Two of our favorite subjects of television travelogues are the Alaska Railroad and Denali National Park and this first part of our vacation combined both.
The navy blue and gold train was already familiar to us from years of watching travel shows, but it was still a treat to see it 'in person'. Here's JJ and Joe with the Denali Star in front of the Anchorage depot and all in front of the city skyline.
The Anchorage depot lobby was warm and open and colorful. It looked like part of a museum, not a working train depot.
The Alaska Railroad locomotive, first and coach cass cars have a tasteful, stately appearance but they are followed by wildly painted excursion cars owned by the cruise lines.
Our seats were in coach, very spacious with a flip-over footrest. When we put down our jackets and bags in the roomy overhead racks and started looking around, we felt like we were back in time.
We spent a lot of time in the observation car looking out at the ever changing scenery between Anchorage and Denali. JJ played
cards and did magic tricks with some kids he met and they all shared candy and snacks from their stash.
It was amazing to see people living in such rural conditions in the summer�.impossible to imagine what the winters must be like. Taiga forest trees survive in below freezing conditions. We saw mainly black spruce and balsam poplar but white spruce, quaking aspen and paper birch also grow in Taiga forests.
We saw rivers filled with salmon with people happily camping along
the banks. There were forests, snow capped mountain peaks, vistas and breathtaking meadows and all the while the click, clack, click, clack of the train moving along the rails was simply mesmerizing. The unsettling part of the trip was when the train came to a complete stop on a 296' high trestle over "Hurricane Gulch"
The Alaska Railroad has wonderful meal service in their well appointed dining cars.
Passengers are invited car by car to lunch and ours was unbelievable! It was so nice to be enjoying a fabulous meal while gazing out the window at the beautiful sights Alaska has to offer.
We did not spot Mount McKinley until the return trip. The tallest mountain in North America raises 20,320 feet and is often covered by clouds. Don't worry - if the mountain is out word will spread quickly throughout the train. Keep your camera handy at all times and make sure you have plenty of film and a fresh battery before you board!
The train stops at Talkeetna (the gateway to McKinley) where many people begin their climbing or flightseeing experience. President Harding slept here the month before he died.
A brief stop is made in Wasilla just outside Anchorage. The Iditarod dog sled race actually starts here after a ceremonial start in Anchorage! And...the newly announced Republican Vice Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin got her political start as Mayor of Wasilla before becoming Governor of Alaska in 2006. Nice job Sarah!!! Good Luck!!!
Gabi had made reservations with a local
rafting outfit for the deluxe half-day river rafting trip. This is pretty much a full day made up of 2 hours drifting on the glacier-fed Nenana River and 2 hours of paddling the rapids. People can take either or both legs, like we did. There are 8 riders and the guide from all over the place. We had Swiss, Lithuanians, Texans...
and the guide was a Colorado architect from Maine who spent his summers in Alaska. The ride was calm enough to get to know everyone with enough rapids, holes, eddys and obstructions to keep things exciting. At the end, the guide invited anyone who wanted to fall into the 33 degree, icy gray water in our dry suits. JJ did it 3 times and Joe did not. Gabi got all the details on what to wear and bring before we left home, so we weren't surprised... just shocked! This was a true highlight of the trip! A note for senior citizens: Alaska's tourists include a large percentage of older folks, many of whom can better afford the travel costs and have more time to spend getting around this huge state. Our guide pointed this out and recalled several eighty/ninety-year olds he had paddling down the Nenana.
Visiting Denali National Park was very important to Joe and so we decided to really do it up right. We took the all day, 14 hour marathon Kantishna Wilderness Trails tour. The 190 mile trip is made in an old school bus and is the only one that goes all the way to the end of the road - Kantishna.
We saw caribou, moose, goats, sheep, bear (13), fox, golden eagles, falcon and geese and almost all of them
from a distance and most of them through the window of the bus.
You must take binoculars to see and a telephoto lens to get closeup shots of animals. Remember the park is the size of Massachusetts and while it is full of animals - not all of them walk along the road. Some have territories and others migrate with the forage.
You also need compact (and rugged) equipment when you're bouncing around in a school bus all day. More and more you can get surprisingly good results in very small packages. We really appreciated the little Pentax reverse-porroprism binoculars which quickly 'acquired' our distant targets. Our new Sony Cybershot pocket camera was wonderful and Joe didn't even use many of the features. Joe is not an accomplished photographer and he still got some great shots.
