We took a 4 hour train ride on the McKinley Explorer, the world's largest passenger cars, from Fairbanks to Denali National Park early morn, going from 400 ft in elevation to 2000 ft. The spruce trees we passed by eventually turned into clusters of 4ft tall trees due to the permafrost that forces the roots closer to the surface. Other than the spruce trees, the train kept the Alaskan Mountain Range in sight through most of our journey. I was excited about taking my first train ride in the U.S., but was underwhelmed because the view never changed like I had expected based on pictures in travel guides. I had the impression that I would be surprised by every turn we took. Perhaps that would have happened if we had done an independent roadtrip through Alaska.
Breakfast in the dining car was an event. It feels sophisticated to not dine at your seat for once in any kind of transportation. Breakfast consisted of scrambled eggs, reindeer sausage, hash browns, toast and coffee.
The view finally started to change as we approached closer to Denali at higher elevations, allowing us to finally see beyond the treeline. The environment looks dry because Denali is located in an arctic tundra, which has characteristics of a desert.At around 2PM, we took a 4 hour long natural history tour that was quite wretched. I recommend doing the 5AM natural history tour instead because the chance of wildlife sighting is much higher when the temperature is cooler. The natural history bus tour gets you inside parts of the park and preserve area where private vehicles can not venture.
We spent so much time looking for wildlife and guesstimating the location of Mount McKinley during the hottest time of the day and not seeing anything that we missed out on simply enjoying a more varied viewing of the park's sights.
The best view we were taken to was at Primrose Ridge.
Bristol Bay Crab Cakes with tomato-horseradish compote and garlic aioli
Our conversation recapping the day was cynical to say the least. We had such expectations for the abundance of wildlife and incomparable natural sights that we would see in Alaska and practically none of the expectations were met! I felt horrid being so harsh, but I simply couldn't pull the "Emperor's New Clothes" on myself and say that it's all there and that I'm just being ignorant of Alaska's beauty. I know that the lack of wildlife sighting was due to bad timing, and that can't be helped. However, the landscape can not be described as majestic like in brochures and travel guides. Yes, everything is big here, but the permafrost really hinders the growth and variety of the plants here. You really have to stay in Alaska at least a year to see nature in all four seasons to appreciate its very understated beauty.
I hate permafrost