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Fairbanks, Arctic Circle Drive, Denali Park & the Alaska Railroad

Alaska, Yukon, and Across Canada (Part 1 of 3)

Fairbanks, Arctic Circle Drive, Denali Park & the Alaska Railroad

By Robert & Kandace Tabern, Email:

Trip Taken: May 21-24, 2014
Published: January 27, 2015

The first portion of our trip included stops to the Arctic Circle, Fairbanks, Denali National Park, and Anchorage
(Map designed by Robert & Kandace Tabern)

One of the major trips that we had been contemplating for many years included time on the Alaska Railroad, Yukon & White Pass Railroad, and a complete trip on VIA’s Canadian from Vancouver, British Columbia to Toronto, Ontario. In May and June 2014, this trip finally became a reality for us; our traveling companion was Robert’s long-time friend and railroad-riding buddy Mike Pace, who lives outside of Boston.

Over the next three months, we will be sharing portions of this special trip with you here on In this month’s article, we will focus on our time in Alaska. February 2015’s article will focus on our time in the arm of Alaska and the Yukon. Finally, our March 2015 article will focus on Canada. We hope you enjoy these reports as much as we will enjoy sharing them with you. Maybe they will even inspire you to plan your own trip to Alaska or on Canada’s premiere train.

Kandace & Robert Tabern (left) and Mike Pace (right) pose for a picture at the Welcome to Alaska sign
(Robert Tabern photo)

Since we both work full-time, getting away for the 15-day period this trip was no easy feat. In order to have more time to spend in Alaska, the Yukon, and Canada, we decided to start our journey by air. We flew from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport to Anchorage on Alaska Airlines. We actually opened an Alaska Airlines credit card the previous year on a flight to Hawaii, so this flight was free for both of us. What a deal!  After landing in Anchorage, we met up with Mike (who headed up from Seattle), and all flew together from Anchorage to Fairbanks, also on Alaska Airlines. Before heading out on the Alaska Railroad to Anchorage, we decided to spend three nights in Fairbanks, seeing some of the interior of Alaska. To get around, you really do need to rent a car; central Alaska is very vast. There were several choices at the airport when it came to car rentals, with very quick in-and-out access.

Sign at Anchorage International Airport for Alaska Airlines Flight #2807 to Fairbanks
(Robert Tabern photo)

Flying from Anchorage to Fairbanks, Alaska on Alaska Airlines
(Robert Tabern photo)

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!

Kandace stands outside the National Park Service office in Fairbanks, Alaska
(Robert Tabern photo)


Some photos of the moose we saw along Chena Hot Springs Road 
(Robert Tabern & Mike Pace photos)

After our close encounter of the moose kind… we decided to drive back into Fairbanks and check into our Bed and Breakfast. For all three nights we stayed at the Ah, Rose Marie Bed and Breakfast, located at 302 Cowles Street in Fairbanks. The cozy house is run by a man named John who is originally from the Chicago area; he actually grew up not very far from where Robert did. John mentioned that he started the bed and breakfast with his wife, and even though she passed away, he still runs everything to keep their dream alive. John is a great storyteller and told us that his desire was always to come up to Alaska and start a bed and breakfast. John was very accommodating and would always have breakfast ready for us, despite our schedule - which meant very early mornings. John made great omelets every morning, had some cold cereals, and bread with home-made Alaska jam. We would definitely recommend people stay here. We stayed in two rooms on the upper floor of the home. We have not done a lot of bed and breakfasts, and initially decided to stay here because it seemed to be less expensive than some of the hotels and motels in Fairbanks. We felt very at home. John even had a cute cat that seemed to adopt us for the three nights that we were there.


Some views of the Ah, Rose Marie Bed & Breakfast in Fairbanks, Alaska - we highly recommend it!
(Robert Tabern photos)

Our first full day in Alaska was spent taking a group tour up to the Arctic Circle through a company called Northern Alaska Tours. This is something Robert did when we went to Alaska with his mother in 2006, and he wanted to do again with Kandace and Mike. It is about a 400-mile round-trip drive from Fairbanks to the Arctic Circle; most of the drive is on the Dalton Highway, which extends all the way to the oil fields on the Arctic Ocean. One can actually make the drive themselves from Fairbanks to the Arctic Circle – that is, if you can get a rental car company to sign off on your plan (some prohibit rentals on the Dalton) - however the large rocks on the road and numerous trucks speeding down the highway make it much more enjoyable to go on a group tour, in our opinion. The group tour through Northern Alaska Tour Company isn’t for the faint of heart – it is basically a 17 hour ride in a smaller-sized bus. However, it is very informative and actually goes pretty quick and is worth the time and effort.


