Fairbanks to Denali by Train and What to do When You Get There

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Have you thought about taking the train from Fairbanks to Denali during an Alaska trip? Alan and I will certainly be adding the experience to our next adventure in the Last Frontier.

Did you read Debi Lander’s (ByLanderSea) tips for fun things to do in Fairbanks? She’s back to tempt us with a Fairbanks to Denali train ride (ticket provided by ExploreFairbanks.) And, of course, she’s included tips for what to do in Denali National Park. Enjoy the read!

Denali National Park and Preserve encompasses 6 million acres of Alaska’s interior wilderness in North America. Its centerpiece is none other than 20,310-ft.-high Denali (formerly Mount McKinley), North America’s tallest peak.

Most folks arrive in Denali National Park by either Anchorage or Fairbanks, hoping for a glimpse of Denali and perhaps to catch sight of grizzly bears, wolves, moose, caribou, and Dall sheep. I sure did!

Riding the southbound train to Denali from Fairbanks

train on the tracks with steam coming from engine
The train heads to Denali. Photo by Debi Lander.

I suggest taking the Denali Star Route, departing from Fairbanks (where to stay). This is where I started my scenic 4-hour journey to Denali National Park.

Getting to the Fairbanks Station a bit early will give you the chance to pop into the model train room, which offers a marvelous display of the regional landscape. The local model train enthusiasts (a curious and wildly interesting bunch wherever you encounter them) who run the working models will gladly share their knowledge and childlike excitement about train modeling and local lore.

When it was time to leave, I jumped onto the train (well, I confess, I did use a ticket, despite fantasizing about the lure of an open boxcar door on a freight train rumbling along). That’s the kind of effect the wonder of this wilderness can have.

And the train ride from Fairbanks to Denali begins

When my train pulled out of the station, I experienced a childhood wonder — like storybook pages coming to life. Every railroad worker and idle passersby on the street stopped to wave at the train passengers. Gee, sometimes it’s nice to feel like a kid. 

rugged mountains with green trees, train trestle near bottom of phto
This train ride provides plenty of dramatic scenery. Photo by Debi Lander.

Still, riding the Alaska Railroad (official website) to Denali National Park in a glass-domed car graced with wrap-around windows has a lot going for it. Perhaps a selfish indulgence, but I sat back guiltless and relaxed, free of driving and surrounded by breathtaking scenery while sipping a welcome morning coffee. Without being intrusive, the commentary provided offered fun facts and general knowledge about what lay ahead- -the looming wilderness, the dramatic gorges, and small towns.

river with low hills of green and gold on both sides. Taller mountains in the distnace
The Denali Star Route travels by the rivers and mountains of Alaska’s rugged interior. Photo by Debi Lander.

Eventually, I left my comfortable seat and started to roam around the train. I picked up a bottle of water at the snack station and peered in at those eating in the dining car.  Climbing to the second-floor elevated car, I took a front-row seat to take advantage of the surrounding window views.

Unfortunately, the rain that started to fall made getting photos difficult — water streaking the windows. Somehow the steady flow down the panes made the panorama even more postcard-pretty, especially with trees beginning to turn colors on my fall Denali train ride.

Story of the Nenana Ice Classic

Green tower with a roof next to a river
Site of the Nenana Ice Classic. Photo by Debi Lander.

The favorite story I heard during my Denali train ride concerned  Nenana, a tiny town with about 350 residents just 55 miles from Fairbanks.  Nenana, formerly a railroad-construction camp, grew a reputation far more prominent than its population.

The town’s Tanana River freezes over during October and November and grows ice steadily if the usual winter weather prevails. Left without enough to stay busy in the chilly months, the railroad engineers began in 1917 to bet when ice would break apart.

Boomer Travel Tip

Visit our Alaska Travel Planner page before your trip.

The winner had to guess the exact time (month, day, hour, minute). The betting pool has gone online and is still increasing each year.

Today, no guesswork, a clock automatically stops when the official marker signaling the eagerly anticipated moment arrives. Since the Nenana Ice Classic’s beginning, over 10 million dollars in prize money has been given away to volunteer and non-profit organizations.

