With a population of nearly 300,000, Anchorage is Alaska’s largest city and a hub for those seeking creature comforts. But a number of long weekend getaways outside the city bring visitors back in touch with nature and the feel of small-town Alaska. Two areas that make a perfect combination trip are the town of Talkeetna and Denali National Park. For a memorable way to get there, the Alaska Railroad connects visitors to both.
Iconic scenery aboard the Alaska Railroad — Photo courtesy of Amber Nolan
An experience in itself, the Alaska Railroad is on many travelers’ bucket list for the spectacular views, including the scenic Hurricane Gulch on the route between Talkeetna and Denali National Park. The staff aboard the Alaska Railroad will alert passengers as the train nears the gulch or other photo-worthy vistas (as well as the occasional moose), and waitress-service is offered in the dining car.
Trains board at the rail station in Anchorage and take approximately three hours to reach the town of Talkeetna.
A long time base for climbers of Mt. McKinley, Talkeetna is home to easy-going residents (and the mayor, a cat named Stubbs) who know how to enjoy all the area has to offer. Many flight services transport climbers to the legendary mountain, and visitors can experience a scenic flight to a nearby glacier.
Nagley's General Store in Talkeetna, Alaska — Photo courtesy of Amber Nolan
Talkeetna is based at the confluence of three rivers, so it's an ideal place to try rafting. Or, to experience the river without getting wet, Mahay's Jet Boat Adventures offers several tours that are perfect opportunities to spot bald eagles, particularly during the late-summer salmon run.
For a small town, Talkeetna has some incredible restaurants. Breakfast at Talkeetna Roadhouse is not to be missed, particularly their cinnamon buns and other bakery items. Located in the center of town, the Roadhouse also offers accommodations, with several lodging options available.
There is always something going on in town: from the Artisan’s Open Air Market to the Iditaprov comedy show. So it's easy to spend a night here – or several – before hopping back on the train for the four-hour journey to Denali.
Rainbow in Denali National Park — Photo courtesy of Amber Nolan
With more than six million acres, Denali National Park is one of Alaska’s protected jewels. It's home to caribou, grizzly bears, moose, wolves and Dall sheep, making it a hiker’s (and photographer's) paradise. At more than 20,000 feet, America’s tallest peak – Mt. McKinley – towers above it all (although it's usually blocked by clouds).
The best way to see the area is to camp in the park for a few nights; however, nearby hotels often provide shuttles back and forth. Visitors can stop by the sled-dog kennels or hop aboard the wildlife viewing buses for a lengthy ride around the park.
For a bird's-eye view, Stampede Aviation offers scenic flights around the park and over the famous “magic bus” from the book Into the Wild. Their Mount McKinley North Face Expedition takes tourists up close to the gentle giant and the Wickersham Wall, a particularly difficult area for climbers.
Since the mountain is often blocked by clouds, a scenic flight significantly increases visitors' chances of seeing it during their stay.
The best time to visit Talkeetna and Denali is during the summer; however, that time is also the busiest. Travelers booking tickets at the end of August and early September will have fewer crowds and also catch some of the changing colors. The Northern Lights can be viewed in these regions during the fall and winter months, but trying to see them may require a longer stay to increase your chances.