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Published: July 28th 2017
Geo: 63.8583, -148.967
We arrived early at the Alaska Railroad Train station and were given another glimpse of the future cruise patrons - one lady was hooked up to a portable oxygen supply - and we boarded our panoramic carriage on the train which was going to take us all the way to one of the USA's largest national parks - Denali. Larger than Switzerland, it is a vast wilderness of some 600 square miles and we were going to spend two days there enjoying the great outdoors. We had booked the Gold Star service, due to its huge viewing windows and outdoor platform, from which we hoped to glimpse wildlife and enjoy the incredible scenery on the way up.
Due to our organisation and early booking, we had seats 1a and 1b, which, once we had boarded, we found out were the best seats on the train, having huge windows to the front and the sides of us, which meant we had 270 degree views for the whole journey. Immediately after boarding, we received breakfast in the dining car leaving us feeling like royalty, and then went back to our seats, where we watched the scenery pass by at a leisurely pace, allowing us to drink it all in.
About 40 minutes in, we were afforded our first breathtaking view of the ride - pine forests all around us and then Mt. Denali looming ahead, pure white in colour and starkly contrasted against the rest of the greenery. Only 30 percent of people who come to Denali ever see the mountain - America's highest peak and previously known as Mt. McKinley until Obama respectfully renamed it last year - and so to see it so clearly was a real treat. A band of clouds covered its base and the peak of the mountain rose up above them. It looked like a castle in the clouds, as though it was floating in the air.
The first half of the journey was excellent, we passed through small towns, some with populations smaller than an average primary school class, past beautiful lakes, densely forested areas, rushing rivers and flat areas packed with low-lying fruit bushes in a huge array of colours. Keeping our eyes peeled for wildlife, we then enjoyed a stunning lunch with the beautiful views passing us by as we ate. At this point, the scenery took a dramatic turn. Huge deep gorges opened up alongside the tracks and glaciers could be seen in the distance. We had entered the mountainous spine of the area and were able to see even more of Mount Denali. The outdoor viewing platform meant we could take glare-free photographs of the beauty around us. We enjoyed wine as we journeyed on and then champagne, which was somewhat disconcertingly served in a plastic beaker with straws. I felt the shudder from France all the way over in Alaska with every sip!
Eventually, after an incredible 7 hours, we arrived at Denali Station where we were met and transferred to our cabins just outside the park boundaries. By the way. We didn't see any animals on the train ride - we are definitely jinxed! We were shown to our room, a chalet style building in the middle row of tiered wooden cabins. Staircases like the ones at Kellerman's took us up there, and I couldn't resist doing the Wipeout dance on the way up. We sat outside on our balcony in the sunshine, the views our over the national park simply stunning, and then waited for our pick up for our evening activity - ATV driving on the tundra.
Our minibus journey took us out along the main road for around twenty minutes, gorgeous mountains on either side of us, over rushing rivers and finally reaching our destination. Here, we kitted up in helmets, had our safety briefing and then we were off down the Stampede Trail, made famous by the Sean Penn movie, "Into the Wild." Stacey drove on the way out, and I on the way back, careering over the uneven trail, through vast muddy puddles, swerving around rocks, whizzing and bouncing past pine trees on both sides and almost two-wheeling when the road was on split levels. We saw Mt. Denali again in the distance, before a quick rest stop where we picked wild blueberries and then picked up a couple of hitchhikers who had tried to make it out to the bus of the fabled Into the Wild fame. They had been thwarted by one of the two major rivers, from which countless tourists, all on a pilgrimage to the bus, each year have to be rescued. We all jolted and jerked our way back to the start of the track, the engine roaring loudly, both laughing uncontrollably as we swooshed through rivers and mud, the dust from the road flying in all directions and causing us to skid over the dry sections, it was brilliant fun!
As we made our way back to the cabins, the sun was beginning to set, painting the mountains and fluffy clouds above them pink and making them seem to glow in the fading light. Tundra swept out on all sides. Many days at this time of year, the mountains cannot be seen through the midst and drizzle, so we were incredibly lucky to still have glimpses of Denali as well as the other peaks. Beer, chilli and wings called on our return and then, after asking the receptionist to wake us up if the Northern Lights made an appearance, had to hit the sack ready for a very early start in the morning. As we went to bed at 11pm, it was still light - the trees black shadows against the pale sky.
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