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All Aboard the McKinley Explorer!


The McKinley Explorer.


July 20, 2017 

At 8 a.m. we arrived at the Anchorage Depot and boarded our car on the McKinley Explorer. It was a picturesque sunny day as we looked forward to our 237-mile adventure to Denali National Park. We would ride in custom-made dome cars with 360-degree views. The cars were made by the Colorado Railcar Company for Holland America and pulled by Alaska Railroad locomotives.

Before we departed the depot, Rodge and I explored our double-decker train car. The lower level contained a kitchen, a dining area, a lounge, two lavatories, a spiral staircase which reached to the upper level and an open-air viewing platform. The upper level was the sitting and observation area that accommodated eighty passengers. The front of the car was equipped with a bar/snack preparation area.

All Aboard! At 8:15 a.m. the journey began. Rodge and I joined Kayli and the thirty-eight other people in our tour group. The diverse group consisted of people from all over the United States, as well as Holland, New Zealand, Canada and St. Martin. A little north of Anchorage we chugged by Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and saw paratroopers jumping out of an Air Force C-130 plane. We were also able to glimpse the triangular peak of Mt. Denali shining brilliantly over the landscape.

We passed by Eagle River, the small tribal town of Eklutna and the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. The last is known for its record-sized vegetables that are made possible by the long hours of summer daylight and fertile soil. Just past the town of Willow, we started following the Susitna River. The silty, muddy, brown river fed by silt from melting snow and glacial ice flows 313 miles from Susitna Glacier in the Alaskan Range to the Cook Inlet twenty-four miles west of Anchorage. We would shadow this diverse river for eighty miles.

Throughout our journey we were briefed and entertained by our train tour guide. He provided lots of information, facts, local color stories, and jokes. At noon we headed down to the lower deck for lunch. We were seated with another couple, David and Pam. After thirty years in Seattle they had just moved to Chicago. They were on another Alaskan tour with some of David’s high school friends. We also found out that David had attended the Naval Academy. So, we had a great lunch with conversations of Annapolis, our families and Alaska.

We arrived in Talkeetna midway through the trip and stopped to pick up some passengers. The small town is a jumping off point for mountain climbing expeditions to Mt. Denali. All climbers have to register with the National Park Service at Talkeetna before taking a thirty-minute flight to the Kahiltna Glacier Base Camp. Since we mistakenly left our climbing gear at home, we were forced to remain on the train for the second half of the trip to Denali National Park.

All Aboard! We continued north past the ghost town of Curry. Along the way we saw homes inhabited by people living off the land and not connected to civilization by wire or road. The railroad was the only communication/transport available to them. The Alaska Railroad is the only “flag stop” railroad in the United States. Residents along the tracks can flag down a train anywhere along the route. Conversely, the trains will stop on demand to drop off passengers.

As we rolled along the tracks Rodge and I made multiple trips to the open-air viewing platform on the lower level. There we were one with nature at 30 mph. As magnificent river views, mountains and forests passed by I made an attempt to capture the beauty in pixels. My camera could never record the immense beauty I saw and the feelings I felt.

Thirty-eight miles past Talkeetna we said goodbye to the Susitna River. Twenty miles later we crossed the longest bridge on the railroad, Hurricane Gulch Bridge. The trestle bridge built in 1921 spans 918 feet across the gulch and is 296 feet high. The train slowed down to 10 mph while crossing the bridge to prevent overstressing it. Due to the slow crossing we had terrific views of the gulch below.

After riding through Broad Pass and the town of Cantwell, we started shadowing the Nenana River. The river originates from the Nenana Glacier in the Alaska Range and flows north along the east side of Denali National Park. We followed the river twenty-three miles to the Denali Park Railroad Station. After the magnificent eight-hour train ride we were ready to retire to our lodging in the McKinley Chalet Resort.




The luggage from several tour groups waiting for a ride to Denali.


Rodge standing at the front of our car.


Houses outside Anchorage.


All aboard the McKinley Explorer.


A lone hill on steroids.


Chugging along the Susitna River.


A photo-op from the open air viewing platform.


Beautiful mountain scenery.


Riding through Broad Pass.


Kathy enjoying the beautiful scenery.


The glacier fed Nenana River.


A nifty train track photo-op.


Our lodge at McKinley Chalet Resort.


Kathy checking out the scenery in our lodging at McKinley Chalet Resort.


Our sitting area in our lodging at McKinley Chalet Resort.

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