Unless you rent your own floatplane and bush pilot when planning a visit to Alaska next year, nothing can beat the opportunities offered by riding the tracks of the Alaska Railroad. With nearly 500 miles of steel stretching from the ancient city of Seward in the south-central Kenai Peninsula to the gold rush outpost of Fairbanks, the views are spectacular and the side trips spine tingling!
Riding the entire rail system takes visitors through diverse sections of Alaska that are both rugged and breathtakingly beautiful. Gorgeous rivers, waterfalls, and tiny tributaries are often seen from a distance or as sheer rock cliffs straight below the train tracks. Moose, black and grizzly bears, Dall sheep, mountain goats, eagles, and many other wildlife species can be viewed from the comfortable seat of your train car.
The Denali Star operates daily between Anchorage and Fairbanks with stops at Talkeetna and Denali. Along the route, this train goes through the Chugach National Forest, Denali National Park, and Denali State Park. When the weather is clear, fantastic views of Mt. McKinley can be seen from Talkeetna to Denali, and you will pass over famous Hurricane Gulch with its 918 foot long bridge that is 296 feet above the Chulitna River. Soon after leaving Anchorage, the train follows the Knik Arm and through Sarah Palin’s hometown of Wasilla. This trip covers 350 miles and takes 12 hours, including the stops.
Seward is a quaint little seaside village that is reached daily from Anchorage on the Coastal Classic train, which travels south along the picturesque Turnagain Arm before climbing into the mountains of the Kenai though Moose Pass. Snowcapped mountains, glaciers, raging rivers, and placid lowland lakes are passed during the 130 miles and 4 hours of the trip.
For some Alaska cruise passengers and those going for a day cruise to see glaciers, the railroad offers a train between Anchorage and Whittier. This trip also follows the Turnagain Arm that boasts the highest tides in the World at more than 30 feet. One might spot beluga whales chasing salmon on the incoming tide or see Dall sheep on the steep mountainsides. Beyond the town of Girdwood, the track turns away from the mainline and goes through a tunnel that is 2 miles in length before reaching Whittier. For more information or reservations, call toll-free 800-544-0552.
To make the most out of your trip on the railroad through Alaska, places to stay are a must, and excellent side trips will reward you with memories of a lifetime. Below are some suggestions for exciting side trips and lodging:
When traveling between train adventures, stay at the Historic Anchorage Hotel, which is within walking distance of the railroad station and is the oldest hotel in the city. The service is fantastic, they will store your bags between trips, and a Continental breakfast is always ready very early. For more info or reservations, call toll-free: 800-544-0988.
If you fly to or from Anchorage Airport, I would suggest a night on each end of your Alaskan stay at the immaculate and eclectic Judy’s Touch of Class B & B near the airport. Judy and Jim Powell always go the “extra mile” to make your stay easy and pleasant. Also, Jim takes people who stay at the B & B on flight seeing trips in his beautiful Cessna 182 for just the cost of gas, and he often picks you up and delivers you to the airport. For more info or reservations, call toll-free: 888-340-6390.
Anchorage Side Trips:
You can’t come to Alaska without catching your fill of wild salmon, and this can be achieved by taking a quick flight out of Lake Hood in a floatplane from Rust’s Flying Service to Riversong Lodge on the Yentna River. Whether a day trip or a week, Randy and Robin Dewar will see that you catch plenty of fish, eat gourmet meals, and receive an education on outback Alaska living. For more info or reservations, call: 907-350-2392.
Depending on weather, a day trip to Whittier by the Alaska Railroad to experience a Phillips 26 Glacier Cruise should be on your list. If Mother Nature is nice, this cruise into Prince William Sound covers 135 miles and allows an “up close and personal” view of 26 named glaciers of several types. During the trip, sea lions, whales, bear, sea otters, mountain goats, eagles, and other birds and wildlife may be seen. This trip also includes a scrumptious meal of either salmon or prime rib with all the trimmings. For more info, call toll-free 800-544-0529.
Denali Side Trip with Lodging:
No trip to Alaska would be complete without taking a bus tour in the shadow of Mt. McKinley through Denali National Park to Wonder Lake and the old mining area of Kantishna to spend a couple of nights at the Denali Backcountry Lodge. This unique, picturesque property lies at the end of the 92 mile road that winds through a wilderness with surprises at every bend. Golden eagles soar overhead and one may see caribou, bears, wolves, moose, Dall sheep, and other wildlife. For more info or reservations, call 877-233-6254 or 907-376-1992.
Since it’s right beside the airport and shuttle transportation is provided to the train station or any other part of Fairbanks, the best place to stay is Pike’s Waterfront Lodge on the Chena River. For more info or reservations, call toll-free 877-774-2400.
Fairbanks Side Trips:
For the adventure of a lifetime, Warbelow’s Air Ventures is the only way to go! They offer mail flights into the bush country, wildlife viewing flights, native village fly ins, air trips into the Arctic National Park and Anaktuvuk Pass, and even an Arctic Coast Polar Bear Expedition. For more information call toll-free 800-478-0812.
The Hotel Seward is centrally located, unique, historic, clean, friendly, and owned and operated by an Alaskan family who make you feel at home. It is also the chosen hotel of the Alaska Railroad engineers and crews, and the walls are adorned with numerous pictures and paintings of the trains. For more information or reservations, call toll-free 800-440-2444.
Seward Side Trips:
Right down the street from the Hotel Seward is the Alaska SeaLife Center, which is a world-class marine science facility. One can observe many native animals and birds in natural settings and listen to explanations of the research being done to protect and rehabilitate all Alaskan species. For more info or reservations, call toll-free 888-378-2525.
Any trip to Seward has to include a wildlife cruise through Resurrection Bay and parts of the Kenai Fjords National Park with Major Marine Tours. The gorgeous vistas are breathtaking, and you will be astounded by whales, Dall porpoises, huge stellar sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters, eagles, and spectacular glaciers. If the weather is good, it could be the highlight of your Alaskan journey! For more information, call toll-free 800-764-7300.
If you are contemplating an Alaskan adventure for next year, now is the time to begin planning and making contact, and I highly recommend including the Alaska Railroad in your itinerary. Rolling through the kaleidoscope of Alaskan beauty while leaning back in comfortable chairs and taking it all in through the large picture windows will make you feel like a king!