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Fairbanks to Denali

Day 16

It was a bright sunrise this Monday morning in Fairbanks for my last day here. Shortly we would be starting our journey on the Alaska Railroad thru the middle of this the largest state in the Union.

After checking my overnight bag to be sure I had what I needed for the next two days and double checking I didn't leave any thing behind, it was time to go downstairs to the lobby. Wow. The whole lobby was filled wall to wall with bags, luggage and more bags. I checked my big luggage and made sure it was in the correct pile of the ones going to the Anchorage Railroad Depot. Outside there were several buses ready for us. My bus left the hotel at 7 AM with the temperature of 32.

Leaving the hotel we make our way to the Steese Highway. I noticed several residences with glass green houses in their back yard. I thought they were for getting a early start on the garden because cold and dark days of spring. Then I figured maybe they were also for keeping the critters out of the garden and dining on those tender new plants.

Northern Alaska is a land of tundra, wildlife and high mountain passes. Accessible by airplane or Haul Road, Northern Alaska is a vast country the remains highly scenic and largely undeveloped. The Dalton Highway or Haul Road starts here in Fairbanks on Steese Highway the bus driver told us and if we stayed on this highway heading north 500 miles later you would be at Prudhoe Bay. The driver pointed out several pick up trucks that were covered in dirt, mud and dust. He said these vehicles had come off the Haul Road and wore the dirt to give notice where they had been.

Dalton Highway ( Haul Road): Truck route to Prudhoe Bay.

The North Slope Haul Road was built in the 1970's during construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. The road is a challenge. It's 498 miles (1,000 miles round trip) from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay. Services are few and far between. The road is narrow, roughly 28 feet wide, less than two lanes and is shared with large trucks. It's a rough road, and rocks fly up and break windshields and cause flat tires. You cross the Yukon River 140 miles from Fairbanks. There are some services at the Yukon River and some services another 120 miles up the road at Coldfoot. If you're camping, you'll find some undeveloped campsites along the road. If you intend to stay in motels, you've got to make your reservations before you set out. Once you get to Deadhorse, you'll be stopped by a gate. Only commercial tours can go past this point to Prudhoe and the Arctic Ocean. Also, you have to have a background check, in advance.

The driver also talked about the TV show "Ice Road Truckers" that parts are filmed around here. His wife was at her beauty parlor a while back. Setting next to her was one of the drivers from the show. She follows the show and recognized the truck driver. She was taken back to see her macho truck driver getting a pedicure and his wife sitting next to him getting a manicure and a pedicure.


After about 20 minutes from the hotel we arrive at the Fairbanks Railroad Depot.

fb depot

fb depot

MP 469.8  Fairbanks Passenger station.  Mile Post Zero is located on the wharf in Seward, AK.

After getting my ticket pulled I then proceeded to the boarding platform.

rr tkt

I picked a carriage and climbed aboard. Finding an unoccupied seat I put my coat and bag on it and went to wander around. Saw Chris P., Chris G. and Elizabeth A. performing their yellow jacket duties.


Elizabeth A. and Chris G. on duty.

platform a

plat b

plat c

rail yard

Sunrise in railroad yard.

rail yard b

At 8 AM as we pull out from the station and start our two day journey south to Anchorage.

Heading south from Fairbanks, the line passes through miles of black spruce bottoms, land that is not what many people think of as being Alaska. However, these black spruce bottoms are a key part of Alaska. These woods, known as "Taiga," a Russian word for northern evergreen forest, are a sure sign of permafrost. Permafrost soil stays frozen all year. Because of this, when the thin top layer does thaw each year, moisture is unable to sink further into the ground. This leads to the ground becoming swamp-like, drowning most ordinary trees.

blk botton

balck tree

Breakfast with a wilderness view.


spruce b

The announcement is made that due to many not having breakfast yet, the dining car is now open to serve breakfast now. When my car was called I went for my first meal on the Alaska Railroad.

The Railroad is cash less. Food and beverage purchases can be made only with debit and major credit cards.

On the Alaska Railroad on board catering is provided by ESS. A Division of : Compass Group.

Less than 30 minuets after leaving the Fairbanks Depot my server, Wynton of Salt Lake, place a great breakfast before me. Breakfast was a Sunrise Skillet- A savory scramble of eggs, cheddar and jack cheeses, sauteed red and green peppers and onions served with breakfast potatoes, with Alaska reindeer sausage.

After breakfast we were on siding waiting for a cruise line special train bound for Fairbanks. Soon we back on the main and heading south.


left side

right side


trees b

trees c

trees d

Crossing the Tanana River on the Mears Memorial Bridge at Nenana looking up river.

MP 413.7 Mears Memorial Bridge- The railroad crosses the Tanana River using the Mears Memorial Bridge, the last part of the railroad built between Seward and Fairbanks. The bridge marks the completion of the Alaska Railroad, completed on February 22, 1923, and the Golden Spike was driven by President Warren Harding on July 15, 1923. The bridge includes a 704-foot steel through truss span (the longest through truss in the world when built, presently the world's third longest)six 60-foot deck plate girder spans, four 30-foot deck plate girders, and a 118-foot truss span. The bridge was designed by the firm Modjeska & Angier and fabricated and built by the American Bridge Company. The bridge is named for Frederick Mears, Head of the Alaska Engineering Commission that built the railroad.


Mears Bridge. The Golden Spike was driven by President Warren Harding on July 15, 1923 at left side.

MP 411.7 Nenana

Originally an Indian village, Nenana is located on the south bank on the Tanana River at the confluence of the Nenana River at 400 feet of elevation. Nenana is in the western-most portion of Tanana Athabascan (or Athabascan) Indian territory.

The discovery of gold in Fairbanks in 1902 brought intense activity to the region. A trading post/roadhouse was constructed by Jim Duke in 1903 to supply river travelers and trade with Indians. St. Mark's Episcopal mission and school was built upriver in 1905 bringing native children from other communities to Nenana. A post office opened in 1908. Nenana was a railroad construction camp in the early 1900's, and by 1915, construction of the Alaska Railroad doubled Nenana's population. The community incorporated as a city in 1921. Completion of the railroad was followed by an economic slump. The population dropped from 5,000 residents in 1923 to 291 in 1930.

In 1961, Clear Air Force Station was constructed 21 miles southwest, and many civilian contractors commuted from Nenana. A road was constructed south to Clear, but north , vehicles were ferried across the Tanana River. In 1967, the community was devastated by one of the largest floods ever recorded in the Tanana Valley. In 1968, a $6 million bridge was completed across the Tanana River, which gave the city a road link to Fairbanks and replace the river ferry.

Today, the railroad has a 3195-foot siding to the west as well as a small yard. The railroad depot, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was completed in 1923, when President Warren Harding drove the golden spike at Nenana. The depot, still in use, now houses the Alaska State Railroad Museum.

A President's visit to drive the golden spike.

President Warren G. Harding came to Nenana in fine style in July, 1923. He brought both his wife and his mistress to celebrate the end of construction of the Alaska Railroad, and to drive the " golden spike" into the track at Nenana. It was 95 degrees, and everybody was overdressed, including the Speaker of the House, who has come along for the ride in the opulent train of rail cars Harding used. The President left Alaska for Vancouver where he fell ill after eating " a mess of King Crabs drenched in butter." He died in San Francisco.

Original Iditarod.

The Iditarod Sled Dog Race begins every March in Anchorage, and then heads off towards Nome. But the first Iditarod race was a 1925 serum run that began in Nenana and followed old road houses along a winter trail mail route to Nome. A diphtheria epidemic threatened the people of Nome. A 20 pound capsule holding serum was railed north from Seward to Nenana. On January 27th, in the coldest part of winter, it was more than -40 F and planes couldn't fly, so a relay team of 20 mushers, using over a hundred dogs, passed the package from village to village along the trial to Nome. They arrived on February 2nd, with the serum firmly wrapped in a quilting, frozen solid but still effective. The trail to Iditarod from Nenana was just one of the tangle of hundreds of Native American trails that have crisscrossed Alaska for thousands of years.

Nenana Ice Classic

The Nenana Ice Classic is a direct link to old -time Alaska. It began in 1917, when railroad workers whiled away the days of spring guessing when the ice would go out and the work could start up again. There is a 3-day festival in March when Nenanans drag a 26-foot tall tripod out into the thick river ice and wire it to a clock. When the ice breaks up, a cable trips the clock. People spend $2.50 per ticket trying to guess the exact day, hour and minute the ice will go out on the river. Those who share the closet minute split the pot, the ice usually goes out between April 20th and May 20th . In 2013 the ice on the river was still a solid 36 inches thick in early May. They were selling tickets at Alfred Starr Cultural Center.

My $2.50 guess was my brother George's birthday on May 10. So I am sure the ice will break on May 10, 2014 at 20 minutes after noon. Now if I can just find the claim check.

ice classic a

poster ice

St. Mark's Church

St. Mark's Church is one of the loveliest little churches in roadside Alaska. The altar is decorated with moose hide beadwork, in the traditional Athabascan manner. An old-fashioned log building, this small Episcopal church was moved here after its 1905 location was washed downriver.

st mark

st mark's b

Shortly after 10:30 AM, our train pulls up to the Nenana Depot. We detrain and walk through town towards the bridge for the photo shoot and run by. That location will be near the muddy river bank.


rr depot

Parks Highway bridge in background.

GPS: 64 33.864, -149 05.720        To see map; click the coordinates of copy and paste in browser.

town street

Walking to river bank and photo shoot.

old cars

m bridge

Parks Highway Bridge. Built in 1968 it gave the city a road link to Fairbanks and replaced the river ferry. This is the same river we viewed Saturday from the river boat Discovery.

river bank up

Stand here and take your picture.


After run-by, we walked back to the Depot.

street in nenana

Then after a tour of the Alaska State Railroad Museum it was time to re-board our train and continue journeying south.

MP  411.4  As the railroad turns south, it follows the Nenana River.

It is now time for lunch. I walk forward to where the "Lunch Princess" aka Sarah Jennings, wife of Bart J., is distributing the box lunches. Returning to my seat I enjoy the view and the sandwich, chips, cookies and Alaska Railroad bottle water.

MP 392.9  Clear Site.  The first railroad station located here was named Clear when it was established as a construction site in 1918. Eventually it became known as Clear Site.
Today, this is the location of a BMEWS (Ballistic Missile Early Warning Site) radar site, which is one of three in the world. Built in 1959, Clear Site was designed to detect enemy missile attack. it is now used to track satellites and space debris. Air Force personnel station here receive overseas pay and their families are not permitted on the base due to its top secret security status.

MP 385.5 South of here the railroad leaves the Tanana lowlands and enters the foothills of the Alaska Range and closely follows the Nenana River for the next sixty miles.


massh 3

marsh 4

n river
Nenana River.
n r

The river starts at Nenana Glacier and flows 140 miles north to the Tanana River.

marsh land

MP  362.3 Usibelli Tipple - The Usibelli tipple is a special loading facility with a railroad track running through the center for coal loading. The coal is mined across the river and transported to the tipple by conveyor. The coal is sub-bituminous with a relatively low BTU per pound, but is relatively clean burning due to its low sulfur and  nitrogen content.
As of June 2004, the production rate was about 1 million tons of coal per year. Once the coal is removed from the ground it is shipped via the Alaska Railroad to various military bases and power plants as well as the Seward Loading Facility for shipment overseas. The mine currently has 90 full time employees and another 291 are linked directly to its products. The financial expenditures pumps $21.5 million into the Alaska economy.

coal train

Train runs at a steady 4.5 mph non stop as the cars are loaded.

loading coal

coal trin 4

GPS: 63 54.301, -149 00.861

outside a



up river

head of train

up river
Nenana River flowing north.

close 2 river


MP 353.5  Moody Highway Bride.  This is Parks Highway, Alaska Highway 3, as it crosses the Nenana River, 174 feet above the valley floor. There is a wind sock mid-span to warn drivers of the high winds that often blow thorough here.

bridge a

hwy bridge

 After crossing under the bridge we slow to a stop. This is the place for our next run by. After coming to a stop, Bart J. and the "bear bait 1" and "bear bait 2" check out the terrain.

Finding everything satisfactory, everybody was then permitted to detrain and walk to the area for pictures.

run by 1

walk to


train run

train run 3

rocky mount

geo bridge

GPS:  63 47.850, -148 56.092

line up

Video :

MP 353.2   North Boundary of Denali National Park - In 1908, Charles Sheldon, a hunter and naturalist, described in his journal the idea of a park that would allow visitors to enjoy the beauty he saw while visiting Alaska. Between 1906 and 1908, Sheldon had roamed the present day park gathering vital information about Dall Sheep. It was during these travels that Sheldon developed the concept of protection and preservation of these wild lands.

