With towering mountain ranges, thousands of miles of coastline and immense wilderness, it’s hard for a visitor to experience the full scope of Alaska’s beauty — unless you take the train.
The Alaska Railroad (800-544-0552) links the state’s largest cities and offers a lifeline to remote settlements far from any road. With several routes and train cars designed for sightseeing, it’s also a perfect way to view Alaska from the ground up.
The rail line organizes an array of touring options, including train-plane travel packages, rafting excursions and guided hikes. It also rightfully boasts about its GoldStar package, an upgraded passenger service that includes meals in a dining car, an outdoor viewing platform and glass-topped rail cars designed for taking in soaring mountain views. (Note that the Alaska Railroad’s wheelchair lifts are available only in Anchorage, Wasilla and Talkeetna.) Also consider the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad, which is separate from the Alaska Railroad and often listed among the world’s most scenic rail lines. One of its routes, described below, takes you from the historic town of Skagway and along the path of gold rush prospectors, deep into the Yukon.
If you’re visiting by cruise ship, your line may offer one or more of these train trips as an optional excursion.
Here are some top trips to consider.
Route: Anchorage to Fairbanks
The backbone of the Alaska Railroad, this route connects the state’s two biggest cities and provides a spectacular way to visit Denali National Park. While travelers can make the 356-mile, 12-hour trip in a day, many like to break it up with overnights in the funky town of Talkeetna or at the entrance to Denali. It’s possible to connect with park buses that head into the wilderness home of Alaska’s big four: grizzlies, moose, caribou and Dall sheep.
But there’s wonderful sightseeing from the train itself, including views of towering Denali, the tallest mountain in North America. (Tip: The best mountain views come at mileposts 224.3 and 279.) The journey takes you through deep canyons, skirts wild rivers and crosses the towering 296-foot-tall Hurricane Gulch rail trestle. Though you may pass the occasional wilderness cabin, you’ll be snaking deep into unspoiled (besides the train tracks!) nature.
Details: Trips available from May 11 to Sept. 18, 2022. Adult one-way tickets are $259; $473 for GoldStar service, which includes seated breakfast, lunch, dinner, drinks and access to a two-story, glass-domed car and outdoor viewing platform.
Hurricane Turn Train
Route: Talkeetna to Hurricane Gulch in summer; Anchorage to Hurricane Gulch in winter
The unique Hurricane Turn Train is one of the few on the continent to offer flag-stop service. It operates like a sort of backcountry city bus, letting hunters, hikers and adventurers leave or join the train anywhere along the wilderness route, as it climbs from Talkeetna north through the Indian River Valley.
Route highlights include views of Denali and the turnaround at Hurricane Gulch Bridge, the longest span on the Alaska Railroad. During the summer, many passengers depart at Curry for a walking tour of the historic resort community and a jet boat ride back to Talkeetna on the Susitna River.
While the train has several stops along its 55-mile route, its main appeal is the authentic Alaska camaraderie; you’re likely to meet locals and visitors heading off the grid. Although there’s no food service, Talkeetna restaurants and its general store will provide to-go meals for dining on board.
Details: In the summer, the Hurricane operates Thursday through Monday. Round-trip adult tickets are $114. (For pricing on the Curry train-jet boat excursion, check the railroad’s site.) The Winter Hurricane operates on the first Thursday of the month October through May. Round-trip tickets are $135 for adults; $68 for adults 65 and older.
Coastal Classic Train
Route: Anchorage to Seward
With glaciers, rugged coastline and mountain lakes, this 228-mile round-trip excursion on the Coastal Classic takes advantage of Alaska’s long summer days to cover some of the state’s prettiest territory. The blue and yellow Alaska Railroad train glides out of downtown Anchorage at 6:45 a.m., passing through a wildlife refuge and along the Turnagain Arm between the Chugach Mountains and the sea. Along the way it offers views of waterfalls, historic rail trestles and remote emerald lakes, stopping in the town of Girdwood and then heading through Kenai Fjords National Park. Riders arrive at the rugged fishing town of Seward on Resurrection Bay just after 11 a.m. for a seven-hour layover that can include tours, lunch at a remote island lodge, or a dog-sled ride and visit to husky kennels. There’s also a chance to browse shops and galleries, and visit the outstanding Alaska SeaLife Center aquarium. The return trip leaves at 6 p.m., arriving back in Anchorage just after 10.
