We arrived mid-afternoon into Fairbanks, which let us have a few hours to explore around before dinner time. Our first stop after leaving the airport was the National Park Service Interagency Visitor Center in Fairbanks. There is a small museum about Alaska there and plenty of brochures and maps to plan out your time. The rangers at the front counter were very friendly and suggested that we take a drive on the road to Chena Hot Springs; apparently in the previous few days there were several reports of moose hanging out very close to the road. All three of us enjoy wildlife sightings, so we hit the road - and as promised, about halfway between Fairbanks and Chena Hot Springs, there were several moose hanging around a pond. We probably spent a good 45 minutes watching them… the whole time they didn’t even really move. It was such a beautiful sight to see!
The first extended stop of the tour was at the Yukon River Camp, a small restaurant, motel, and gas station, located at “Milepost 56”, or about 60 miles south of the Arctic Circle. When we got off the bus, we spent about 30 minutes having lunch and touring the gift shop. Since we had to cover a lot of ground, those of us on the tour had to pre-order our lunch in the morning and our orders were phoned in. Most of the other customers were truckers on the Dalton Highway. The Yukon River Camp had quite a selection of meats and cheeses and sandwiches for everyone – especially given their very remote location. We were told that we would have more time to explore around later on, as we would be stopping off at the Yukon River Camp for dinner on our way back southbound.
After lunch, it was back to going northbound on the Dalton Highway. Our next stop was at a location called Finger Mountain; it is a wayside located at “Milepost 98”, or about 20 miles south of the Arctic Circle. We stopped for about 30 minutes and did a small hike to an observation platform where our guide/bus driver gave us a small talk on permafrost. He used a large spoon to scoop out a patch of grass, and below it – yes, if you stuck your finger down in the hole – there was pure frozen ground that never thawed, even in the summer months. Temperatures up at Finger Mountain were significantly colder than Fairbanks and it even snowed for a brief period of time – even at the end of May it snows up there! We also learned that Finger Mountain was not actually a mountain – it is a wide broad hill, with an altitude of around 1,300 feet. It is named Finger Mountain for a distinctive granite protrusion on its surface. Pilots actually use it as a landmark when flying from the Arctic Ocean to Fairbanks.
And finally, around 2:30pm, we reached the destination that we had been driving 8 hours for – the Arctic Circle! If you are part of the tour, they actually do a fun little ceremony for you – where the bus driver rolls out a red carpet and you cross the Arctic Circle marker while getting your picture taken and receiving a certificate proving you are one of the few people who have been that far north. After that, everyone enjoys some chocolate cake at a picnic bench. So what is the Arctic Circle? Well, it’s the southernmost latitude in the Northern Hemisphere at which the sun can remain continuously above the horizon for 24 hours (at the June solstice). Since we were there in late May, very close to the June solstice, it never really got dark. Yes, this messes with your sleep if you are a light sleeper!! Maybe between Midnight and 2 a.m. you would experience some degree of darkness, but it never got pitch black at any point. Quite an experience!
After spending some time at the Arctic Circle, it was time to turn around and start heading the 200 miles back south to Fairbanks. There were fewer stops on the way back with the tour, with the guide showing several movies on the bus about the history and animals of Alaska, and a video about the Alaska Pipeline. We did spend about one hour back at the Yukon River Camp where we had dinner and got to take a small scenic walk down to the Yukon River. We arrived back into Fairbanks around 10:30pm that evening and headed to our B&B to get some sleep.
Our second full day in Alaska was spent doing a road trip from Fairbanks down to Denali National Park, which is located about two or three hours south of Fairbanks. One does have the option of either taking the train down to Denali, or driving the paved highway. We decided that we wanted to experience the entire trip on the Alaska Railroad from Fairbanks to Anchorage without getting off the train, so we chose to drive to Denali and spend part of the day there, while doing the entire Alaska Railroad route the following day.
Despite the late arrival back at the B&B due to our Arctic Circle trip the day before, we got up early and hit the road for the drive down to Denali National Park. Our first stop inside the park was at the National Park Service Visitor Center, which has plenty of information and maps to help plan your visit. We learned that there was a dog sled demonstration about to begin a few miles away, so we hit the road and caught the ranger program just in time. We got to walk through the dog kennels and meet the pooches up close – yes, there were even some belly rubs involved in the whole deal. After this, everyone gathered to see the sled dogs in action; they carried a sled around a small track. The whole thing was not just put together for tourists – the National Park Service actually uses sled dogs to help patrol the more remote portions of Denali National Park during the winter months.
We ended up spending much of the late morning and afternoon looking for wildlife along the road and doing several short hikes. We got to see mountain goat, elk, and a few moose. One of the best places to see animals during our visit was at the Savage River Loop Trail. You get the chance to walk along the Savage River – which seemed to be very popular with a lot of the wildlife. Unfortunately, it was too cloudy to see Mt. McKinley at any point during our visit.
