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Alaska by Rail

Engine 4325 arrives at Denali National Park
Engine 4325 arrives at Denali National Park

Many people choose to visit Alaska via cruise ships and explore this beautiful state with shore excursions, but the Wanderer and her favorite travel companion chose a different route. After watching a video on the great lodges of the national parks, they chose Denali National Park as a destination and set about planning a trip via the Alaska Railroad. Construction on the railroad began in 1903, carving a route through the wilderness that was completed in 1923 and connected Seward, Anchorage, and Fairbanks. During World War II, the railroad was expanded to allow access to Whittier, a military port. Passenger service was enhanced during the coming decades, including construction of a new depot at Denali National Park in 1988. Today, the railroad transports nearly half a million passengers each year and continues to deliver freight throughout the state.

Our first railroad journey was a day trip. At the terminal in Anchorage, we boarded a train to Whittier and spent the day on a catamaran cruising Prince William Sound on the Philips 26-Glacier Cruise. The day was sunny with a sky that was as bright and blue as the water and the tour was narrated by a National Park Service ranger. We saw multiple glaciers but weren't lucky enough to see any calving. Wildlife sightings included sea otters who swam alongside the ship, sea lions sunning themselves on the rocks, and seals lounging on the ice. The return trip at sunset offered one last chance to photograph the gorgeous scenery through the train window.

Our next train ticket took us from Anchorage to Denali National Park aboard the Denali Star. We left Anchorage early in the morning amid the fog that blanketed the Chugach Mountains to our east. We splurged a bit on the railroad's Gold Star service, so our car had a domed glass ceiling and outdoor viewing platforms, which were great for photography. The train wound through Wasilla and Talkeetna, past rivers, wildlife, and mountain scenery, all narrated by an Alaskan tour guide. After a 6-hour ride that included drinks and dining, we arrived at the terminal just outside the park entrance.

We boarded buses and headed for Camp Denali, a wilderness lodge near the end of the 92-mile road that is the only road into this 6 million acre park. Along the way we stopped frequently to take pictures and also enjoyed a picnic lunch. Our accommodations at camp consisted of a one-room cabin with no running water or electricity - a woodstove was available for heat, lights and a hot plate were powered by propane, and water could be pumped from a spigot just outside the door. And yes, just down the hill, we had our own private outhouse with an unbelievable view. Meals were served at a central dining lodge where, at breakfast, we packed a lunch to carry on our excursions for the day.

Denali National Park is home to Mount Denali (formerly Mount McKinley) which, at 20,310 feet, is the tallest mountain in North America. Founded in 1917, Denali was the world's first national park established for the preservation of wildlife. Today, it spans 6 million acres, most of which is only accessible on foot. Hiking and observing wildlife were the two primary activities at Camp Denali. We hiked into the wilderness, which was bright with autumn colors and landscapes, and photographed Mount Denali, standing in roughly the same spot as Ansel Adams when he took his famous photo. The best wildlife viewing actually turned out to be a bus trip back up the park road. Our driver excelled at spotting wildlife and stopped frequently to allow us to observe and photograph birds and animals. When a moose crossed the road just behind our bus, the Wanderer nearly fell out the window to get the shot!

On our fourth day at Camp Denali, it was time to head home. We boarded the bus for the return trip to the railroad terminal and arrived in time to take a short walk down to the river and watch a train travel over the trestle bridge. Then we boarded the Denali Star, bound for Fairbanks. Once again, the scenery was spectacular and we were able to see more wildlife, including a cow and calf moose who wished us a fond farewell.

If you're planning a visit, consider booking the trip yourself. The Parkside Guest house in Anchorage is centrally located for exploring Anchorage on foot and a short cab ride from the train station and airport ( ). The Alaska Railroad offers several train routes; reservations can be booked online at . Under their Travel Planning tab you'll find information on packages, day trips, and excursions. Camp Denali is family owned and open from early June into September. Reservations can be booked online at .

For more information, the four-part PBS series Great Lodges of the National Parks is available in DVD form on Amazon and National Parks: America's Best Idea by Ken Burns can be streamed on PBS.

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