Note: I never finished my trip report about our Alaska vacation back in July/August, and since I’m going to Japan in two weeks and will have a whole other trip to write about after that, I figured it’s now or never. Here’s part 1 and part 2, with the final part 4 to come within the week.
After spending our first three days in Anchorage and Seward, it was time to head for the interior of Alaska and a destination that has been on my wish list for quite some time: Denali National Park and Preserve. When we originally were planning the trip, we’d decided to forego renting a car so we bought tickets on the Alaska Railroad from Anchorage to the train station right inside the entrance to Denali. In the end, since we rented a car for the first few days, it actually would have been cheaper to rent the car for the entire week than it was to take the train. But no matter — the train was a blast, and worth every penny.
The train runs from Anchorage to Fairbanks and vice versa, and they run one train each way each day. We hopped on in Anchorage for the 8:40 am departure and settled in. There are two classes of tickets available — standard class and Goldstar. The latter is their version of first class, which puts you in a car with huge windows that curve into the roof, gives you free (non-alcoholic) drinks for the entire 7+ hour trip, and gives you easy access to a dining car located right underneath you. The last thing they mention on their list of amenities, almost as if it’s an afterthought, is an outdoor viewing deck located at the back of the car.
Let me tell you — that outdoor viewing deck was awesome! Despite the fact that it could get chilly with the wind rushing past as the train chugged towards the national park, we probably spent 75% of our 8-hour ride outside on that deck. The common refrain from all the locals and tour guides was that any given visitor to Alaska has about a 50/50 chance of seeing Mt. McKinley (aka Denali) — and a much smaller chance of seeing the mountain in its entirety, from base to peak. The summer weather there is surprisingly dreary, and though we’d heard that ahead of time and were prepared, I would have been one very unhappy camper if I’d never gotten to actually lay eyes on the tallest mountain in North America.
Fortunately, we lucked out and the day we took the train, it was absolutely gorgeous. There were a lot of clouds still in the sky as we pulled out of Anchorage, but they began to clear by the time we reached Wasilla. (Little did we know that Wasilla would soon become a household town name. Ah, Sarah Palin.) The train chugged on, and I kept sneaking peeks to the north, hoping to see some sign of Denali. For some reason, I didn’t want to appear too eager, but I was dying to see some sign of a snow-capped peak. Finally, I glanced out the window and there it was! A tiny peak visible above a ridge that blocked any real view. That had to be it. The tour guide soon confirmed it and pointed it out to the rest of the people in our car, but I was frustrated by the ridge blocking the rest of it from sight. Still, Jose and I headed back outside to the viewing deck and that’s where we were when finally, the train rounded a bend and we found ourselves looking at the confluence of the Talkeetna, Chulitna, and Susitna Rivers — and at Denali in all its glory.
I just about fell off the train I was so excited (ok, I didn’t almost fall off the train; but I was bouncing up and down like a kid). The train slowed down to allow for plenty of oohing, aahing, and photo-taking. It was so awesome. I couldn’t believe our luck in getting such a beautiful day and such great views of the entire Alaska range, from base to summit!
Shortly afterward, the train stopped in Talkeetna, one of only two stops on the route to the national park. We hopped off the train long enough to stretch our legs. I think I’m still grinning from seeing the mountain, though we couldn’t see it from the town. In fact, we didn’t get many more views since the train route began turning away in order to run around the eastern edge of the range.
The other fun part of the train ride was spotting wildlife. We saw a black bear at one point — he ran along the tracks for a moment before darting into the woods, so I didn’t get a very good look at him. But we did see this eagle chilling out in the middle of the river.
The train pulled into the station at Denali National Park around 4:00 in the afternoon and were met by the shuttle from Denali Cabins, where we stayed for the next three nights. Though the cabins were tiny and a bit far from the main park entrance, they were very comfortable and there was a shuttle that ran every hour. All things considered, the cabins were clean and affordable, and I’d stay there again. After dropping our stuff, we grabbed the shuttle back to the main park entrance, which is known as “Glitter Gulch” due to the small but concentrated area of stores and restaurants. The term led me to imagine lots of neon and tacky stores, but it really wasn’t too bad. We had dinner at the Salmon Bake, which was pricey but delicious.
After dinner, we had a bit of time to kill before the shuttle back to the cabins, so we walked down to a bridge over the Nenana River to check out the view. We had plans to go whitewater rafting on that river two days later, and we saw some rafts go by while we stood there.
The next day we woke up bright and early to catch our bus for the day-long “Denali Adventure Tour.” There are a lot of outfits that offer tours like this. You get on a school bus (I have no idea why it’s a school bus, but there are tons of school buses in and around the park) that carries you all the way down the main park road, which is about 90 miles long. It takes the whole day — we left at 7 a.m. and returned 12 hours later. The day was as opposite from the day before as could be. Where we had had brilliantly clear skies and could see for miles on the train, when we actually took the bus into the park the clouds were thick and low. It rained on and off. Thankfully, the tour was still worthwhile — though I won’t deny that it would have been better if we’d been able to see farther.
The bus driver was part driver, part tour guide, and he was really great. We stopped every hour or so for a bathroom break, and he’d pull a big cooler of hot water out of the back, along with a box of snacks and cookies. We’d all make tea or hot chocolate and stand around chatting for a few minutes before continuing on our way. The first major stop was Polychrome Pass. It was still early in the day and the clouds hadn’t settled in like they would in the afternoon, so we were able to get a decent view of the mountains and the colors that give the area its name.