Our visit to Denali was special – however we did have two regrets. First, we really wished that we spent more than part of one day at the park. Try and spend two or three if you can! This was probably our biggest mistake of the whole trip. We also wished we took one of the wildlife bus tours. To help protect the park, the public is only allowed to drive 15 miles into the park (to the Savage River Trail). There, in order to go further, you have to take one of the bus tours. Some of the bus tours actually go about 70 miles further into the park. We were told that you can see a lot more wildlife by going into the more remote stretches of Denali. Maybe next time! If you have a lot of additional time, there is a lodge at the end of the road called Kantishna, where you can spend overnight and come back the next day.
After three nights at the B&B in Fairbanks, we said our
goodbyes to our host, John. We returned our rental car, and headed over to the
Alaska Railroad station in Fairbanks to begin our 12-hour journey by rail down
to Anchorage. The Denali Star is the
Alaska Railroad’s flagship train; besides Fairbanks and Anchorage, it makes
stops in Wasilla, Talkeetna, and Denali National Park.
We decided to pay for the upgrade to their “GoldStar Service”, which included reserved seating in one of the new double-deck dome cars. The real reason for the upgrade was to be able to have exclusive access to the upper-level open-air outdoor viewing deck. It was really amazing! The crew told us that there were no other railroad cars in the world that were designed to have this feature. You were able to get great pictures from the train without having to worry about glass reflecting in your shots. Plus, you got fresh air and the chance to see Alaska more up close.
It seemed most of the other passengers on the train were taking a daytrip or possibly a long weekend trip down to Denali. Since it was a Saturday, there seemed to be a lot of families heading from Fairbanks down to Denali National Park to spend a few days. The train, even the GoldStar Class car, was actually quite packed for the first four hours of the trip from Fairbanks to Denali. There were plenty of empty seats for the remainder of the 8-hour trip between Denali and Anchorage. It seemed like we were one of the few people on the train who were going the whole route!
The first few hours out of Fairbanks were not overly scenic, with just some small streams and views obstructed by the forests. Don’t get disappointed! Things got very beautiful just north of Denali National Park, as the train began to wind its way through some tight canyons. For those who have extensively traveled Amtrak, but have never done the Alaska Railroad, it was easily comparable to the best that the California Zephyr has to offer going through Glenwood Canyon and the Rocky Mountains. You may think the train would scare away wildlife – but that wasn’t the case. We saw several moose and mountain goats from the open-deck observation platform, and even a bear or two in the distance by a stream.
We actually wandered back to the coach area of the train after lunch and noticed that there were also very few passengers in that section between Denali and Anchorage. We spent about a hour sitting in the coach dome car, which we were told by the conductor was an old CB&Q and Amtrak car that was bought by the Alaska Railroad. We did notice several signs up that said during the “busy season”, coach passengers would be limited to just 20 minutes in the dome car during their trip, and that people would be asked to rotate out. This was one of the perks of the GoldStar service – the reserved seating in the observation car.
One of the things we really enjoyed about the Alaska Railroad was a partnership program they did with high schools in the state of Alaska. Several high school seniors, who spent the year learning about the tourism industry, were on board to provide live narration. This is such a great thing that they are involved in – and being the Chicago Coordinators of Trails & Rails on the Southwest Chief – we can appreciate how much hard work they put into their programs. This really added a lot to our trip. It was nice to get to meet and listen to an Alaskan native tell stories about their land and point out scenery to us.
The last hour or so of the trip into Anchorage leaves the mountains and skirts the tidal basin of the Pacific Ocean, known as the Knik Arm. You travel along this waterway and learn that there are large tides in this area of Alaska, and much of the land which can be seen at low tide is actually underwater at high tide.
We arrived into Anchorage pretty much on-time and hiked up the hill south of the station to our hotel. We purposely chose a hotel with-in walking distance of the station to avoid having to pay for a taxi. We were only going to stay in Anchorage one night before catching a flight to Juneau and Skagway, so we were looking for something relatively inexpensive. While the Anchorage Grand Hotel wasn’t anything special, it provided clean and comfortable rooms for us at around $100/night, which is quite reasonable for Memorial Day weekend in Alaska. We were delighted to see that our room actually had a view of the Alaska Railroad train station. Of course, we spent much of the night watching freight and passenger train pass by and wye out.
After walking around the downtown area and getting the National Park Passport stamp for Lake Clark National Park, we hit the hay… dreaming of the next leg of our wonderful trip… which would take us to the southern arm of Alaska. We will share this portion of our trip in the next entry! Stay tuned – Coming in February 2015!