These are typical photos from the road. We thought our new camera would bring everything right up to us but that would take some serious telephoto equipment. We were happy to slip the camera into a shirt pocket and use these pictures to remind us of what we saw while we were there.
The family who owns the road house has a hot lunch waiting and after lunch you can choose to meet the sled dogs or pan for gold in the stream. It was really tough but we choose to meet the dogs and were glad we did.
We were treated to a lecture by Emitt Peterson Jr. whose father won the Iditarod. And then�off to the kennels�.to meet the team of mongrel dogs, he got from the pound, and watch them work. The Official IDITAROD website, by the way, is excellent!
It gives you maps, trail descriptions and conditions, dog and musher info and all in easily digestable interactive windows. The lead dogs are normally female, which surprised us.
Emmitt also mentioned that mushers pay less attention to lead dogs as it distracts them from their lead roles.
We all petted this one though she didn't seem to notice.
Note: since we got home to Orange County, we noticed these hardy mushers at our local Laguna Niguel Lake Park. Pure Siberian Huskies like these have been mixed with other breeds in the big Alaskan race teams today.
This old boxcar, or 'bungalow', was right at home here. We didn't get the details on it's history or how it got here but we're sure the story ain't dull.
We found JJ hypnotized by the little stream (Moose Creek) that flows through Kantishna.
Moose Creek will never match the surf back home, but JJ stays in practice anyway.
This is supposed to be a meat cache to keep food out of reach of bears, wolves, etc.
There is a very long story the driver/guide will tell you about some old pilot sitting in the bar at the Kantishna Road House that has to do with the extremes people will go to avoid the bus trip back to Glitter Gulch. Something about how he only flies on Tuesdays and, oh no, this is Wednesday!!! ...but you will just have to go and hear it for yourself!
Joe waits and waits and waits for the huskies to cross...
This great old mining claim recorder's office goes back to 1905 when they mined gold instead of scenary.
This is the famous 'Wonder Lake' you always see in postcards of Mount McKinley (Denali). The mountain was lost in clouds, which is common, but the lake was beautiful.
Denali was all we expected it to be and more�.but we were exhausted and happy to return to our room and, after a good night's sleep, we waited in the lobby at the Denali Bluffs to start the next part of our adventure... the Kenai Peninsula!
One thing we didn't notice on the way up to Denali was the cottonwood trees in bloom. We passed mile after mile of these huge cotton seed balls. If even 1% sprouted, you couldn't see Alaska for the trees.
Sightseeing in and around Denali National Park
You must have reservations before you leave home if you want to take the bus tour of Denali. All touring is done by bus. The park is set up for animals - not people and certainly not motor homes or cars (without pre arranged reservations). We chose the all day, extreme tour to the end of the road and it sells out early. There are other things to do in the area which include:
Flightseeing to get a close look at Mount McKinley (Denali), when weather permits, via small planes and helicopters is number one! Call Denali Air 907-683-2261 or Era Helicopters 800-843-1947. You can hear the planes and helicopters overhead if the mountain is "out" and conditions are good for flying.
Denali Visitors Center is a great place to get a feel for the park and is not included on most tours. You can take the shuttle over and enjoy the exhibits and fabulous movie, Heartbeats of Denali on your own.
Cabin Nite Dinner Theater is located at the McKinley Chalet Resort and you can enjoy a fun filled evening while eating family style. Call 800-276-7234 for reservations.
Camping in Denali - There are only six campgrounds located in the park. Reservations are required and are sold out early for four of them. Make reservations online at www.reservedenali.com beginning 12/1 or by phone at 800-622-7275 starting in mid February. Riley Creek (near entrance) and Savage River (13 miles into the park) are accessible by car, Teklanika River and Wonder Lake (well into the park and accessed by bus). Igloo and Sanctuary campgrounds do not take reservations and are there to serve backpackers and hikers. You will also need to reserve transportation into the park in advance if you are planning to camp and pay careful attention to the fine print. Services are not available in the park so you will need to carry everything you need.
Day hikes in Denali are available via bus in Denali for those who prefer to stay inside but get an "up close" park experience. Rangers guide groups of about fifteen hikers and children (not too small) are welcome. Plan on all day and you need the right gear for the ever changing weather. Reserve early as these hikes, like everything else, fill up early.
Overnight hikes are also available for the adventurous but you need a permit issued at the Backcountry Information Center. Be sure to purchase the Denali National Park and Preserve topographical map available by clicking on www.alaskanha.org and check carefully into which you will need to keep you safe and comfortable.
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