The weather also didn’t prevent us from seeing some wildlife. The “Big 5” land mammals to see in Alaska are gray wolves, caribou, moose, dall sheep, and grizzly bears — and we saw all but one by the end of the day. We never saw a wolf, but they are notoriously elusive so it would have been a big deal to spot one. We saw sheep, moose, and caribou like these at multiple points, but we had to wait until the end of the day to see a grizzly bear. I didn’t get a photo because he was too far away, but the view through Jose’s binoculars was awesome as the bear ran along the bank of a river — but safely far away from where we were standing!
When we reached the end of the road, we had lunch at the Denali Backcountry Lodge. It was pretty standard fare, and by this point the clouds had really settled in and visibility sucked. The cloud ceiling was probably 500 feet or less. But we ate and had time to wander around the lodge area, including this little bridge, before getting back on the bus for the return trip.
On the return leg, we stopped at a National Park Service visitor center that we had skipped on the way in. They had some caribou antlers on the ground outside that we played around with, and then we found these dall sheep horns inside. They were really heavy!!
The rest of the bus trip could have been really disappointing, since the clouds were down to ground level at times and all we could see was white. But our driver/tour guide was really awesome, and kept up a litany of stories and facts about the national park and its history, as well as a history of the many attempts at summitting Mt. McKinley.
My favorite was the story of the Sourdoughs, a group of 4 local Alaskans who decided to try to become the first to make it to the top of the mountain after a few failed attempts by others. In 1910, with no mountaineering experience, they spent 3 months on the mountain. On summit day, they set out for the top with a bag of donuts, a thermos of hot cocoa, and a 14-foot spruce pole. They made it to the North Summit, which is slightly lower than the true summit, and planted the pole there as a mark of their success. No one believed them. Four random guys with no climbing experience? But in 1913 when the first team of climbers made it to the true summit, they checked out the North Summit with binoculars and guess what they saw? The pole that the Sourdoughs had left!
By the time we got back to the cabins, we were ready to be off the bus, but I had no regrets about taking the tour, even though the weather was so bad.
With the tour done, the next day was reserved for whitewater rafting on the Nenana River. Jose had never been whitewater rafting before, but I’ve been a few times — once in Colorado, once in Peru, and a couple times in North Carolina. However, I had certainly never been in water that cold. Adding to that was the fact that Alaska had a very wet summer, even by their standards, and the river was flowing high and fast. We spent an hour getting ready to go, which included putting on a drysuit. I’d never worn one, but it turns out they go over all your clothes. Good thing too — it was cold outside even before you factor in the temperature of the water. Underneath that dry suit I’m wearing a long sleeve tech shirt, light fleece, heavier fleece, tights, pants, and two pairs of socks! And all that turned out to be just the right amount.
We went down to the bank of the river to get in the raft. Some people in our group had chosen to go oar rafting — where they just sat there and the guide rowed through the rapids with two big oars. Jose and I didn’t want any of that sissy stuff, so of course we went with the paddle rafting. We had 8 people in the raft — two of us, a Russian couple from Germany (confusing, eh?), and four guides. Yes, four guides. The river was running so high and so fast that we needed a full raft of 8 people in order to make it down, and the river is apparently such a blast when it’s high and fast that the other guides like to come along just for fun. The lead guide asked me if Jose and I wanted to go in front. I was ok, but Jose hesitated, unsure of what it would be like since he’d never been rafting before. We hemmed and hawed for a moment before finally decided to go up front.
As we went through the first very small rapid, the shock of the cold water hitting our faces was intense. For a moment, we regretted our decision to sit up front and thought about switching, but before we could decide, the next rapid was upon us. We were up front and there to stay, but we really got into it. It was so awesome. We ended up buying a photo of our raft going through one of the bigger rapids and it is hilarious — Jose is gritting his teeth and looking angry as he powers through the rapids, while I have a huge stupid grin on my face. Every time I got socked in the face by a wave of icy cold water, I just started giggling. I couldn’t help it.
The river was running so fast that we covered the 8 miles downriver in a short hour — and it usually takes anywhere from 1.5-2 according to the guides. So it was definitely a fun and adventurous trip. The drysuits worked amazingly well. There must have been a hole in one of the feet of my suit, because when we got out I realized my foot was soaked and numb. But fortunately I had two dry socks on the other foot! We celebrated our daring river run with another dinner at the Salmon Bake. It was just that yummy.
The next day we were set to catch the train back to Anchorage, but it didn’t leave until the early afternoon. We took advantage of our final morning to explore some of the main visitor’s center at the park entrance, which is right next to the train station. On a whim, we went to see the sled dog demo, which turned out to be really cool. Denali is the only national park with a sled dog team (not really surprising there, I suppose) and summer is their “off-season.” We got to see the kennels, pet some of the dogs, and see them get hooked up to a sled and pull a ranger around a track. They were really fast. Very impressive. I wanted to take one home with me.
The park has volunteers that come over every day in the summer to walk and run the dogs to keep them in shape. They’re bred specifically to be a good sled dog — they look for features like small paws (which are better for running in the snow, contrary to what I would have guessed), big fluffy tails (to cover their noses from the cold when they sleep), and furry ears (to keep warm). I asked the ranger how cold it can get before the dogs have to stop, and he said that the human will succumb to the cold long before the dog does. In fact, their ideal running temperature is about -20 degrees. Minus 20! “Yep,” said the ranger, “if you’re out here on a -20 degree day, you’ll see these guys just itching to run like crazy.”
Finally it was time to catch the train and head back to Anchorage. We’d gotten tickets for the regular economy class, but after experiencing first class on the way up, we were spoiled. We upgraded to Goldstar again, just for the outdoor viewing deck! And again, it was totally worth it. The weather wasn’t quite as great as the train ride up a few days earlier, but the views were still beautiful.
Here’s the full set of photos from our days in Denali: