A Complete Guide to the Alaska Railroad—From Coastal Journeys to Glacier Routes

Full guide for routes, experiences, and all things Alaska Railroad.

Alaska Railroad going through Denali

TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre

Alaska is a bucket list destination for many, but what is the best way to get around? After all, the state is two and a half times the size of Texas.

Cruises are a popular option but those usually only take passengers along the southeast coast. This leaves out Denali National Park, a major destination only available during the summer months. The Alaskan Railroad, in comparison, covers the cruising ports in the southeast up through Denali, all the way up to Fairbanks, Alaska. These trains are made for leisure travel and let passengers see Alaska from areas that aren’t accessible by cars.

Not sure where to start? Here is your guide for routes, experiences, and all things Alaska Railroad.

Coastal Classic Train

Just as the name suggests, this route hugs the coast of southeast Alaska, offering up views of the Turnagain Arm, the Chugach Mountains, as well as Seward’s spectacular Resurrection Bay. The Coastal Classic Train route includes a stop in Girdwood, making it a popular train with locals traveling the area as well.  This route is only available from May through September. 

Glacier Discovery Train

This route is a great option for anyone looking for day trips from Anchorage. It has stops in Girdwood, Whittier, Portage, Spencer, and ultimately Grandview. The stop in Spencer—called Spencer Whistle Stop—is a remote area in the Chugach National Forest that is only accessible by train. This region is perfect for hiking on your own or finding guided excursions, including boat and kayak trips to the Spencer Glacier. The full Glacier Discovery Train route is available between June and September with partial routes beginning in mid-May.

Denali Star Train

The Denali Star Train is the flagship route—and the longest—for the Alaskan Railroad. Traveling between Anchorage and Fairbanks, there is one trip a day that leaves each end and for a full day, you can travel up through Alaska’s Interior region. There are plenty of opportunities to view wildlife and the beautiful backcountry. And on clear days, Mount Denali can be seen along the route. If you aren’t interested in doing a whole day on the train, there are stops along the way in Wasilla, Talkeetna, and Denali National Park. This is a summer-only train which means it only runs between May and September.

Hurricane Turn Train

This is the route that really takes passengers into the backcountry. From May through September, the Hurricane Turn Train runs Thursday through Monday leaving Talkeetna towards Hurricane Gulch before making a return trip. In the winter, this route only runs once a month on the first Thursday of every month. This is a flag stop service, which means passengers have to wave down the train at mile markers. Locals use this route as a means to reach backcountry cabins and visitors appreciate it for quick excursions in the Indian River Valley.

Aurora Winter Train

The only train to run between September and May, this winter train leaves Anchorage towards Fairbanks and makes the return trip the next day. The Aurora Winter Train also has flag stop service between Talkeetna and Hurricane. Alaskan winters can be tough but this is a great way to see snow-covered landscapes in a warm comfortable setting. Also, depending on the time of travel, the extended darkness gives riders a unique chance to see the Northern Lights in action.

Event Trains

Aside from providing passengers with reliable transportation around the state, Alaskan Railroad also has yearly seasonal and event trains that cover a wide range of interests. There are standard holiday trains, like Easter, Halloween, and Christmas trains that create a family-friendly festive atmosphere. But there are also trains that cater to specific events like the Fair Train that travels out to the Alaska State Fair, the Ski Train that is chartered by the Nordic Ski Association of Anchorage to reach skiable backcountry destinations, and even beer trains that line up with Oktoberfest. (One partners with Glacier BrewHouse near Turnagain Arm, while the other departs from Fairbanks and serves HooDoo Brewing.)

The Experience Onboard

When you arrive at the train station you will have to check in at the terminal to receive your ticket and seat assignment. Passengers are also required to check any luggage, including typical carryon sized cases. You will receive a baggage ticket—certain hotels partner with the railroad to have bags delivered directly to the final destination so guests can travel with ease. Your ticket will include the car you're traveling in, as well as the class of service.

The standard class on Alaska Railroad is called Adventure class. This ticket guarantees you a seat with large windows for scenic viewing. Passengers are free to move through other cars that are also in Adventure class. These other cars include a Wilderness cafe, where food and drinks can be purchased, and a Vista Dome car, which is a small upstairs seating area with a dome ceiling for 360-degree viewing.

On select routes, there is a second more luxury class available called GoldStar Service. These cars include glass dome ceilings for 360-degree viewing at your assigned seat, as well as an outdoor viewing deck. The lower level of the GoldStar car is the dining room where passengers are served a complimentary meal during each leg of the trip. All non-alcoholic drinks are free and each passenger is granted two tickets for complimentary alcoholic beverages.

Both classes come with a conductor who narrates the ride, gives information about the area and its history, and also assists in spotting wildlife. 

Single tickets are available for purchase but Alaska Railroad also sells packages that include tickets, activities, and lodging. These packages vary from two to 11 days and cover several different areas and interests in Alaska from glacier cruising to wildlife viewing to aurora borealis trips in the winter.