Alaska Trip: Train Ride to Denali

Alaska trip

So, our Alaska trip had taken us on a flight to Anchorage. Our next event was a train ride from Anchorage to Denali National Park. Normally, I would skip my travelogue to the park itself. But this train ride was an event in itself: hours long, and passing such stunning scenery that I thought you would like to come along for the ride, so to speak.

McKinley Explorer train Alaska

Train Ride to Denali

We rode on the McKinley Explorer. This train of domed railcars is owned by Holland America (our cruise line), which is owned, I learned, by Carnival Cruises (note that Princess Cruises are also owned by CC. Lots of “intermarriage” in the cruise industry, it seems).

The guests all headed upstairs, and I have to say that it was a great way to travel, with all the windows allowing wonderful views of the outdoors.

McKinley Explorer train Alaska

And what views there were! We were informed that Denali (formerly known as Mount McKinley, and North America’s highest peak) was visible on the day we were traveling. This is a fairly rare occurrence, as clouds often obscure its summit.

Denali Mt McKinley

Denali, dead center — of course, it’s probably 100 miles away

McKinley Explorer

One thing about travel, particularly travel to a scenic location, is that you inevitably end up with many photos that are pretty much identical. Another thing is that often, I look at a certain photo and ask myself, “Why exactly did I take that …?” All this to say that I *think* that the high peak in the photo above is the vaunted Denali. All you Denali experts out there, please chime in if I’m incorrect 🙂

Denali ferns

I enjoyed observing the changes in the landscape as we made our way north. One example was these ferns (I apologize for the blurry photos; taking pictures from a moving train is not ideal). I don’t know their name, but a bit of research reveals that there is an app to identify plants in the region — how neat!

taiga Denali Alaska

The landscape changed pretty rapidly. Soon, the trees began looking like this — unhealthy and half dead. This was the taiga — according to Wikipedia, “also known as boreal forest or snow forest, a biome characterized by coniferous forests consisting mostly of pines, spruces and larches. The taiga is the world’s largest terrestrial biome.” It was the first time I’d had the taiga pointed out, although I did remember learning the term in school. There was plenty of it here! The trees look like this because there are fewer nutrients available to them. As we traveled higher, the trees disappeared altogether.


Here’ a fleeting view of the town of Wasilla. As we passed through, I was hoping for some Sarah Palin news. So I was a bit chagrined when our young guide asked, “So who knows what Wasilla is famous for? Right, duct tape!” Ah well.

McKinley Explorer dining car

Since we were all seated on the top floor, you might wonder what was on the first floor. Here you can see — dining cars, where we were frequently invited to go purchase food. Also, each car had its own bartender who made the rounds throughout the day, taking drink orders. As a teetotaler, I’m always amazed at the number of people who drink, and who pay a lot to do so. At the end of the journey, the couple ahead of me had amassed a hefty tab for 5 drinks.

McKinley Explorer

Between the dining cars, there were platforms where you could stand and look out as the train zipped along. It was definitely a different perspective — breezy and fun!

Denali woman comes out to wave

The trip to Denali features beautiful scenery, but very few humans or domiciles are visible. Here’s one that was: the house is labeled “City Hall,” and our guide told us that, if the woman of the house heard the train coming, she’d come out to wave. She did … and she did.

Thanks to a Chicago Tribune story, I learn that the friendly lady is Mary Lovel, 78, who lives in the house with her 86-year-old husband, Clyde. They moved there in 1964 along with their four kids, and have lived there ever since.  There aren’t roads in these parts, so the Lovels have relied on the train for years (it operates in the wintertime as well, but not with any tourists then). The train originally hauled the family’s’ trunks and beds to the house from Anchorage. When one of her kids was hurt, Mary and the child reached a doctor by caboose.

The train crew has an affection for the Lovels as well, at Christmas tossing stockings and toys out the window for the kids when they were little. The children were so excited they dashed into the snow with bare feet. Last September, the railroad threw a party to celebrate the family’s 50 years in the wild.

Evening arrived, and we did as well — at our lodging for the next two nights: Holland America’s McKinley Chalet at Denali (actually just outside the park boundary).

McKinley Chalet Denali Holland America

Next time, we’ll venture into the park itself.

Have you been to Denali National Park? Have you seen the elusive mountain peak? Share your impressions in the comments!






3 thoughts on “Alaska Trip: Train Ride to Denali

  1. As I recorded my weight in my date book for July 1, 2016 I added the dates we were on vacation in 2016. When you mark the days off in your date book, it made me realize – we were gone a LONG time! The more I read about our trip through your blog, the more I treasure the whole experience. Funny you tell about the lady who came out to wave to the train and all the other details.

  2. What fun you must have had. Going to Alaska is still high on my bucket list.

  3. Wow! This sounds like my dream train ride! How I would love to do that. Your review is so very thorough, at times I felt as though I was along with your group. I enjoyed this blog so much. One of the things that jumped out at me was the US Flag flying so high next to the Lovel’s house. How patriotic to do that for the train riders. In the middle of all that desolation, what a wonderful reminder that you are still in the USA!!

Comments are closed.