The Alaska Railroad (tel. 800/544-0552 or 907/265-2494; www.alaskarailroad.com) pioneered tourism to the park before the George Parks Highway was built in 1972. In summer, trains leave both Anchorage and Fairbanks daily at 8:15am, arriving at the park from Anchorage at 3:45pm and from Fairbanks at 12:15pm, crossing and going on to the opposite city for arrival at 8pm in each. The basic fare from Anchorage to Denali is $146 one-way for adults, from Fairbanks $64, half price for children ages 2 to 11, free 1 and under. First-class Gold Star seats are $85 more per leg. The train also stops in Wasilla and Talkeetna; visit the website for details. The full train runs only from mid-May to mid-September, with somewhat lower fares in the first and last few weeks of the season. During the winter, the Alaska Railroad runs a single passenger car from Anchorage to Fairbanks and back once a week -- a truly spectacular, truly Alaskan experience.
Train Choices -- Alaska Railroad executives know that their fares are high for a simple ride to Denali. As one told me, "We're selling entertainment," and that's how you should judge your choices. So, to review the entertainment: All the cars are luxurious, and some are grand and highly memorable; the rail line follows a historic, unspoiled route through beautiful countryside; there's a good chance of seeing moose and caribous; and the food is good. There are disadvantages, too. The train is very expensive. You can rent a small car for a week for the same price as one Anchorage round-trip on the train. It's slow, adding 3 hours to a trip from Anchorage to the park, and when it's late, it can be very late. And once you arrive, you have to rely on shuttles and courtesy vans to get around outside the park.
After you decide to ride the train, you have to choose which part of the train. One set of Alaska Railroad locomotives pulls the Alaska Railroad cars and other sets of cars with full glass domes owned by cruise lines, two of which have seats for independent travelers (although 90% or more are filled with their older cruise-ship customers). The two cruise lines are both owned by the same company. Princess Cruises and Tours (tel. 800/426-0500; www.princesslodges.com) has tall, all-dome cars with table seating upstairs and dining rooms downstairs; there's plenty of head room and large balconies at the ends of the cars on the lower deck, where you can ride outdoors. Gray Line of Alaska, a part of Holland America (tel. 888/452-1737; www.graylinealaska.com), has newer cars that are even better than Princess's. They're huge and comfortable, with all seats facing forward upstairs -- an advantage over table seating -- and dining rooms below that are large enough so only two seatings are needed for each meal. (All meals are served at assigned seatings in the cruise-line cars.)
The Alaska Railroad offers two classes of service. The basic service is in traditional railroad cars. They're clean and have big windows and forward-facing seats. Passengers stroll around and dine when and how they please rather than at assigned seatings. Old-fashioned Vista Dome cars provide a limited but adequate number of shared dome seats. By paying another $85, you can upgrade to Gold Star service, with your own full-dome seat for the entire trip on custom-built double-decker cars like the cruise lines', with a sumptuous white-tablecloth dining room downstairs (eat when you like). These are my favorite cars on the train. They're decorated with original fine art and are very luxurious, but you still know you're on a train, not a cruise ship, and you're not treated as a herd animal. Also, the cars have large outdoor vestibules on the upper deck. The views and open air there are incredible.
All passenger seats are assigned on all the cars. You can't walk from one company's cars to another, but you can walk between cars in your own train section. Fares on all three options are similarly high, but they're more advantageously priced as part of lodging and tour packages, which you can buy from the railroad or the cruise lines.
Renting a car and driving from Anchorage or Fairbanks is far cheaper and far faster than taking the train. It's easy to average 65 mph on a good two-lane highway, making the drive about 4 1/2 hours from Anchorage and 2 1/2 hours from Fairbanks. (The train averages 40 mph and takes 7 1/2 hr. to get from Anchorage to Denali.) Many of the views along the Parks Highway are equal to the views on the train, but large stretches, especially in the Matanuska and Susitna valleys, near Anchorage, have been spoiled by ugly roadside development (which you don't see from the train). A long but spectacular detour around the mess leads through Hatcher Pass on a mountainous gravel road open only in the summer. Farther north from Anchorage, the Parks Highway passes through Denali State Park. If the weather's clear, you can see Mount McKinley from the pullouts there. The state park also contains several campgrounds, public-use cabins, hiking trails, and a veterans' memorial. Byers Lake is a nice stop with a good campground and with canoe and kayak rental from Denali Southside River Guides (tel. 907/733-RAFT ; www.denaliriverguides.com) -- the company also offers guided river rafting, kayaking, and fly-fishing. The park has a visitor contact station at the memorial, at mile 147. For information, contact the Mat-Su Area Park Headquarters (tel. 907/746-5000; www.alaskastateparks.org). From Fairbanks, the drive is pleasant but rarely spectacular. Allow an hour to stop in the quaint riverside town of Nenana, where you can see an old railroad depot museum.
Several van and bus services inexpensively connect Anchorage and Fairbanks to Denali. Most will carry bikes and other gear for an additional fee. The Park Connection Motorcoach Service (tel. 800/266-8625; www.alaskacoach.com) runs big, comfortable coaches to Denali from Anchorage and Seward, with two buses daily in each direction. The Anchorage fare is $90, Seward $145. Children 11 and under ride for half price; those 4 and under need a car seat. Alaska/Yukon Trails (tel. 800/770-7275; www.alaskashuttle.com) also offers daily service from Anchorage and Fairbanks, with stops at any other point on the way. The one-way fare is $75 from Anchorage, $55 from Fairbanks.
McKinley Flight Tours, also known as Talkeetna Aero Services (tel. 888/733-2899 or 907/683-2899; www.talkeetna-aero.com), offers the only scheduled air service to Denali from its base in Talkeetna, or from Anchorage (summer only). Flights are 1-day packages that include flightseeing on the way, a bus tour at the park, a box lunch, and ground transfers. It's the only way to "do" Denali in a day. The package from Anchorage is $595, from Talkeetna $495; they need at least four passengers.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.