Traveling Alaska by Rail

Published: March 14, 2017

There’s something special about traveling in a train car, cruising through Alaska’s finest scenery. From your comfortable seat on the Alaska Railroad, you can gaze through the rail car’s large picture windows and see it all – Alaska’s mountaintops and treetops, glaciers, water, wildlife and even some cool urban landscapes. Your train moves at a steady and serene pace, allowing you to maximize your views and quality time with family and new friends. Walking from car to car, you can meet hikers and kayakers; longtime Alaskans who live in the wilderness and use the railroad as their main form of transportation; and fellow visitors from around the world who are taking day trips or moving from one amazing Alaska locale to the next. Stop between cars and stick your head out of the window, feeling the breeze and smiling because life is good – you’re in Alaska!

The Alaska Railroad’s 740 miles of main line tracks can take passengers as far south as the pretty port of Seward and as far north as Fairbanks, Alaska’s Golden Heart City set in the Interior. Destinations along the way range from popular (Anchorage, Talkeetna and Denali National Park) to semi- or super-secluded (Hurricane Turn, Whittier/Portage, Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop). There’s food and drink on board most trains, but also plenty of room for your day packs and snacks. The standard rail car ride is fun in its own right, but you can also upgrade to sit in a Dome car and watch the scenery from an eagle’s eye view.

Alaska Railroad Route Map

Here are some Alaska Railroad train trips you shouldn’t miss:

The Coastal Classic, Anchorage to Seward: This popular ride chugs across Turnagain Arm, around Cook Inlet and through the glacier-filled Kenai Mountains. No wonder it’s rated one of America’s best train rides! It’s also awfully flexible: you can plan a one-way trip between Alaska’s largest city and one of its prettiest ports or go round-trip in a day. If you’re choosing the round-trip from Anchorage, there’s a seven hour break in Seward to explore the tiny town – the Alaska SeaLife Center is a must see. Or you can spend the night in Seward and take a cruise into the spectacular Kenai Fjords National Park. There’s also a stop each way in Girdwood if you want to hop out for a stay in Alaska’s quaint ski hamlet. The ride is about four hours each direction.

The Denali Star, Anchorage to Fairbanks: This route lives up to its majestic name as two trains travel each direction for 12 hours between Alaska’s two largest cities, with numerous sightings of North America’s looming largest mountain. Popular stops along the way include Denali National Park and Talkeetna, where you can depart the train to start an array of adventures, from flightseeing around the great mountain, to camping in the park, to sitting on a lodge deck and staring at the grand peak.

The Hurricane Turn Train, Talkeetna to Hurricane Gulch: The Hurricane Turn is one of the last whistle-stop trains in the U.S.  and allows travelers to hop on and off where they choose as well as providing the only access people have to their remote cabins along this section of the Alaska Railroad. The train runs 55 miles through a section of dense Alaskan birch and spruce forest, winding through low mountains and over glacially fed rivers. Visitors ride the train to take in the scenery and leave civilization behind on this unique round-trip journey through the wilds of the Susitna and Indian River Valleys. Many consider this the Alaska Railroad’s best-kept secret for a truly authentic Alaskan experience and panoramic views of Denali and at the train’s turnaround point, Hurricane Gulch. Unlike all other Alaska Railroad trains, there is no dining service on the Hurricane Turn. Passengers are encouraged to bring their own meals aboard; there are several restaurants in Talkeetna that provide sack lunches.

The Glacier Discovery, Anchorage to Whittier to Grandview: This route offers the ultimate Alaska day-trip, taking off from Alaska’s largest city, traveling along Cook Inlet and stopping in a variety of places that offer adventures galore. First stop, Girdwood: Alaska’s downhill skiing headquarters that’s also pretty cool in the summer; from there, Whittier and Portage, where you can spend a day in a kayak, in the mountains or on a picnic blanket; the last two stops are the Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop, which is only accessible via train and a perfect place to spend an afternoon wandering, rafting, hiking or relaxing while watching a glacier, and Grandview, the tranquil turnaround spot. Sounds like too much fun for a few hours? You can extend your stay at Spencer Glacier by hopping on the Coastal Classic on its later return or even spend the night and return to Anchorage the next day on the Glacier Discovery or Coastal Classic. Same applies for all the stops along the way.

Aurora Winter, Anchorage to Fairbanks: The railroad’s passenger trains roll all winter, albeit on a single route with an abbreviated schedule. While traveling between the Alaska’s two largest towns, this train stops in Wasilla, Talkeetna, Healy and a handful of whistle stops, depending on its passengers. This train is the lifeline between their rural homes and weekend getaways to the big cities. Even in the dead of winter, you’ll enjoy the snowcapped sights while staying plenty warm inside the train.

Hop aboard and see all that Alaska has to offer while relaxing and enjoying your visit to “the last frontier”