For a break from the buzz of the George Parks Highway, take a detour in Nenana (rhymes with "banana"), a year-round town of approximately 500 people, on the banks of the Tanana River and under the shadow of Toghotthele Hill or, in Athabascan, the "mountain that parallels the river." The downtown avenue seems stuck in time, a relic of the early Alaska Railroad construction heyday from 1915 to 1923.
Nenana has several claims to fame: home to the world's second-largest single-span bridge, 700 feet long; the site where President Warren Harding drove the golden spike into Alaska’s railroad to commemorate its completion (and possibly where he caught the case of pneumonia that killed him); and the start of the 1925 serum run to Nome. It's also home to the Nenana Ice classic, where Alaskans annually bet on the date and time of the river's spring breakup. Ongoing since 1917, the jackpot sometimes climbs over $300,000.
Nenana Walking Tour
To get your blood flowing, start with a short walking tour at 5th Street, where you can talk with the staff at the Nenana Visitor Center. Continue north down A Street, past old storefronts, like Coghill's General Store dating from 1916, to the Alaska Railroad Depot, home of the Alaska Railroad Museum, which was built in 1923 and is now on the National Register of Historic Places. It's a fascinating stop, with a lot more inside than just train stuff. One block more along Front Street, peek into St. Mark's Episcopal Church, built upriver in 1905; note its beautiful handcrafted altar and Athabascan moose-hide beadwork inside. Finish the tour along the river at the Alfred Starr Nenana Cultural Center, where you'll find authentic gifts by local artists from within 50 miles of Nenana, or browse the exhibits highlighting history and Athabascan culture of the area.