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Denali National Park

Alaska, Anchorage, Denali National Park, Glacier Brewhouse, McKinley Explorer

Day 3: Denali –> Anchorage: All Aboard The McKinley Explorer

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Snow falling on the Nenana River outside McKinley Chalet.


                     The McKinley Explorer.

We wake to the sound of heavy rain. The weather has changed drastically overnight and the temperature is hovering around 34. By the time we sit down to breakfast, snow is falling and accumulating on the yellow birch trees outside. They say there are four seasons in Alaska: June, July, August and Winter, and well, it looks like Winter is here.

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Snowy conditions leaving Denali.

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               Hurricane Gulch.

We transfer from the McKinley Lodge to the train depot just outside of town. Here, we board the McKinley explorer, and settle in for the 8-hour train ride to Anchorage. By this point in time, everything is dusted in white. It makes for a picturesque departure from Denali. We hug the Nenana River for most of the morning, and by late morning, the snow has turned back to rain. We cross Hurricane Gulch on a trestle bridge 300 feet up, watching the riverbed snake through the mountainsides.  

We head down to the Explorer’s Dining Car and enjoy a lunch of wild salmon and quinoa salad, and we spend the afternoon passing through remote off-the-grid little villages and well-known towns alike. Two more notable places are Wasilla (Sarah Palin’s hometown) and Willow (where they tried to relocate the capital to in 1976).

We arrive in Anchorage and transfer to the Westmark, centrally located to Glacier Brewhouse, which has been recommended to me by a college friend who lived in Anchorage for a number of years. The Brewhouse is also recommended by the bus driver and the hotel, so we know it must be good and aim to get there early to beat the crowds. No such luck! It’s Saturday night and this place is seething.


The Explorer’s dining car.


Deep thoughts from Glacier Brewhouse.

We order a couple of beers at the bar while we wait for a table, a delicious Oatmeal Stout and an IPA. We find a few seats between a couple of pilots and an Alaskan couple. Dinner is Land & Sea Oscar, halibut and 28-day aged filet. Great food, beer and service and the place seems to be packed with locals and travelers alike.

As we leave the restaurant, the sun is setting, and the waterfront is only three blocks away. I hightail it down there with no camera and only 5% of power on my phone. By the time I arrive, the Alaskan Mountain Range is glowing pink, Denali sits off to the right, and unfortunately, my phone is completely dead. I find a park bench and sit down and watch as planes take off and head west to Asia and the sun dips below the mountain range. I sit with a man from Anchorage who flies seaplanes and he shares stories of flying north in the summer to lands where the sun doesn’t set, landing in places where one family might be the entire population of a place. He’s getting ready to head to Hawaii for the Winter.

I head back to the hotel and sit chatting with a lady who has made Anchorage her home for 44 years. She talks about winter – festivals, winter sports, conventions, the weather – says it’s not that bad. By the end of the conversation, I’m even saying “yeah, it sounds kind of fun.” Then I remember that comment about 40 below, and think I’ll stick to three of Alaska’s four seasons: June, July and August.


Alaska, Denali National Park, Fairbanks, Mount Denali

Day 2: Fairbanks –> Denali

My last Alaska picture for now... The rest of them will be up on the blog with stories over the next couple of days. But this was a very lucky shot. Apparently, only 30% of the people who visit Denali actually get to see the mountain. We were fortunate enough to get a glimpse of it on our morning drive out of Fairbanks and again en route to the National Park. Blink and you will miss it, because despite being the tallest mountain in North America, it's usually shrouded in clouds and totally blended in, which you can see happening on the left side of the mountain in this picture. #denalinationalpark #mountdenali #alaska #thelastfrontier #majestic

Mount Denali.

Today begins the land portion of our Land & Sea tour. We’re instructed that our bags need to be in the hallway at 6:30 and we’re scheduled for a 9:30 bus transfer to Denali. Plenty of time for breakfast and coffee. We’re picked up outside the Westmark by Tom, who tells us that he’s over 60 and he had coffee this morning, so yes, there will be a restroom break along the way. Tom tells us some history on Fairbanks, not named for the lovely riverbeds in and around the city, but after a ‘political shyster’ who wanted the city named after his friend.

Fairbanks sprawls, but yet still has a small town feel. Then again, the population is only 32,000. We pass The University of Alaska and catch our first glimpse of reindeer, which Tom explains are just domesticated caribou. Soon, we’ve cleared the city limits and are making our way South/Southwest to Denali. I am immediately in awe of just how much wide open space there is in Alaska. Bright birch trees, thick dense pine forests, and land seems to continue for miles and miles. Everything feels so majestic and large in scale, and I start to understand why they call Alaska ‘the last frontier.’