Details: Service from May 7 to Sept. 18, 2022. Adult round-trip tickets during high season (June 1-Aug. 31) are $197; $393 for GoldStar service, which includes seated breakfast and dinner, drinks and access to a two-story, glass-domed car and outdoor viewing platform. For shoulder or “value” season (May 7-31 and Sept. 1-18) fares drop to $173, $347 for GoldStar service.
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Aurora Winter Train
Route: Anchorage to Fairbanks
Take in snow-blanketed Alaska scenery from the cozy comfort of a rail car on the Aurora Winter Train. This seasonal service offers a chance to escape the crowds and enjoy the tranquil landscape on an 11.5-hour trip.
The train makes whistle stops for backcountry adventure seekers and others heading to remote cabins and campsites along a 50-mile stretch south of Hurricane Gulch, offering the possibility of a Denali view. Many travelers also come aboard to reach unique festivals like Talkeetna’s Bachelor Auction and its Wilderness Woman competition. Another popular option: overnighting in Talkeetna to take a pie-baking class at its famous roadhouse.
And while there’s no guarantee that you’ll see the spectacular (and unpredictable) northern lights, many winter visitors are able to catch the wondrous show.
Details: The train runs on a limited schedule, leaving Anchorage on Saturday and returning from Fairbanks on Sunday, along with select midweek departures in December, February and March. Adult round-trip tickets are $446; $224 for adults 65 and older. Other popular options include a train-air package, which includes rail service from Anchorage to Fairbanks and a flight back. During value season (April 2-May 8, 2022) tickets are $426; $214 for adults 65 and older. Last year, fall value season ran from Sept. 18 to Nov. 21; this year’s dates and fares are yet to be announced.
Glacier Discovery Train
Route: Anchorage to Grandview
Consider this train your shuttle to adventure, as it makes stops in several tiny towns with exciting touring options for day-trippers (and those staying longer).
For example, after leaving Anchorage at 9:45 a.m., this train visits the town of Portage. Disembark there to visit the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, where you can see black and brown bears, moose, caribou and wood bison. Or stay onboard for a trip through a mountain tunnel to the town of Whittier, which serves as the gateway to Prince William Sound. Here you can catch glacier and wildlife day cruises, and make connections to Alaska Marine Highway System ferries and cruise ships.
The train then backtracks to pick up passengers who stopped in Portage, and makes a whistle stop at Spencer Glacier, where the U.S. Forest Service offers a free ranger-led hike in Chugach National Forest. (You also can book rafting or even ice-climbing tours from here.) Finally, it heads through mountain tunnels to Grandview, offering vistas of mountains, meadows and glaciers. Then it turns around and does everything in reverse on the way back to Anchorage, where it arrives at 9:15 p.m.
Details: The full route runs June 4-Sept. 11, 2022; you can ride part of the route, to Whittier, starting May 14, 2022. Adult round-trip tickets are $152.
White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad
Route: Skagway to White Pass Summit
One of the world’s most spectacular train rides, a day trip from the Gold Rush town of Skagway, takes passengers along a well-worn path. The narrow-gauge rail line opened in 1898 to haul prospectors to the Klondike gold rush, climbing nearly 3,000 feet in 20 miles. For decades, it served as the primary route to the Yukon, hauling freight and supplies to mining camps and settlements. Today the route, with tunnels and high trestles, is still considered an engineering marvel.
Now it operates as a heritage railway, with distinctive green and yellow engines pulling trains full of cruise ship passengers and other visitors into the wilderness. It passes waterfalls and deep gulches, and offers sweeping views of mountaintops and glaciers. The most popular outing, a 40-mile round-trip White Pass summit excursion, lasts about two and a half hours.
You can also choose from a range of daylong trips, some including the chance to hike or to bike down the mountain pass.
Details: Adult tickets for the summit excursion begin at $134 round-trip. Reserve at wpyr.com or call 800-343-7373.
Virginia native Larry Bleiberg is president of the Society of American Travel Writers, a frequent contributor to BBC Travel and the creator of CivilRightsTravel.com.