Denali National Park & the Glass-Top Train

Bus ride north

Our cruise ended in Seward, Alaska. It’s a small city, mostly a busy port, located a couple of hours south of Anchorage on the Kenai Peninsula. This area’s proximity to Anchorage combined with its many natural attractions makes it a very popular destination for those who want to hike, fish and camp in a beautiful wilderness. Along the west side of Kenai toward Anchorage the road runs beside the shores of “Turnagain Arm.” Called one of the most scenic roads in America, the route follows the shoreline around a narrow bay cutting deeply into the peninsula. Outlined by mountains, it is among the most beautiful places in Alaska (and in America).

Tundra Tour Moose

From Anchorage the highway travels north toward Denali National Park and on into northern Alaska. Along the way we saw such interesting sights as moose grazing beside the highway and the tall fence around Sarah Palin’s former home in Wasilla. The two-lane highway winds through mountains covered in spruce trees. We stopped briefly at Talkeetna, a native town south of the national and state parks at Denali. Some of the cruise lines offer overnight stays and excursions at Talkeetna but our destination was the cruise line’s resort near the entrance to the park. We stayed there for three nights. The accommodations were very comfortable. There’s a small business district at the town called Denali, mostly featuring expensive restaurants. One memory I will keep forever is of dining on planked salmon at 11:00 in the evening with the sun shining in my eyes through the blinds on the restaurant’s window. We were there in early June and the days were very long indeed!

Tundra buses passing

Two buses passing on the Tundra Trail with Mt. Denali (McKinley) hiding behind clouds in the rear.

tundra bear 1

We saw wild grizzly bears several times — from the safety of the bus!

Our cruise package included a “Tundra Wilderness Tour” into Denali National Park and Preserve. We were told that the only wheeled vehicles allowed deep inside the park were the school bus type chosen for official park-run tours. (Private vehicles can only go about 15 miles into the park.) A narrow dirt road has been dug into the sides of mountains. It loops around and up and down over an essentially empty landscape. Our tundra tour lasted nine hours. We were slowly driven deeply into the park toward the great mountain we know as Mt. McKinley, the highest in North America. Our naturalist-driver was a very pleasant woman who clearly enjoyed her job and her life in Alaska. (She also bred and trained sled dogs and in winter she raced them.) Here’s a tip for anyone planning to take this tour: bring your own lunch unless you really want to survive for nine hours on reindeer jerky and one small bottle of water!

Tundra rams

Wild mountain goats grazing alongside the road.

The dictionary definition of “tundra” is a vast, treeless area in the far northern regions of our planet. That describes the Denali tundra perfectly. We were too early to see the flowers, but we were told the mid-summer color in places is quite beautiful. We did see many strange trees: short trees with no leaves or needles in the first ten feet of their height. We saw grizzly bears. They are a pale color in Alaska, presumably a natural adaption to the color of the tundra. We saw moose and mountain goats and reindeer.

Wayne in Denali.

My friend Wayne posing for the cameras.

During our time at the resort some members of our group enjoyed white water rafting. Others hiked and some shopped and some took photographs. The visitor center included a small museum which we found to be educational and interesting. Food is expensive, as you would expect in an area with a short growing season located so many miles from the food-producing areas of the U.S. It was quite good — especially the native salmon.

Train - Tom & Ruth ann

A view of the train and the view.

train view

The train was quite long; it pulled cars from several cruise lines.

For me the best part of the Alaska cruise and tour was the eight-hour journey back to Anchorage via glass-top train. The train was very comfortable and the dining car served fine meals but the highlight was the spectacular scenery all around us. We were able to stand between cars as the train slowly followed its curving tracks around mountains and over the cleanest of rushing streams. These pictures are truly “worth a thousand words” in describing the scenes we passed.

so beautiful

A favorite photo taken from the train.

Upon our return to Anchorage we spent the last evening of our cruise/tour in a hotel in the center of the city. Imagine our surprise when one of our group discovered that by standing on the sidewalk outside and looking to the north along a city street, we would find our only view of the mountain called Denali.

Mt McKinlay seen from Anchorage

Mt McKinlay seen from Anchorage, 200 miles south of the great mountain.

Now it’s your turn! Please use the Comments section below to share your best memories of your own Alaska vacation. What did you like best? What surprised you most?

Here’s a link to an excellent article about Kenai peninsula.

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