McKinley dazzles riders on rail trek to interior

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 sun.

"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.

Talkeetna affords perfect views of Mount McKinley when weather conditions are right, as they were on this trip. 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.

A grizzly bear forages for berries along the road, unfazed by a busload of tourists peering from windows and snapping pictures. 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 point.

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 Talkeetna.

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 ledges.

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.

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