At the time, all of Alaska seemed wild. Wildlife was plentiful in many areas. Majestic mountains were not hard to come by. But here, just north of the Alaska Range, one could find a region with a magic combination of wildlife and scenery that typified the territory. The territory, however, was changing just as the landscape had changed in the Lower 48. Miners combined drainage throughout the region looking for gold and other valuable minerals. A railroad would soon connect Fairbanks to the coast. Early park proponents realized that the vast quantities of wildlife found north of the Alaska Range would come under increasing hunting pressure to feed railway workers, miners and populations of growing communities.
Signed into being by the United States Congress in 1917, the original Mount McKinley National Park preserved roughly two million acres. Wildlife protection was the backbone of the park's enabling legislation, which set the stage for Denali's modern role as a wildlife refuge of international importance. At first, park visitation was actually discouraged but it soon became evident that visitors were going to came no matter what. Therefore, plans began to focus in limiting tie impact that visitors would have on the park. This meant that there would be few lodges and campgrounds in the park, something very different from many other parks at the time.

Passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980 expanded the park boundaries, added preserve lands and changed the name to Denali National Park and Preserve. Boundaries were expanded in part to accommodate migration patterns of caribou and other wildlife, and to take in the entire  Mount McKinley massif. The current size is 6 million acres. The size of New Hampshire or Vermont.

MP 349.0  Nenana River Canyon - The railroad hangs onto a small ledge above the Nenana River. Across the river you ca see "Glitter Gulch," the name often given to McKinley Park, the tourist town where almost all park visitors stay. There is an interesting mix of fancy hotels, tourist souvenir stores, sandwich shops and enough support facilities for the large summer work force. During winter, it's hard to find anyone living here except for a few caretakers.

glitter Gulch
Cruise line private hotels located up the mountain side.

reiver nanana
 Nenana River 

park town

MP 348.2  Denali Park Road - Entrance to Denali National Park and Preserve. This is the only road into the National Park and most of the route is restricted to approved vehicles only.
With the park being established in 1917 as McKinley National Park, there was soon a need for basic housing for the park's employees.  A settlement was reported near here in 1920 known as Riley Creek. At the same time, the Alaska Engineering Commission (AEC) established Camp Riley on the south bank of Riley Creek to build the Riley Creek bridge. In 1922, a post office was established here and the name was soon changed to McKinley Park.

Here we are put into a siding. At the Denali Park Station there is cruise line train doing station work. We will wait here until the cruise line train leaves the station and passes us. Soon the train passes us going north to Fairbanks. Then a few minutes later we start moving towards our last stop of the day.

MP 347.7 Denali Park Depot - 

rr station

depot c

sign board

Leaving the train we were divided in to two groups. Those that did not want to be part of our last photo run by would be the first group to board the bus shuttles to the hotel. The second group would do the photo shoot and then take the second wave of returning shuttles.

depot a
Packed away for winter.

closing deppot


The McKinley National Park Airport runway.

head on
On main approaching Denali Depot.





miles sign

sign b

est shot
After all the photos had been taken, we proceeded to parking lot to board our shuttle bus. It looked like an old school bus with very little room for luggage. Another reason to bring only a overnight bag. In a few minutes we arrived at the McKinley Chalet Resort and check in. My room was in a building remotest away from the Main lobby. I walked down to my building but after seeing the poster warning about bear sightings I rode the van shuttle around the resort after that. After finding my building and room I settled in and then went exploring and answer that age old question. What's for supper?

my room
My room was the end one on the bottom floor.

Then I took the resort van shuttle back to the Main Lobby and to check out the gift shop. They were having a end of season sale. Most items were 25% off and as they lost their lease they were now giving an extra 50% as the final price. So I found several nice buys.

Standing in the hotel parking lot I took this picture of the Nenana River.


Then I walked across Parks Highway to the business district that the locals call "The Canyon" to see about supper.  About half of the businesses were closed for the season and the rest were having 70 per cent off sales.  Next week they would all be closed for winter.  In the summer, this is a very busy spot, with the only electric stoplights between Wasilla and Fairbanks.

hwy stop light
Denali in background.

GPS: 63 44.374, -148 54.888

cruise line hotel

Cruise lines hotels.



The red tint on mountainsides are blueberry bushes full of berry's that the bears are now eating getting ready for their winter's sleep.

I decided on Thai combo diner to take back to room to eat and watch TV. At my shuttle stop, "Bear Stop" I picked up ice and soda pop and see the notice about bear sighting close by. I quickly return to my room.

Contact Information;

Nenana Ice Classic:

McKinley Chalet Resort:

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