Next we flew into Alaska for stops in Fairbanks and Denali National Park.
With a population of over 32,000 people Fairbanks is the second largest city in Alaska. After arriving from the airport, a short walk from our Westmark hotel brought us to the quirky but entertaining Fairbanks Ice Museum. In addition to many ice sculptures the program included an interesting video about the Aurora Borealis, (the Northern Lights). The city also has a small but impressive cultural and visitors center.
Our excursion the next morning took us to the Alaska Pipeline and Gold Dredge #8. We learned a little about the construction and maintenance challenges of the 800-mile long pipeline which transports oil from Prudhoe Bay on Alaska’s north coast to Valdez on the south coast. We then rode in a small open-carriage train to the giant gold dredge that extracted millions of ounces of gold from 1928 to 1959. Here we learned how to pan for gold and got to keep the small flakes we each found.
From the gold dredge we set off directly on the 120-mile bus ride to Denali National Park where we would stay for the next three nights.
Denali National Park
Situated on the edge of Denali National Park, our room in the relatively new section of the H.A.L.-owned McKinley Lodge was very comfortable and the views around us were impressive. Our bus ride into the back country of Denali was limited by a major road construction project near mile 45, necessitated by long-term landslide problems. The slides have accelerated in recent years due to melting of the permafrost caused by global warming. Nonetheless, the ride in a rickety old school bus provided magnificent views of the colorful terrain and a good deal of wildlife along the way, including elk, sheep, moose, bears, and willow ptarmigan (the Alaska state bird).
Our next outing took us to the National Park Service kennels that house the sled dogs who provide transportation for the rangers through the extreme Alaskan winters. Here we watched a demonstration and learned about the history of dog sledding by indigenous people and early settlers, and their continuing value today. This would be a precursor to a more immersive experience later in our trip.
Later we did a leisurely hike through the woods on our own to Hines Creek and back to the visitors center. For dinner we enjoyed a covered wagon ride to a remote cabin for a hearty communal meal.
The next day we boarded the McKinley Explorer train for a very scenic ride to Anchorage.
Next: Anchorage, the Iditarod, and Bears