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Talkeetna, a historic and funky little town with a sense of humor but not much happening, slept soundly from its decline around World War I until about 15 years ago. Now there are paved streets (both of them), a fancy National Park Service building, a larger railroad depot, and two large luxury lodges. It seems that while Talkeetna slumbered in a time capsule, an explosion of visitors was happening at Denali National Park. Now, not entirely voluntarily, Talkeetna has been enveloped in that boom.

As a threshold to the park, Talkeetna has significant pros and cons that you should take into account. On the positive side, it's closer to Anchorage; the development is much more interesting and authentic than that at the park entrance; there's lots to do outdoors; and Mount McKinley is seen more frequently, because of both geography and weather. On the negative side, a big minus: You can't get into the park from here without a long drive or an expensive flight. That may mean you miss the dramatic scenery, easy backcountry access, and unique wildlife viewing on the park road.

The town dates from the gold rush and has many charming log and clapboard buildings. With 16 sites of historic note, the entire downtown area has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. You can spend a couple of hours looking at the museum and meeting people in the 2-block main street, then go out on the Talkeetna or Susitna rivers for rafting, a jet-boat ride, or fishing, or take a flightseeing trip to the national park.