Alaska's railroad system didn't start out transporting people. No, this 500-mile stretch of iron and wood came to be thanks to the dedication of a few businessmen and politicians with an entrepreneurial spirit that continues today. Needing to haul goods from ship to shore and vice versa, the railroad was constructed 101 years ago along mucky Ship Creek, and eventually became the core of Anchorage.
Taking people here and there came later in 1923, when roadways connecting the Kenai Peninsula and Interior regions were bumpy, dirt-filled affairs that became impassable in bad weather. With the infrastructure already in place for freight, the company added passenger cars and eventually settled on a 500-mile series of routes between Seward and Fairbanks, albeit with a few different trains making the journey.
Today's Alaska Railroad offers guests unparalleled beauty, as routes trace their way across unoccupied land rich in wildlife and scenery. With three main routes and one seasonal route, passengers aboard any train excursion are all but guaranteed a unique glimpse into life during a long Alaska summer.
Whether you're heading out on a day trip or for an overnight adventure, Alaska Railroad trains are an easy way to see the state, and all three main routes depart daily during the summer from the historic Anchorage Depot on 1st Avenue along Ship Creek, where it all started.
The Coastal Classic departs each morning at 6:45; early, yes, but with the famous Midnight Sun already up, you'll have no trouble making your way to the depot in time for breakfast on board. Traveling to Seward, passengers may either spend the day on a day cruise, at the Alaska SeaLife Center, or exploring town before boarding the train at 6 p.m. for the return; or, spend the night at one of several lodges and hotels in the area.
The Denali Star departs Anchorage at 8:15 a.m. bound for Fairbanks, with stops in Talkeetna and Denali National Park along the way. The full journey takes 12 hours, but with so much scenery and wildlife, including Denali the mountain, who cares? Options include traveling as far as Talkeetna for your activities then catching the train the next day; staying in Denali National Park and enjoying flightseeing, hiking, or relaxing in this pristine wilderness park; or travel all the way to Fairbanks where a wealth of Last Frontier options abound from gold panning to a river cruise.
Whatever you choose, be sure to secure reservations early as this train is popular.
Finally, the Glacier Discovery train is a different sort of day trip, making transportation for those cruising into the port city of Whittier easy, and full-service opportunities for activities accessible. The train leaves Anchorage at 9:45 and arrives in Whittier at 12:05, just right for catching a day cruise across the street. Then, the train heads to Spencer Whistle Stop, operated by the U.S. Forest Service, dropping passengers off for a few hours of glacier climbing, hiking, or river rafting.
The train returns from scenic Grandview at 4:30 to pick everyone up, and ends up in Anchorage around 7:30 p.m.
The most unique rail opportunity in Alaska, however, is aboard the Hurricane Turn train, the last flagstop train left in the United States. Truly "flagstop" in that people wave flags, shirts, or jackets at the conductor to stop and pick them up, this is a staple of remote Interior travel. Some folks are returning to summer cabins, some are going hiking or fishing for the day, and still others are hopping off for several days in the brushy woods to camp. There's no place like it, and no conductor like conductor Warren Redfearn, a staple of the route who has been calling "All Aboard" for 20 years.
Not sure which route to choose? The Alaska Railroad provides travelers with a plethora of package options that range from serene to active. Try an overnight in the middle of Denali National Park, or a flightseeing mission to look for bears. Perhaps whale-watching is on your bucket list. Or a jet boat ride? The Alaska Railroad takes the stress out of finding and booking separate attractions with a helpful reservations service, and that's worth a million in time and effort.
The Alaska Railroad offers two styles of travel; Adventure Class and Goldstar Service. Adventure Class is a comfortable, affordable way to see Alaska on board the train, with picture windows, dining service, and access to a dome car. The dome car can fill up fast since it's first-come-first-served, but railroad crew work hard to rotate passengers so everyone has a chance to see eagles, moose, bears, and other wildlife along the routes.
Goldstar Service is premium seating with domed windows, an exclusive outside viewing deck, complimentary soft drinks, a meal, and a guide to answer all your questions. It is also fully accessible. Go Tip: While you will pay more for Goldstar Service, it is worth the extra money to savor the views and service.