I booked my freebie flight in and out of Anchorage, bought a train ticket up to Denali, then another train ticket to go further up to Fairbanks. I reserved a campsite at Denali, hotels in both Anchorage and Fairbanks, and finally, I booked a flight from Fairbanks back down to Anchorage so I could make my return flight home. It's about a 12-hour train-ride from Fairbanks to Anchorage vs. a 1-hour flight, and the cost is about the same. Since I'd have already covered those same tracks on the way up, I decided to save a little time on the way back. I made several trips to the local REI store for some necessary equipment, and left Newport Beach with the 60-liter backpack from my South American adventure and another duffellbag stuffed with 40 lbs. of camping gear.
The trip to Anchorage via Dallas took all day (the penalty for using frequent flyer miles), but was otherwise uneventful. I got in to Anchorage (pop. 250 k) at a bout 9:00 pm. The skies were overcast and the place seemed no different than any other mid-sized town, except that it was still light outside when I left a restaurant/bar at around 11:30 pm. My train was leaving at 8:00 am the next morning, so I figured I'd just make it easy on myself, retire early, and get a good night's sleep.
Anchorage train station.
The first-class section of the train to Denali that day was already full when I booked my ticket, but I did get a first-class ticket for my second-leg from Denali to Fairbanks later on. The train had a total of only 8 or 10 cars. After the engines and the baggage car, there were two first-class passenger cars. Then, there was a bar/dining car, 3 regular "excursion-class" cars, and finally, 4 or 5 cruise-ship cars.
The cruise-ships actually own their own train-cars and just pay a fee to the railroad company for pulling them. This way, they get to control the reservations and concessions, and probably charge their tourists a higher price for the ticket. The "excursion-class" section of the train was fine by me, and costs about half as much as first-class. The middle excursion-class car (below, built in the 1950's) had an upper-level observation section with dome windows. It's open to everyone, and you can eat in the first-class dining area if there is availability.
Excursion-class observation deck
Denali is about 280 miles North of Anchorage, and the trip takes about 8 hours. With the slow, gentle motion of the train, big windows, and beautiful scenery, it's a pretty relaxing way to travel. They also have someone that points out interesting sights and provides a narration of what's going on around you. I brought James Michener's novel Alaska and was able to make some pretty good progress on its 800 pages.