The drive from Anchorage to Fairbanks would be a killer without a stop in Talkeetna, the "Gateway to Mt. McKinley." This tiny town is the main staging area for climbers waiting to begin their Mt. McKinley expeditions and is said to be the inspiration for the Emmy-winning television series "Northern Exposure." Talkeetna is a great place to get a feel for life in a small Alaskan community. Our base at Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge provided the perfect place to relax and unwind.
Talkeetna is a popular departure point for a number of the Mt. McKinley flightseeing tours as well as a number of water-based trips. For us, this tiny town with a trading post and one stop sign was a place to chill out and learn more about Mt. McKinley. Over a breakfast of raspberry and walnut sourdough pancakes at the Talkeetna Roadhouse, we talked with waiters and guests about climbing experiences and other Alaskan adventures.
It takes an average of 21 days for climbers to reach the 20,320-foot summit of Mt. McKinley, but only about half of the expeditions make it to the top of the mountain. The pictures and mementos lining the walls of the Talkeetna Roadhouse attest to the difficulty of the journey. We came to the Roadhouse for the authentic atmosphere, but stayed for the food. Before leaving, we grabbed a few raspberry and blueberry scones for the road. The greatest regret of our trip - we should have taken the blueberry pie along with us as well.
The stretch of George Parks Highway from Talkeetna to Fairbanks is long, but we broke it up with a variety of experiences. The views of Mt. McKinley are supposedly breathtaking from here, but the mountain was swathed in clouds that day. Views of Mt. McKinley are only possible approximately 20 percent of the time during the summer months, so our mission was to see it at least once during our trip. The terrain alternated between barren sand-colored desert and lush fall colors studded with evergreens. It was impossible to know what would be around the next turn. "Into the Wild" was filmed in this region and the isolation of the area is easily apparent. We celebrated our arrival at the Westmark Fairbanks Hotel with dinner at the Alaskan Salmon Bake at Pioneer Park, a 44-acre theme park focused around the heritage of Fairbanks. Although it's nothing like Disney World, the Park's many museums and exhibits make it an interesting stop.
Another of our trip's highlights came that evening, when Mother Nature rewarded us with a spectacular view of the Northern Lights. Visitors to Alaska can sometimes see the aurora borealis in late August, but it's much more likely during the fall months. We left a request at the hotel's front desk for a wake-up call and were stunned to be awakened with a call in the middle of the night. This was yet another time when we were happy to have a car on our trip. Although the Northern Lights could be seen from the hotel, we were able to get the best view from the pullout area by the University of Alaska Museum on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. The dancing, shimmering swirls of neon color in the skies were beyond belief. We were told that the aurora was best viewed from the dark skies around Ester, but in the middle of the night we decided to skip that trip.
Fairbanks is yet another town packed with family adventures. Pan for gold at Gold Dredge No. 8, take a paddlewheel riverboat cruise, take a trip to see the Santa Claus House and reindeer in the little town of North Pole, tour the University of Alaska's Museum of the North, or experience the extremes of temperature at Chena Hot Springs Resort. After a very successful panning for gold trip to Gold Dredge No. 8 and a quick stop at the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, we headed out to enjoy Chena Hot Spring's naturally heated waters and world-renowned ice hotel. Gas stations are often few and far between in Alaska, and the road to Chena Hot Springs was no exception. The moose along Chena Hot Springs Road were significantly more plentiful than the opportunities to fill up the car's tank. If you go, watch out for wildlife along the sides of the road (and crossing it) and make sure not to ignore those "last gas station" signs. Once at Chena Hot Springs, the "hottest" and "coolest" attraction in Alaska did not disappoint. We basked in the heat of the outdoor mineral hot springs and curled up in an ice bed in the largest year-round ice environment in the world.
Upon returning to Fairbanks, we stopped for homemade Alaska blueberry ice cream at Hot Licks before turning out car in at the airport. Rounding the turn, we stopped dead in our tracks. There was Mt. McKinley, out in all of its blazing glory and clearly visible from over 120 miles away. We headed back up to our perch next to the University of Alaska Museum to marvel at yet one more of Mother Nature's wonders before returning our rental car. We couldn't wait to head down to Denali.