The Alaska Railroad’s Aurora Winter Train is not a high-speed locomotive. It takes 12 hours to connect Alaska’s two largest cities, Anchorage and Fairbanks. (The same journey by car would take six.) But the slower pace allows travelers to scan for moose and wolves, shoot photos of the hoarfrost-wrapped trees, nosh on Alaskan fare (like reindeer penne bolognese) in the dining car, and on clear days, see Denali—the tallest mountain in North America—from various viewpoints.
Starting this week, there are even more opportunities to hitch a ride on the Aurora Winter Train. The Alaska Railroad resumed its midweek winter train service on select days from February 14 through March 25. That’s in addition to the northbound service on Saturdays and southbound on Sundays, which run through May 8.
While it’s the same route as the Denali Star train (which the Alaska Railroad runs from mid-May to mid-September), it’s a vastly different experience and one seen by far fewer travelers to the Last Frontier. The winter train offers landscapes blanketed in pearly, largely untracked snow, which makes it easier to spot wildlife from the picture windows. The cars are quieter, often with more locals than tourists. And because the winter sun hangs so low on the horizon, the mountain ranges are cast in a rose-gold “golden hour” glow all day long.
En route, passengers can also opt to get off in Wasilla, Talkeetna (the hamlet Northern Exposure was based on), Healy, and Nenana. And though it’s not scheduled to, there’s potential for passengers to embark or disembark at other points along the track—the Alaska Railroad operates the last flagstop route in the United States, meaning customers need only wave a piece of cloth or hold out their thumb to request a ride. It’s a service that is a necessary lifeline for Alaskans who live in off-the-grid cabins to get to cities and allows adventurers to access areas in the state’s wild interior where no roads go.
While it’s called the Aurora Winter Train, it’s unlikely travelers will see the northern lights from the locomotive—it runs during the day. However, given that the train only travels one way each day, travelers have to overnight in either Talkeetna or Fairbanks, two cities known for having high levels of auroral activity all winter, especially in the weeks leading up to and following spring equinox. Light chasers can plan their stay themselves—Chena Hot Springs Resort is a popular outpost for locals and visitors (it’s possible to watch the lights dance from the thermal pools), as are the luxe glass-domed igloos at Borealis Basecamp. Alternatively, the Alaska Railroad also offers multi-day winter packages, including the one-night Winter Escape and Talkeetna Getaway and the six-night Aurora. Each includes lodging and activities like museum tours and dogsledding. Those packages range from $289 to $1,545 per person.