Associate editor Margaret Myre and a group of other travel writers
extended a cruise itinerary with a Royal Celebrity Tours rail and
coach tour of the heartland.
FAIRBANKS -- We rumbled into the Alaskan interior on a
glass-domed, double-decker train car. Among our group was a veteran
Alaska writer who warned us not to expect much from a region where
the success of a trip is measured by whether Mount McKinley comes
out from behind the clouds.
McKinley, at 20,320 feet the tallest mountain in North America,
isn't called the shy one for nothing, he said. A maker of its own
clouds and weather, its peak rarely emerges. So consider our
surprise when we pulled into the village of Talkeetna, and there it
was, the full monty, its snowcapped dome shining back at a shining
"I've been here a dozen times, been soaked to the skin and froze
my tail off and never saw McKinley," grumbled our Alaska expert.
"You people have been here once and now you think, 'Oh, well, this
is Alaska.' "The Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, where we would spend the
night, was replete with windows, offering excellent views.
A massive window in the great room of the main lodge looked out
over the lawn, the forest and the looming mountain that reigns in
lofty isolation over the Alaska Range, which divides the
south-central part of the state from the interior plateau.
As evening fell, we watched the shadows define McKinley's
crevasses and striations -- the fingerprints left behind by
glaciers as they dragged themselves down its face over the course
of millions of years. With the dawn, a pink blush panned its
surface. McKinley was, as they say in Alaska, "out" again.
The weather was atypical for late summer. The blue skies hung
out puffy white clouds, and the temperatures hovered around 65
degrees. It would remain that way for the rest of the four-night
trip that would take us into Denali National Park and on to
Fairbanks at the end of the rail line.
In Talkeetna that first morning, we chose the McKinley Jetboat
Safari, a two-hour catamaran ride and nature walk, as our optional
excursion. On the river, dwarfed by forested, whaleback ridges, we
lost sight of what the Athabascan natives call "the high one."
But then, round a bend, there it was again, that ubiquitous snow
cone that only 25% of visitors get to see each year: McKinley,
holding up the sky. The train gave no refuge from the wandering
Olympus, and by now, our expert was taking a lot of ribbing from
the rest of us.
The single-track Alaska Railroad followed the Susitna River out of
Talkeetna, with McKinley a dazzling backdrop all the way to Denali
and beyond. At Indian Canyon, the tracks began to climb, reaching
an elevation of 2,364 feet at Summit Lake, the river's highest
Now, 46 miles away, we had a southeasterly view of McKinley, top
to bottom. The ground here was mostly permafrost. Gone were the
spruces, birches, aspen and cottonwood. In their place were miles
of green and gold groundcover dotted with berries, the food of
bears. At Cantwell, the tracks headed down toward the town of
Denali, following the Nanana River, where we saw a group of
kayakers, the first human beings we'd seen from the train since
By late afternoon, we spotted the green roof of the Grande
Denali Lodge, our home for the night. Tomorrow we would head into
the park. We changed to a local tour bus for the trip, a vehicle
more suited to the passes that wind along narrow mountain
Our driver told us this was the first day he had seen McKinley
in nearly two months. About 300,000 people visit the park each
year, two-thirds by tour bus. The rest use the park's green shuttle
buses. No cars are allowed. At the entrance, the Park Hotel, built
in the 1970s, had closed for its final season.
It will be torn down this winter and replaced by a new visitors
and educational center. Our tour of the park was what Alaskans call
a grand slam, meaning we got to meet the big five: caribou, moose,
grizzly bears, Dall sheep and Mount McKinley in one day.
There was one last thing on everyone's wish list: to see the
northern lights. "Too warm," our expert said. We saw them in
Fairbanks one night from the back of Pike's Waterfront Lodge -- not
the variegated colors of the winter aurora borealis, but gray,
ethereal fingers splayed in a great high five across the sky.