What started as a tiny speck on the horizon now looms large in front of us. Because the United States’ highest peak is nearly always covered by clouds, it’s rare to get an unencumbered view of Denali. In fact, it’s estimated that only 30% of travelers see the mountain during their visit. But on this beautiful September day, I’m staring at the entirety of its 20,000-foot glory from its namesake train, the Denali Star.
Running the 356 miles from Anchorage to Fairbanks, the Denali Star is the flagship train of the Alaska Railroad, which celebrates an important milestone this year: the 100th anniversary of President Warren Harding driving in the golden spike signifying the route’s completion. On that same trip, Harding visited Denali National Park (then called Mt. McKinley), becoming the only sitting president to do so, even if the occasion only lasted about 20 minutes. (I guess Harding wasn’t much of a hiker.)
A century later, people claim the 12-hour journey is still the best way to experience Alaska’s wild beauty. Naturally, I needed to see for myself.
I show up at the Alaska Railroad train depot in Anchorage around 7:30 a.m., and the building is already packed with other passengers. I drop my bags off with the porter and head inside to grab my ticket. The standard passenger car is pretty swanky, but I’m booked in the special GoldStar car, where I’ll watch the scenery unfurl in front me behind a massive glass-domed ceiling and on an open-air viewing platform in between enjoying complimentary meals and two free alcoholic drinks. Perhaps because I look as if I should be riding in one of the boxcars with my bindle tied to a stick next to me, staff give me a special pin to ID me as a GoldStar passenger.
The crowd in the GoldStar car trends a little older, but there are also quite a few younger people as well. A few of the older passengers onboard make it a point to call the mountain “Mt. McKinley” and caterwaul about the decision to change the official name, which occurred in 1980. Talk about holding a grudge.
Breakfast is scrambled eggs, potatoes and reindeer sausage, which is surprisingly pretty good. I’m glad no kids are in the dining area in case one is accidentally served a shiny red nose on the plate. The staff is top-notch — don’t forget to tip them.
The train passes by the gorgeous Chugach Mountains, over Hurricane Gulch atop a 296-foot-high bridge, and into the wild backcountry, surrounded by the Alaska Range. A conductor narrates the most important bits of history and scenery over the intercom, including the remnants of the Curry Hotel, which burned down in the 1950s after years of disuse. Chugging along past the spruce and birch forests, we glimpse several homesteader cabins. I’m surprised no one has put up a plywood Sasquatch in the woods as a prank to fool the train passengers.
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Although seeing moose, grizzlies and other wildlife is supposedly common, we only catch a fleeting glimpse of a black bear walking across a log. I don’t see momma, but the forest is so thick, she could be 20 feet away from her baby and we’d never know.
But Denali is definitely the star of this show. By this time, I’ve already spent a couple of weeks in Alaska, and nearly every day has been dreary and overcast. On this day, though, Mother Nature is smiling on us; it’s sunny, blue and absolutely stunning. Every time the mountain comes into view, people rush to the left side of the train to take photos. Once or twice I think the train might derail because of the sudden shift in weight.
After about eight hours, we roll into the Denali National Park station. Unlike that chump Harding, I want to actually explore the park, so I spend two nights at the Denali Bluffs Hotel. Had I told the porter at the Anchorage station I was staying at the hotel, my bags would have been delivered directly to my room, but since I just said Denali, I’m forced to schlep them myself like a pack mule. (I’ve been referred to as a braying jackass before, so I guess it’s appropriate.) My room is huge and well appointed, though I think a family of moose might have snuck into the room above me, with all the loud clomping around.
Various shuttle buses make getting to and around the park incredibly easy. The bus drivers even stop and point out wildlife, including a group of moose plodding their way through a meadow and into a willow thicket. My first morning in the park I spend hiking the Savage River and part of the Savage Alpine trails. Savage River is just okay, to be blunt, but the hike up Savage Alpine offers some great views of the surrounding mountains, including Denali. The trail is steep, however, with an increasing number of switchbacks as you get closer to the top. I planned to go further, but the wind is so strong at the top of the mountain, I fear I’d be blown off the ridgeline, so I retreat downward.
Denali is known for its herds of wild Dall sheep, but I don’t see any during my visit. I’m told that some sheep were spotted on the Savage Alpine Trail earlier that morning, but they’re long gone before I arrive. If I had it to do over again, I’d definitely book the early morning wildlife-viewing tour that was offered. (Do not do the ATV tour if you’re wanting to photograph wildlife, no matter what they tell you.)
There are a few bars outside the park, but nightlife is pretty much nonexistent. Luckily I was there to hike, not party.
The next day, having the morning free before the afternoon departure, I decide to hike from the visitor center to the Horseshoe Lake Trail. It’s a fun hike, not technical in the slightest. I’m amazed with all of the massive alpine scenery, but one of the most beautiful sights I see is this relatively tiny emerald lake. I take photo after photo on my phone. The first hints of autumn are starting to appear, as the birch and willow turn golden and fireweed bright red.
The train to Fairbanks is about an hour late, but we are quickly onboard. The scenery along this stretch of the railroad is pretty, but not as spectacular as the previous leg. The four-hour trip flies by. I get a bit nervous when the Airtag in my luggage pings back at the national park. The further away we get, the more my anxiety rises. I ask a passing conductor what would happen if my bags got an extended stay in Denali. He eases my mind by saying that a truck with my luggage would be dispatched from the park to my hotel that evening. To further quell my nervousness, he personally checks to make sure my bags made it on board. They did. I sip a complimentary Kentucky Mule in relief.
When we arrive in Fairbanks, I’m reunited with my bags and I take a shuttle to my hotel for the night. Just an hour before, I was traversing through gorgeous pine forests and over rushing rivers; now we pass a seemingly endless stream of gas stations, weed shops and used-car lots.
I preferred the view out the windows of the Denali Star.
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