By Ginny Prior

IF THERE’S one place on the nation’s radar right now, it’s Alaska. Politics notwithstanding, the state is still a mystery to many Americans who haven’t explored the small coastal villages and rugged interior towns that make up our 49th state.

It’s autumn in Alaska right now — but the season tends to pass rather quickly. In Denali National Park last week, the landscape was ablaze with auburn and gold — framed by a snow-capped Mt. McKinley against a cornflower blue sky. Yet, the first hint of winter was revealing itself in the crisp Siberian breeze, creating a sense of urgency as the land prepared for the cold, dark season ahead.

Our trip to Denali was as spectacular as the park itself. We traveled with Holland America via the famed Alaska Railroad. The sparkling glass-domed cars, dubbed the McKinley Explorer, allowed us panoramic views of the wild rivers chiseled through Black Spruce forests, punctuated by an endless expanse of mountains and meadows.

On the return trip from Denali, we took the train to my favorite Alaskan city, Anchorage. With its compact downtown tucked along Cook Inlet, we were able to bike or walk almost everywhere, with some surprising results. We spotted a moose on the town’s Coastal Trail. (Between 200 and 300 moose live in town, so I guess it’s not that unusual.) We watched as fishermen (and women) pulled wriggling salmon from nearby Ship Creek. And we feasted on reindeer sausage for lunch (grilled at Famous Mike’s sausage stand outside city hall) with a four-star dinner at the popular Glacier Brewhouse.

Like most visitors, we took time for the scenic coastal drive south on the Seward Highway. Our Holland America/Gray Line trip included a rental car and accommodations, which in Seward were at the picturesque Seward Windsong Lodge.

There’s plenty to do in this charming port town, but a must-see is the boat trip (part of our package) to Kenai Fjords National Park to see whales, dolphins and dozens of clown-faced puffins perched in the craggy rocks. We cut our engines within yards of the Hubbard Glacier, the largest tidewater glacier in North America. Unlike most glaciers, which have thinned and retreated in recent years, the Hubbard Glacier is actually thickening and advancing toward the Gulf of Alaska. As our ship bobbed serenely in the slushy waters, we’d hear the thunderous roar of the ice as it “calved” off in sections, tumbling in a cloud of crystal dust to the waters below. This experience alone was like none other on earth.

In stark contrast to Seward is the rugged inland town of Talkeetna. Once a supply station for miners and trappers, it’s the closest town to Denali and a staging area for climbers who want to tackle the high peaks of the Alaska Range. It was at our hotel, the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, that we got our best look at one of the world’s most impressive mountain — McKinley.

One thing that sets Alaska apart from other states is the consistently stunning scenery. Every mile of every highway or rail line you take offers postcard views of the mountains and waterways. Eagles still soar overhead and bears lumber through rain-soaked meadows to feast on salmon and berries.

And while many of Alaska’s tours and travel-related businesses shut down in winter, it gives natives a chance to enjoy their own quiet time with nature, only to welcome the onslaught of visitors in spring.

In the words of a native Athabaskan I met on my trip, “it takes spirit and desire to make the journey to a distant land and understand its people and culture.” How lucky we are to have someplace so different, just a few hours north by air.

The best times to go on the Holland America/Gray Line tours are in May and September, when both crowds and prices are down.


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