Arriving in Denali

Blue and yellow train waiting at the Fairbanks train station
The train pulls into the Denali station. Photo by Debi Lander.

The train trip takes longer than driving but offers you views of wilderness only accessible from the track. Conveniently, the train station rests within walking distance of the Denali National Park Visitor Center. Local hotels pick up passengers staying in town (nicknamed Glitter Gulch), while those staying in the park follow park signs to check-in.

My time in Denali offered an almost indescribable blend of ochre, copper, and green colored mountains and valleys — I’ve never seen the like. FYI:  If you don’t have a car, courtesy buses serve the publicly drivable portion of the park road, including stops at the sled dog kennel and visitors center. 

Things to do in Denali National Park

Series of hills in varying subdued shades of beige, green, and gold
The Painted Hills of Denali. Photo by Debi Lander.

Denali National Park (official website) does not offer the typical drive-around with stops at various lookouts. The Park Service limits accessibility; you may only take a car the first 15 miles into the park along the only road within the 6-million acre preserve. 

clouds linger over Denali (Mount McKinley) in Denali National Park
Denali is somewhere underneath those clouds. Photo by Debi Lander.

To see deeper into the park interior, you’ll need to book a trip through one of the tour bus companies having a park contract or go on foot/bicycle. A few tour options are available, but the featured bus tour to Wonder Lake is a long day — young children may not appreciate it! 

Tip for photographers: Wonder Lake is the location Ansel Adams included in his famous photographs.

Active travel ideas

Popular summer seasonn activities in the park include biking, backpacking, hiking, mountaineering, camping, and of course, sightseeing. Various nearby tourism operators provide all types of adventure escapes.

Pick from ATV rides to ziplining near the park, rafting down the Nenana River, or flying around the mountains. Prices for flightseeing tours vary widely, depending on trip length, departure point, and whether the outing includes a landing.

Your best bet is to embrace this treasured location with breathtaking views is to plan your Denali experience as far ahead as possible. Make advance reservations for tours, campsites, or lodging.

Boomer Travel Tip

You’ll find an excellent selection of tours at Viator. Most include reserve now and pay later plus free 24-hour cancellation. Start your search here.

Meet the Denali National Park sled dogs

Park rangers patrol Denali via dog sled in the winter, but these dogs get lighter summer duties. They star in kennel demonstrations orchestrated by their handlers.

Don’t miss the adorable puppies typically stealing the show when not beset by the rigorous training they undergo to become full-fledged sled dogs.  You might get them to pose for pictures, but they tend to prefer belly rubs!

Denali road lottery is another option

gold foliage with mountains and a cloudy sky
The golden colors of a fall trip to Denali National Park. Photo by Debi Lander.

Another choice is for exploring Denali is to win the lottery! Seriously. 

The Denali Road lottery runs every year from June 1 through June 30, and winners get one of four dates set to drive the 92-mile long gravelly road (dates vary by year). Entry takes a nonrefundable $15 application fee; winners pay another $25 for their permit and a $15 per person entrance fee for the park.

Some 11,000 people with Denali Park Road trip dreams apply every year for the 1,200 available permits (300 per day of the four-day event). Winning doesn’t end the gamble; the weather still holds a high trump card. 

Ever-changing and unpredictable conditions determine how far you are allowed to drive. Early snow can close the road after15-miles. If you hit the ultimate  jackpot, you can drive out to the end of the road.

As my park tour continued,  the light rain unsurprisingly continued. Like many, I never got a view of famed Denali’s peak.  Rangers admit most visitors don’t, but getting there is humbling and worthwhile either way.

Where to Stay in Denali

Denali National Park offers six campgrounds. The sites have anywhere from seven to 53 tent-only campsites, except for Riley Creek, which has 150 sites suitable for camping and RVs. For further information, visit reservedenali.com.

Outside the park, your lodging options vary widely. Choose from simple, affordable rooms with private bathrooms or from basic cabins to luxury lodging with high-end amenities like an espresso bar, laundry service, and a dinner theater.

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