by Chris McBeath
Barely one per cent of visitors to Denali National Park make it this far into central Alaska. Most stop at the Eielson Visitor Center, take pictures of Mount McKinley, then turn back. But with a few extra hours, you can become one of the rarefied few and find yourself at an early 1900’s pioneer cabin at the end of the dirt ‘road’. Literally. Next stop? Siberia – 500 miles to the east.
Clamber up Eagle Point nearby, and you start to comprehend the impossibility of getting there, at least by land. The wilderness stretches to infinity in all directions and underscores the notion that Alaska, in all its glory, is almost too big for the imagination.
Whether it’s calving glaciers, grizzlies plunging into salmon-filled waters, moose hidden in marshy thickets, or Dall sheep clinging to the vertical side of a mountain, these iconic images barely touch the magnificence of the place. But at least the Alaska Railroad will let you try.
Other than bush-pilot taxi service, the historic railroad runs through the heart of the state as Alaska’s main transit system. As North America’s last flag-down train service, the Alaska Railroad remains the lifeline to many self-sufficient homesteaders who live within trudging distance of the rails; it’s not uncommon for the train to stop in the middle of nowhere to drop off supplies at the side of the line, particularly in mid winter when homes are virtually snowbound.
From start to finish, the railroad runs through country that is a full-on, sensory experience. The almost 500-mile run from Seward in the south to Fairbanks up north takes about 17 hours, plus an overnight stop in Anchorage to change trains, but even then, the extravagance of views is best savoured when the trip is taken in parts. Only then can you take time to smell the Labrador tea on the wind, feel the crisp air cut through the sunshine, and collapse onto a pillow of brush tundra filled with wild blueberries.
Allow a month for your visit although when time is tight, these four regions will still get the wonder of Alaska into your bones in half that time. Any extra days could include traditional towns like Talkeetna, a trip to the Arctic Circle, or the hinterlands surrounding Denali’s Back Country Lodge — and the authentic, mythical treasures of Fannie Quigley’s cabin.
Anchorage-Whittier: Stay in Anchorage as base-camp and take a day trip to Whittier. The train through one of North America’s longest tunnels, and beside Turnagain Arm where bore tides change water levels by as much as 30 feet. Pass by marshlands created by earthquakes, glacial valleys, and tern-covered mountains. In Whittier, hop aboard the Klondike Express for an up close and personal cruise to the edge of no less than 26-glaciers. Expect to see whales, Dall porpoises and seals floating on chunks of freshly-calved ice.
Seward-Kenai Fjords: Unlike many towns on the Inside Passage cruise ship routes, Seward remains unspoiled by visitor invasions. As gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park, it offers fabulous eco-adventures for the entire family as well as Alaska’s only public aquarium, the very impressive Alaska SeaLife Center. Have your picture taken at the Mile Zero sign of the famous Iditarod Sled Dog Race, and watch for playful sea otters within yards of the shoreline.
Fairbanks: In the last decade, this town has become an urban metropolis complete with quality museum, a geophysical institute that studies the aurora borealis, and the world’s northernmost botanical gardens. Sitting atop a plateau, Fairbanks’ temperatures can swing 165 degrees through the year, from as low as -57F degrees to +108F degrees. So pack accordingly! Fly up to the Arctic Circle and visit an Inuit village – crossing over the Alaska Pipeline makes for an extraordinary sight.
Denali National Park: Located almost at Alaska’s geographic centre, Denali’s geological make-up is diverse and intriguing. Watch for enormous glacial erratics, boulders the sizes of houses, scattered like lost peas across moonscape terrain, expanses of boreal forest (the largest in the world), and Alaska’s crowning jewel, Mt. McKinley. When measured from base to summit, it is the tallest mountain on earth – 6,000 feet higher than Everest which climbs further only because it rises from a more elevated plateau. Stay at the Denali Backcountry Lodge in late August and you’ll witness Fall transform vistas into gold, red and shimmering yellow just as if an unseen artist were painting a canvas before your eyes. It happens that quickly. But as with so many things Alaskan, seeing really is believing.
If You Go:
Denali National Park: www.nps.gov/dena/
Alaska Railroad: www.alaskarailroad.com
Alaska Tourism: www.travelalaska.com