From the open platform of the dome car, I can see ridges, glaciers and neighboring peaks, but the tallest mountain in North America is playing coy. “Is that Denali?” a little girl asks her father, pointing to a white pyramid floating on a blanket of clouds. Denali is another name for Mount McKinley, the centerpiece of Alaska’s Denali National Park and, 20,320 feet, North America’s highest peak.
We are en route to the Park via Alaska Railroad’s Denali Star train to Fairbanks. We pulled out of Anchorage at 8:15 am and were immediately in a land of birch forests, teal-blue lakes and steep mountains. The Gold-Star service offers a restaurant and dome cars with great views, but I preferred the covered train-top platform’s open-air perspective over the majestic landscape and tumbling rivers. The train gets to Denali at 4 pm, and to Fairbanks at 8 pm, a 12 hour journey.
Just south of Talkeetna, Denali comes into view though it is still more than 60 miles away. Talkeetna serves as launch point for climbers preparing ascents of the continent’s most dangerous peak. (With more than 100 deaths, it ranks on one list as the world’s 10th most dangerous climb, just behind Everest.) When the weather clears, ski-rigged bush planes scurry to get climbers to and from glaciers where their ascents begin and end before fickle weather closes in again. For more earth-bound travelers, Talkeetna is a popular, comfortable and funky vacation base for fishing, mountain biking, rafting and flying over Denali.