Alaskan Cruisetour Photo Gallery

Day 9 (May 25, 1999) - All Aboard: Fairbanks to Denali

Looking back
Looking out the back of the train between Fairbanks and Denali.

First thing the next morning, it was all aboard a bus for what should have been a short trip downtown to board the Alaska Railroad for the 4-hour ride to Denali National Park. The driver seemed a bit confused though, and he got a bit lost - after a short detour through downtown, we were soon delivered to our train.

North of Fairbanks
Marshy land north of Fairbanks (the train first goes a bit north before heading south). Many beaver lodges and dams could be seen along this part of the route (not seen here).

Princess has several special rail cars that hook up at the end of the Alaska Railroad trains. These so-called Ultra Dome cars are collectively referred to by Princess as the Midnight Sun Express. They really play the MSE up, but frankly I wasn't very impressed.

Seating is pre-assigned at diner-like booth tables that seat 4 persons each (dining, however, occurs elsewhere). This could be awkward if you don't particularly like who you get seated with, but we were fortunate - our table mates Dave and Sandy were great.

The fit is tight, and you will end up playing footsie with whoever sits across from you. This is far less comfortable and roomy than the reclining lounge-chair type seating you find on most Amtrak trains. The viewing area of the windows is ample, however the glass is such that it severely distorts the view - it's nearly impossible to take a decent photograph through these windows, unless you're looking at a 90-degree angle from the train. The upper part of the glass is heavily tinted (no doubt for protection from the sun), but this further reduces the available undistorted viewing area. What's more, the outside of the windows were quite dirty - I could understand water spotting that occurs in rain while on the trip, but the windows were dirty from the moment we boarded.

Nearing Denali
Nenana River near Denali.

The one feature of the MSE I liked was the outside viewing platform. There is a tiny platform at the rear of the train, with room for maybe 6 people. The platforms between cars are much larger, with room for at least 25 people, probably more. The one drawback of the viewing platforms is that they do a good job of catching the wind, which can make them quite wet if it is raining. They are also the only smoking areas available, which may not appeal to some.

We had breakfast aboard. The food was good but expensive, but the coffee wasn't too good or even hot.

The tour guides on board serve double duty - between tending bar and serving drinks, they need to keep an eye out for the sights worth mentioning. Unless they really have their act together, this can mean being told about something at the last moment. Our guides did a pretty good job keeping up with the sights, but I talked to someone in another car who complained of missing everything because the guides were too busy waiting tables.

As train rides go, the Alaskan Railroad route tends to not be as smooth as most rides. The harsh winters (and hot summers in the Fairbanks area) lead to warping of the tracks, so things tend to get a bit bumpy at times. Over large portions of the route, trains must precede slowly due to poor track conditions (the top speed reached on the route is 49mph).

The first half or so of the trip is fairly straight and level, with only occasional turns of note, and very flat land, most covered by marshy taiga with only a few dwarf trees. As the train nears Denali National Park, the terrain gradually becomes much more rugged as the train gradually climbs in elevation, and negotiates many sharp turns along steep canyon walls.

Dall Sheep Ram
Dall sheep ram.

If you're looking for wildlife along the ride, you will find it to be fairly scarce as most wildlife stays well clear of the railroad in the non-winter months (moose become a major problem in the winter). We did get lucky enough to make a close approach to a dall sheep resting on the canyon wall on the other side of the Nenana River. I also managed to glimpse a bull moose in the undergrowth at one point, but it was out of sight by the time I could get my camera ready. We were told that grizzlies are sometimes seen, but this is fairly rare.

Hotel City
Hotel city outside Denali entrance.

Our first ride aboard the Midnight Sun Express ended just after noon in a small city seemingly constructed entirely of hotels, gift shops, and other tourist traps just outside the entrance to Denali National Park. From there a short bus ride took us to Denali Princess Lodge, a fairly large hotel complex run by Princess in the hotel city.

Mom had a surprise for me during the trip - she wants to see Alaska in the winter. I'm not sure how serious she is, but knowing her attitudes about snow and cold weather, my mouth fell open in shock.

Million Dollar Curve
Rounding the Million Dollar Curve.

...of the Midnight Sun Express (Day 1).

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Copyright © 1999, Pete Hanson