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Denali and Fairbanks, Alaska, for $2,500 to $3,000

By Carol Sottili
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 6, 2010; F03

Who: Carol Rich, 51, of Ashburn

Where: Fairbanks, Alaska, and Denali National Park and Preserve

Why: Adventure solo trip

When: A week in early October

Budget: $2,500 to $3,000

"My interests include seeing the northern lights, photography, panning for gold, history, riding trains, checking out the glaciers, day hiking and viewing wildlife. I'm also interested in visiting Chena Hot Springs Resort."

Pack the parka and grab the snowshoes. Yes, I'm exaggerating, at least about the snowshoes, but October in Alaska, the destination Carol Rich of Ashburn has selected, can get cold. Rich may find the hot springs she wants to visit quite welcome after dealing with temperatures that probably won't make it out of the very low 40s and will dip to below freezing at night. And while deep snow probably won't be a factor, the first snowfall in Fairbanks occurs, on average, Sept. 21.

October is too late for river rafting but too early for dog mushing. The good news is that the crowds will be gone. But by mid-September, many hotels and attractions close for the season, which means fewer organized activities.

Day 1. Even though Anchorage is not on Rich's wish list, it's the cheapest arrival city. Round-trip airfare from Reagan National in early October was recently $442 on Delta with one convenient connection, while fares for one-connection flights into Fairbanks cost $1,057. An open-jaw trip with arrival in one city and departure from the other was running about $828. Fairbanks and Anchorage are about 360 miles apart on Parks Highway (Route 3), and Denali sits between the two, so driving from Anchorage is doable.

If it were high season, the Denali Star train (http://www.alaskarailroad.com), which travels seasonally between Anchorage and Fairbanks, stopping at Denali and several other scenic locations, would be a transportation option. In October, however, Rich will need to rent a car, preferably a four-wheel-drive vehicle just in case of early snow. A Chevy Trailblazer rented through Alamo (877-222-9075, http://www.alamo.com) at the Anchorage airport will cost about $393 for the week.

An overnight in Anchorage after the long travel day is in order. Lake Hood Inn (866-663-9322, http://www.lakehoodinn.com), with rates starting at $79 a night, is close to the airport.

Days 2 and 3. The entrance to Denali is five hours from Anchorage, so hit the road early. Beginning Sept. 21, private vehicles are allowed to drive into the park as far as the Teklanika River, about 30 miles from Parks Highway; entrance fee is $20. Stop at the Murie Science and Learning Center, which serves as the park's winter visitors center, to get the lay of the land. As for wildlife viewing, critters hunker down as temperatures fall, and the National Park Service's Web site warns, "You may end up with many more landscape photos than ones of animals, unless you have a considerable number of days to spend in your search." No structured activities are offered in October by park rangers, but solo day hiking is available from the visitors center. Info: 907-683-2294, http://www.nps.gov/dena.

Most lodges near Denali's entrance close in mid-September. But several cabins and bed-and-breakfast inns stay open year-round in the Healy area, including Denali Lakeview Inn (907-683-4035, http://www.denalilakeviewinn.com), with rates starting at $79. For other choices, contact the Denali Chamber of Commerce (907-683-4636, http://www.denalichamber.com).

Days 4 and 5. Head to Fairbanks, about two hours north of Healy. With a population of about 30,000, Fairbanks offers some urban attractions but retains an Alaskan outpost feel. Gold-panning, for example, is offered at several places, including the El Dorado Gold Mine (866-479-6673, http://www.eldoradogoldmine.com), but tours end in mid-September. The University of Alaska Museum of the North (907-474-7505, http://www.uaf.edu/museum) is a must-do, offering Alaska's largest natural history collection; winter admission is $10.

Instead of overnighting in Fairbanks, spend the day and then make the hour-long drive to Chena Hot Springs (907-451-8104, http://www.chenahotsprings.com). The resort features a heated log cabin designed for aurora-viewing, with large glass windows facing the northeast. Guests can request an "aurora wake-up call": A staffer calls your room if the northern lights appear. They are most visible from September to April, when nights are longest. The resort also offers natural hot springs, a spa and even an ice museum. It isn't cheap, with rooms starting at $189 plus $10 for entrance to the hot springs, but it's worth at least two nights.

Days 6 and 7. The trip back to Anchorage is a long haul from Chena Hot Springs, taking at least 7 1/2 hours. So break up the ride by staying in Talkeetna, about two hours north of Anchorage, for a couple of nights on the return trip. Rich in history and surrounding natural beauty, Talkeetna is home to many artists and musicians. One of the town's most touching sights is the Mount McKinley Climbers' Memorial, dedicated to those who have died on the mountain.

The entire downtown area was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993. The Talkeetna Historical Society (907-733-2487, http://www.talkeetnahistoricalsociety.org) operates a small museum where you can learn about the area's gold-mining history and about Mount McKinley. (Call ahead for October visits.)

The area also offers many outdoor adventures. Several companies offer air tours of Mount McKinley; Talkeetna Air Taxi (800-533-2219, http://www.talkeetnaair.com), for example, offers flights in October, but a ride will cost a solo traveler $450, plus $75 if you want to land on a glacier at the base of Mount McKinley to take photos. But the company will try to pair up solo travelers to reduce the price. Day hikes are also popular; the Talkeetna Chamber of Commerce (907-733-2330, http://www.talkeetnachamber.org) offers a list of guides. Travel Alaska (http://www.travelalaska.com) is another good resource.

Many of Talkeetna's lodges are open in the off-season. Susitna River Lodging (866-733-1505, http://www.susitna-river-lodging.com), for example, has lodge rooms starting at $89 a night.

One last thought: It would be easier to make all your stops in one direction and then drop the rental car off in Fairbanks, but that would more than triple the rental car price. The Aurora Winter Train (http://www.alaskarailroad.com), which travels through lovely scenery, leaves Fairbanks each Sunday at 8:30 a.m., arriving in Anchorage at 8 p.m.; a one-way ticket starts at $167. And a one-way flight on either Alaska Airlines or Era Aviation is about $133.

Total Cost: Airfare is $442, the car and gas about $478 and hotels about $900 with taxes. Sightseeing is the big wild card: The McKinley flight tour would be a big-ticket item at $450, unless the cost can be split. But even with the tour, the trip is doable at the $3,000 level.

Interested in having us help plan your trip? Go to www.washingtonpost.com/goingourway.

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