Alaska Cruise - Part 9
The Train to Denali
by Tom Mugridge
We arrived at the railroad station with plenty of time to spare, which gave me time to explore. On display outside was one of the original Alaska Railroad locomotives. It was dwarfed in comparison to the one on the other side of the building that would take us to Denali today.
After a look around, we sat patiently on the wooden benches inside, awaiting our call to board. There was a gift shop and espresso bar inside the station, and on the walls were pictures from the railroad's past, which helped pass the time.
Clang clang, chug chug, our train took off promptly at the appointed time, and we were on our way. It would be about 7 hours before we reached the station near Denali, so we settled in for the long scenic ride. Our Alaska Railroad "Ride Guide" came in handy again, describing points of interest along our route.
7 hours may seem like a long time, but it went quickly. The seats were incredibly comfortable, there was plenty of room in the aisle to walk up and down, and since it was early in the season we had been given a seating all to ourselves, as had most other couples. This allowed us to bounce from one side to the other to get the best views.
For a while we paralleled the Alaska Highway. Our tour guide explained that the number of cars (2-3 at the time) we saw on the road was typical for their "rush hour".
We passed through several towns including Wasilla, founded in 1917 and named after an Athabascan Indian chief. Wasilla is the "official" starting point for the Iditarod. They hold a ceremonial start in Anchorage (complete with trucked-in snow if Nature doesn't cooperate), then bring the dogs and sleds to Wasilla to begin the official run.
Much of the countryside was free from snow as we were still in the lower elevations. The rivers had mostly thawed, but huge cakes of ice remained along the banks. Many had floated from upriver and were taking a breather before melting some more and floating on.
Being hungry aboard the train is not allowed. Full breakfast, lunch and dinner are available, and the fare is fabulous. Having already had a bite for breakfast, we were satisfied with some coffee and tea (and a couple of candy bars I discovered in my camera bag) to tide us over until lunchtime.
And what a lunch! We were seated in the dining parlor (which is directly below the passenger compartment), with a white tablecloth, full tableware, the works, just like at a 5-star restaurant. The menu offered Alaskan specialties, and neither of us could resist.
Pat had the salmon, I had the reindeer chili in a bread bowl. And if that weren't enough, the desserts were just as good. Being too full to have my own, I enjoyed a couple spoonsful of Pat's Fruits of the Forest cobbler. Appetites satisfied, we returned to our table upstairs to absorb more of the Alaska scenery.
We anxiously awaited our first good look at Mt. McKinley from the train. It would be on this leg of our trip that we would get the closest to it - 46 miles. Our guide announced that, just ahead, would be our first chance for a great view of The High One.
Although it was a bit hazy, it was quite clear enough to see McKinley, shrouded in snow and in all its glory. The south peak (which is higher than the north peak) stood out clearly against the blue skies.
It didn't seem as long as 7 hours, but we pulled into the station near Denali National Park around 3:30 p.m. Bags in tow, we caught the shuttle bus to our lodge. On the way, the bus stopped at the tracks to wait for, what else, the train that had just dropped us off, continuing its journey to Fairbanks.
We arrived at our lodging for the next two nights and decided to scout the neighborhood. After snooping in some souvenir shops and perusing the grounds at the lodge, we ended up with a pizza for dinner. Having had reindeer and other local cuisine on the train, pizza just sounded good.
Train travel can be tiring, so we decided to turn in early. We had to be up bright and early the next morning to head out on a guided wildlife tour in Denali National Park, and a Cabin Nite Extravaganza dinner show in the evening.
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