we eventually flew out with Jake as our pilot, on Tordrillo’s vintage plane which is super cool. As I waved goodbye to Jennifer, as she was waving to us, I had a tear trickle down my cheek as we flew away.
Heidi, from Tordrillo, picked us up from the float plane. We had 2 options – to leave luggage at the airport storage or bring to Captain Cook. We opted for airport so we didn’t have to deal with it. Although there was only one person in front of us, it took forever!
I asked if it might be the same at pick up and the guy said it might – it depends on how many people. Heidi was waiting for us, so we just took our luggage with us to drop off in town. We walked around a bit – visiting Alaska Walking Company, Troy’s family’s shop. We bought a couple pairs of Alaskan shoes then went to our lunch reservation at Glacier Brewing Company (reserve ahead), which had been recommended to us by a friend who travels to Alaska regularly.
Heidi recommended the chicken sandwich and the peanut butter pie. We had both – they were delicious. It’s worth mentioning that we likely gained 5 pounds each on this trip and we weren’t the least bit hungry. Our friend recommended king crab legs – so try those out if you go.
We ate a bit then returned to the airport for our flights home. Anchorage Airport is very nice and quite quiet, despite having record visitors this year. There was no line in security. Several shops/restaurants were closed, but plenty were open. I was confused why they are closed because we heard again and again that Alaska was swamped with tourists and the hotels were sold out.
WHO IS A TORDRILLO GUEST?
The answer is first dependent on the season – summer for fishing/adventures or winter/spring for skiing/snowboarding. In June they have a special program that is called Kings and Corn – fishing for king salmon and skiing spring snow.
If you are a skilled skier and adept at skiing in powder, it may be a good fit for the winter. The clientele is about 80% men and the vibe is too. There are only 7 night packages with set arrival and departure dates which allows Tordrillo to have a 2 days built in for non-ski days due to potentially poor weather conditions.
Active travelers and families would love Tordrillo! People who love to fish, people who love adventure but also people who simply love being active in the outdoors. Travelers who love the highest quality, have been many other places and are seeking something new. People who are on their first trip to Alaska or people who have been before.
There is a “merch” closet. Our teens loved this little room full lots of branded Tordillo gear. I’d recommend that if there is something you think you need to purchase for your trip, that you find out if they have it there and wait to get it on arrival. Then it’s functional and once you are home it will remind you of Alaskan memories when you wear it.
With a three night stay at Tordrillo, two heli activities are included. If you’d like to add on others you can. The expense is dictated by the distance.
Weather plays a big part in your itinerary. Proper planning helps, but there will always be an element of unpredictability. Be prepared for contingency plans and even disappointments.
We learned while we were there that a recent Netflix show, Season 1, Episode 2 American Adventure of “The World’s Most Amazing Vacation Rentals” chose Tordrillo as their luxury option. Watch the show to see more video footage (although fishing is noticeably absent).
See the show notes and links to our webcast and podcast on Tordillo Mountain Lodge HERE.