Riding the Rails

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Many people want to incorporate train travel into their Alaska itineraries. Riding a train through the wilderness of the Last Frontier just seems more romantic than driving a car. After contributing to this article about the most beautiful train trips, I thought I would expand on the Alaska Railroad and how it can fit into your vacation plans.

Even if you’re not a train enthusiast, the Alaska Railroad has a rich and interesting history. Construction first began in Seward in 1903 and was completed in 1923, connecting Seward, Anchorage, and Fairbanks. That’s when President Harding drove the golden railroad spike in Nenana to mark the completion of the Alaska Railroad—this would be one of his last acts as president. He died in San Francisco on the return trip home.

World War II brought lots of military activity to Alaska. Whittier sits on Prince William Sound and was an important military port. There was a need to connect it to the rail system in order to get supplies to the interior of Alaska. The Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel was designed for this purpose. The tunnel was named for the army engineer who oversaw the construction and was later elected mayor of Anchorage. It is 2.5 miles long and passes through the Chugach Mountains, quite the engineering feat. Construction began in 1941 and was completed in 1943. In the late 1990s, modification began so that railroad and automobile traffic could share the tunnel. The one-lane tunnel opened to automobiles in 2000 making it the longest highway tunnel in North America.

Today, the Alaska Railroad connects Seward, Whittier, Anchorage, Talkeetna, Denali National Park, and Fairbanks. Cruise companies use the train to get passengers from cruise ports (Whittier or Seward) back to the airport in Anchorage or as a means of transportation for land-based cruise tours to Denali National Park and Fairbanks. As an independent traveler, using the train as your sole means of transportation can be problematic as it leaves you with limited options to travel once you are at your destination.


Routes

The Denali Star Train runs north and south between Anchorage and Fairbanks with stops in Wasilla, Talkeetna, and Denali National Park. The journey takes 12 hours and travels both directions daily in the summertime. Passengers can choose to disembark at any of the stops. This is where things can get tricky if you’re traveling independently. Using the train to travel to Denali leaves you without an easy way to get around the park. The train depot is several miles from both the Visitor’s Center and lodging. There is a local B&B that has cars for rent or you may be able to make shuttle arrangements with lodging, but there is no public transportation available in the Denali National Park area.

The Coastal Classic Train runs between Anchorage and Seward. In my opinion, it is the most scenic of all the train rides, running along Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet. Once arriving in Seward, getting around is a bit easier than in Denali. The town is small enough to walk around and there are some local taxi options to get you out of town to Exit Glacier or Miller’s Landing.

The Glacier Discovery Train is a great option if you want the experience of riding the train without the hassle of figuring out how to get around once you’re at the train depot. This is a roundtrip train trip that starts in Anchorage with brief stops in Girdwood, Whittier, and Portage before traveling on to Spencer Glacier. Here, passengers can disembark and take the 1.3 mile hike to Spencer Glacier. Passengers who elect to stay on the train travel to Grandview. Staying on the train provides more beautiful scenery and views of glaciers that can’t be seen from the highway. The train returns to pick up those who disembarked at Spencer Glacier and then returns back to Anchorage with stops in Portage, Girdwood, and Whittier. The journey takes around 12 hours but the trip can be made shorter by starting the trip in Portage which makes a nice day trip.

We did this shortened version on one of our vacations. We were traveling from Seward to overnight in Wasilla and took the Grandview roundtrip train from Portage as a day trip along the way. We were lucky with really nice weather and had great views of Spencer Glacier and even spotted a grizzly mama with her three cubs near the train tracks.

The Hurricane Turn Train is one of the nation’s last flagstop train routes. This route begins in Talkeetna and travels 56 miles north to Hurricane Gulch where it turns and returns back to Talkeetna. This route is used by locals to get to backcountry cabins or for hunting and fishing. It can be used as a sightseeing day trip from Talkeetna or as a jumping-off point for backcountry camping or a river float trip back to Talkeetna. This article has some great ideas about planning a trip using the flagstop train.

All the routes I’ve mentioned run in the summertime. The Aurora Winter Train operates from September through May with a limited schedule. Its route is between Anchorage and Fairbanks running northbound on Saturdays and southbound on Sundays with some midweek service dates. The Hurricane Turn Train runs on the first Thursday of the month in winter.



Can I Plan a Trip Using the Train?

The short answer is yes. The longer answer is complicated. On our first vacation to Alaska, we were set on riding the train. We made it work but it was not elegant. We flew into Anchorage, rented a car, and traveled south to Seward, then returned the car in Anchorage and took the train to Fairbanks. In Fairbanks, we rented another car and then backtracked to Denali and flew home from Fairbanks. As I said, not the smoothest but it worked and we got to ride the train.

On the positive side, riding the rails allows everyone to enjoy the views. In a car, the driver often gets left out of seeing the sights along the way. Also, the train doesn’t always follow the highway, so the scenery is different than what you’d get by driving.

On the downside, you don’t get to stop along the way. There are so many scenic viewpoints and interesting stops that you miss by train. I think the biggest downside is being left without easy transportation once you reach your destination. Alaska’s public transportation system is nonexistent in remote areas and limited even in Anchorage and Fairbanks.


How Can I Get Tickets?

Tickets for any of these routes can be purchased directly through Alaska Railroad’s website. The railroad offers two different classes of service: GoldStar and Adventure.

As you might expect, the GoldStar service is fancier and more expensive. These cars have glass domed ceilings for panoramic views and an outdoor viewing platform. There’s also a full-service dining car and a full bar. This service is available only on the Denali Star and Coastal Classic routes.

The Adventure class cars are more basic but do have large windows and the ability to move between cars. Some routes offer basic food and bar services.

The cruise companies have their own cars and tickets are sold directly to cruise passengers.


No matter if you’re traveling independently or on a cruise tour, train travel can be a part of your adventure. Please leave your questions or comments below.



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I fell in love with Alaska in 2007 when I took my first trip there. Planning that first vacation was very overwhelming and I found myself looking for help. Since then I've spent countless hours researching, reading, and watching anything and everything Alaska. I started this website to help you find the fun in the planning and get your dream Alaska vacation.

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