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The Nenana River.

We make our first stop in Nenana, population 386. There’s a general store, a bar, a book exchange, an

An old train car on the Nenana river in the small town of Nenana, about 1 1/2 hours from Fairbanks. I definitely had an 'Into The Wild' moment. Turns out Chris McCandless was not far from here when he made an abandoned city bus his Alaskan home. #nenana #alaska #intothewild #thelastfrontier

An old train car on the Nenana river in the small town of Nenana.

Episcopal church, a huskey training area and pen, and a school. Apparently, a town only needs 10 people to warrant a school being built.

We leave Nenana, looking for moose, but we’re afforded with a glimpse of something else instead. Up in the distance, almost blended into the white wispy clouds sit the double peaks of Mount Denali. Now, Tom tells us that only 30% of people visiting Alaska actually get to see the peak, so he pulls over for a photo opp. Back on the road to Denali, we later get that moose sighting. Tom tell us about Alaska’s resources, how the state has enough coal to power itself and all the other 50 states for 500 years, he points out wind turbines on the hill, shows us the town where Into The Wild was filmed, and tells us to take care of the seasonal workers at the hotels and restaurants we go to, who are wrapping up their summer jobs. He drops us at the McKinley Chalet in Denali and despite the previous day’s forecast for rain, the sun is still shining.

About a 2-hour drive from Fairbanks brings us to the entrance to Denali National Park. Here's the view from behind our rustic lodge. It's difficult to capture just how majestic the scenery is. I don't think I've ever seen so much open space. Everything is grand here, covered with dense pines, bright yellow birch trees and and dwarfed by mountains. Mother Nature at her best! #alaska #denalinationalpark #ormckinley #majestic

The view from behind our rustic lodge near Denali National Park.

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Inside Denali National Park.

We get checked in to the rustic, log cabin lodge that’s nestled between the Nenana River and a mountainside and book for an afternoon tour of Denali. We go 17 miles into the park on a Natural History tour with our guide Gary, who is the epitome of a naturalist. Gary provides us with the history of the park, noting people like naturalist Charles Sheldon and brothers’ Adolph and Olaus Murie who were key in establishing the park as a preserve and prevented the construction of hotels and resorts within. However, our guide focuses on Mardy Murie, the wife of Olaus, who was considered the Grandmother of the Conservation Movement. Even after her husband’s death, she continued to work to on the Alaskan Lands Conservation act, which protected millions of acres of wildlife land. Along with numerous awards, including the highest, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, she is also the subject of the John Denver song, A Song for All Lovers.

He explains the landscape and tells us the importance of fires in the regeneration of certain plant and tree growth. He points out Dall Sheep, mountain goats, and moose. On our last stop inside the park, we get a third glimpse of Denali – as clouds swirl around the peak yet again.

On the way back to McKinley Lodge, Gary tells us his personal story of how he ended up in Alaska. He had come for a visit long ago, and when his kids were grown and marriage over, he wanted to come back. He researched jobs as a fish gutter, and was literally willing to do anything to get back. He says there are no coincidences, and somehow he landed on the park jobsite. With a clean driving record, he thought about applying for the tour operator position. He had driven high occupancy vehicles in the military, but for whatever reason, he wasn’t selected for the position. And then, weeks before the season was due to begin, he got a call and was offered the job. From behind the driver’s seat, Gary procures a laminated version of the travel section from the Sunday paper that his city ran the week after he got the job. It says ‘Destination Denali.’ Gary said he took it as a sign. That was 11 years ago.

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Denali National Park, near Savage River.


Denali National Park.

On the way out of the park, we stop and watch a moose feeding on the side of the road. The sun is beginning to set, and everything is still, quiet and harmonious. We have only covered 17 miles of a 53 mile road into the heart of Denali, seeing only a few hundred acres of the six million that make up this national park and preserve.

Gary drops us at the lodge at dinnertime, and we have some Denali Dollars to burn as part of our package, so we opt for dinner at Nenana Bar and Grill. In true spirit, we share the three Alaskan seafood dishes on the menu – wild salmon, rockfish and cioppino (prawns, rockfish, clams and crab). We head back to our lodge, feeling fortunate for three glimpses of the elusive Denali, for the weather that provided us with those glimpses and for the people that shared their love of Alaska with us throughout the day.