Some views of our Northern Alaska Tour Company bus between Fairbanks and the Arctic Circle
(Robert Tabern photos)

You start the day off around 6:30am at the company’s office, which is located on the cargo side of the Fairbanks Airport. We got lucky with the numbers on our tour – since it was still early in the season (before Memorial Day), they used one of their larger buses, but there were just a handful of people going out that day, which meant everyone got their own window seat on the bus. After going through a brief orientation, we hit the road. The road out of Fairbanks is known as the Steese Highway; this is followed by the Elliott Highway. The first stop was about 20 miles north of Fairbanks at an observation point for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. We learned about how and why it was built and the challenges about building and maintaining it across frozen ground. We were told that engineers tried to build it below ground as much as possible; whenever you see it above ground that is an area of permafrost.

A stop at the Alaska Pipeline, north of Fairbanks, Alaska
(Mike Pace photo)

After about an hour or two, we made a stop at the Arctic Circle Trading Post, also known as the Wildwood Trading Post. Despite the name, this little gift shop was not on the Arctic Circle (not even close!), but seemed to cater to Fairbanks tourists who wanted to make it as far as they could towards the Arctic Circle on the paved highway. They had some decent coffee and hot chocolate – and be warned – the only bathrooms are very rustic outhouses. The family who owns the business actually lives on the property and is very friendly.

You "almost crossed the Arctic Circle" at the Wildwood Trading Post in Joy, Alaska
(Robert Tabern photo)

Kandace enjoys the very rustic outhouse at the Wildwood Trading Post
(Robert Tabern photo)

A few miles after the trading post we made another stop at the official starting point of the Dalton Highway, also known as the “haul road”. This is where the pavement – and even power lines – comes to an end.  Everyone got off the bus and took pictures at “Milepost 0”. The Arctic Circle was another 115 miles north of here – with the Arctic Ocean and the end of the highway being another 411 miles due north!

The start of the Dalton Highway north of Joy, Alaska
(Robert Tabern photo)

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.

The Yukon River Camp, a great stopping off point for a meal
(Robert Tabern photo)

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.


A few photos from Finger Mountain, about 20 miles south of the Arctic Circle
(Mike Pace photo)

Lecture about the permafrost
(Robert Tabern photo)

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!




Photos from the Arctic Circle
(Robert Tabern photos)

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.

Robert & Kandace Tabern stand along the banks of the Yukon River
(Mike Pace photo)

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.

Entrance station to Denali National Park 


A sled dog demonstration at Denali National Park, Alaska
(Robert Tabern photos)

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.



A lot of wildlife could be seen during our hike along the Savage River in Denali National Park
(Robert Tabern photo)

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.


At the Alaska Railroad Depot in Fairbanks, Alaska
(Mike Pace photo)

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.

A view of the second level outdoor viewing platform, part of Alaska Railroad's GoldStar service
(Mike Pace photo)



More views of us enjoying the second level outdoor viewing platform on the Alaska Railroad
(Robert Tabern photos)

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.






Various photos from our trip on the Alaska Railroad between Fairbanks and Anchorage
(Robert Tabern & Mike Pace photos)

The Alaska Railroad had similar dining options to Amtrak, just a little more upscale. There appeared to be a newly refurbished lounge/snack car – which was open to all passengers – and featured a variety of goodies. We opted for some of the popcorn and potato chips made in Alaska. We liked their selection of Alaskan made food products.

A view of the lounge car on the Alaska Railroad    (Robert Tabern photo)

There was also a full-service dining car; it was on the bottom level of the GoldStar Car. The dining car was open to all passengers – however GoldStar customers got priority reservations and coach passengers who went into the diner were not allowed to go upstairs to sit in the GoldStar seating area, nor did they have access to the open-air observation deck.


A view of the dining car on the Alaska Railroad  (Robert Tabern photos)

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.

Coach seating on the Alaska Railroad
(Robert Tabern photo)


A view inside a heritage dome car that was for coach passengers on the Alaska Railroad
(Robert Tabern photo)

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.

A high school student provides narration for GoldStar passengers
(Robert Tabern photo)

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.

One last photo of Robert & Kandace Tabern and Mike Pace on the Alaska Railroad
(Robert Tabern photo)

Robert & Kandace Tabern at the Alaska Railroad station in Anchorage, Alaska
(Mike Pace photo)

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.

View of the Alaska Railroad Yards from our hotel room at the Anchorage Grand Hotel
(Robert Tabern photo)

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!


National Park Service - Fairbanks | Fairbanks, Alaska Tourism Website | Ah, Rose Marie Bed & Breakfast

Northern Alaska Tour Company The Dalton Highway Denali National Park

Alaska Railroad | Anchorage Grand Hotel


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