6/10: Travel Day to Denali …

Monday morning was an early start. It had rained off and on yesterday, but it was just cloudy this morning. Transportation was not an issue today, the Resort Busses were ready to take us to the Train Depot.

If you’ve not been to Alaska, you might be asking, “Another Travel Day?”  This wasn’t just any travel day, this was a whole day of scenic touring, starting with a trip on the Alaska Rail Road from Fairbanks to Denali.

We were at the Rail Station in plenty of time.  In our packet, it said to check in with the Holland America Rep.  It turned out we would not be traveling in an “Official Alaska Rail Car,” but would be going in one of the cars the cruise lines use for their tours.  I think I had figured this out before we left for the trip, but Lou was disappointed – authenticity is important to a Train Geek (I was wishing I had checked this out better before the trip).  The Rail Station was very modern, just like the airports:

They even had a large model railroad set up at one end of the terminal:

I had a sense of foreboding that all might not be well as we were walking … and walking … out to board our rail car:

We walked passed the Holland America Cars and onto the Princess Cars – this wasn’t good.  The Princess Cars are configured with a four top table, and two at each table end up riding backwards the whole trip.  Plus, there’s not a lot of leg room for someone who is 6’5″.  We were seated with a very nice couple who had also been on Week 3 of the Un-Cruise.  Lou didn’t say much at the time, but he did stand a lot of the way to Denali.  Fortunately this was the short leg of the trip – only 4 hours.  I spent a lot of time downstairs in the vestibule between cars taking photos (I thought the description said we’d be able to step out of our Luxury Dome car onto a viewing platform?).  Oh well, it wasn’t all that bad, and there isn’t a lot to see between Fairbanks and Denali anyway. Here are a few photos from the start of the trip:

We passed the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, and the Alaska Satellite Facility is shown above. There was a dining room on our car on the lower level.  Lou wasn’t hungry, but I had a nice breakfast of pancakes:

We had a good view of the abandoned HCCP (Healy Clean Coal Project) – this facility cost about $300 million when built in the late 1990s, only to be abandoned in 2000 … it would make a good backdrop for a science fiction movie about aliens taking over the Satellite Research Center …

A big curve provides an opportunity to capture a photo of the front part of the train. All of the blue and yellow cars are Alaska RR cars, then come the HAL and Princess Cars. Note – Lou and I kept arguing because I said we were not supposed to be in a Princess car, and he said they were all Princess cars … well, he turned out to be kinda right, since I found out that Carnival owns just about everybody, so they are all sister-companies. But, more about the rail car snafu later.

We saw some river rafters from the train.

Here’s a partially frozen waterfall, reminding us it’s still cold in this part of the country:

Finally, we could see snow-covered mountains:

We arrived at Denali – you can see the many hotels that provide lodging for Park visitors in this photo – I think part of this area is called “Glitter Gulch” because of all the tourist shops and restaurants:

Once we got off the train, no one knew where to go to get our luggage, or whether it was being transferred straight to our hotel. Finally, we found a RR guy who pointed us in the right direction.  We soon had our luggage, and we watched as most all of the other tourists were picked up …

We knew we wanted to store some of our luggage, so we walked over to the baggage check (near the Visitor’s Center) and took care of that.  Our paperwork said there was a strict 1 bag per person limit for the bus ride to our lodging.  We weren’t going to one of the nearby hotels; we were booked into a “backcountry lodge” located in the heart of Denali National Park, and would have a 95 mile bus ride to get there (those of you who know Lou well are probably having a good chuckle about now – actually, he knew about this because he had been to Denali in 2008, and did this same bus ride).

We waited another 10 minutes or so, and we saw the “Kantishna Roadhouse” bus coming to pick us up.  Kirsty was our driver; she seemed surprised (and not too happy) that the person who was supposed to meet us at the depot didn’t show up.  But, she quickly took charge of loading the luggage and had us on our way.  There were no issues with those who had multiple bags – there were only 20 of us on the bus, so there was plenty of room.  Here’s a photo of our bus – this was taken later in the afternoon, it was all nice and clean when Kirsty picked us up.

The only way to Kantishna is by bus or airplane.  And, the only way to drive further than 15 miles into Denali National Park is to take a bus.  The Park Service runs continuous shuttles that take you to various destinations.  Our bus was more comfortable than a shuttle bus, and it was nice to be able to spread out.

We were soon on our way – here are some of the photos as we drove into the Park. Soon, we saw our first four-legged animal in Denali; a caribou crossed right in front of the bus:

A couple more foggy view shots:

Kirsty stopped the bus and quietly pointed out something to the port left side of the bus; it was a Ptarmigan, the Alaska State Bird:

I was delighted to see the Ptarmigan, since I’d read about them but didn’t think we’d have any luck spotting them from a bus. Kirsty is a pro at what she does – both driving the bus (I think she had named this one Charley), and spotting wildlife.  It turns out she is a professional photographer as well, but she didn’t even hint that she had photos for sale at the Lodge and the Alaska Geographic Center at the Park.

Right after the Ptarmigan, we saw more caribou – and, we kept seeing caribou.  So many, Kirsty suggested we just wave to them as we drove by, otherwise we would never make it to dinner.

Even though it was cloudy, and it rained off and on, the scenery as we drove deeper into the park was impressive.  Those of you who’ve followed our travels know I enjoy “drive-by shooting” and there were many opportunities from the bus as we drove along. Lou just enjoyed the ride, although he did borrow the camera once in awhile when there was something interesting on his side of the bus.

Hikers wait for one of the shuttle busses to come along:

We saw some Dall Sheep up on the hill, and Kirsty said we’d get a better look soon.  First, we had to wait for one of the Park Shuttle Busses to clear the turn.  We thought about Grandma at this point, knowing she would not like this drive!

Sure enough, after we made the turn, we had a better few of the sheep, and the little ones as well.  Kirsty stopped the bus so we could all get photos of the Dall Sheep:

Continuing on to our first stop for the trip.  We had a 15 minute restroom break at the Toklat Visitor Center – the first of two Visitor’s Centers that are actually located within the Park – you can see the tent like structure with some shuttle busses parked beside it:

We all hopped back on the bus, and Kirsty continued her narration and wild life spotting.  Let’s break for now, and come back to finish up the day in the next post.

Categories: Alaska, Land Tour, Week 4

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