It’s still dark outside when the conductor leans out of the midnight blue- and gold-painted locomotive, cups his hand to his mouth, and gives the call: “ALLLLL ABOARD!”
Our group embarks the Alaska Railroad and ascends a narrow spiral staircase to the Adventure Class—a second-floor seating area with large picture windows meant to help passengers get a better view of the moose, bears, and eagles that are frequently spotted along the tracks.
Just as the alpenglow starts to bathe the peaks of the nearby Chugach Range in a soft rose-gold light, the train lurches out of the Anchorage Depot and starts chugging north. Before we’ve left the urban nucleus of Alaska’s largest city, the conductor appears again.
With a flourish, he punches eight stars in the shape of the Big Dipper and the North Star through the ticket and hands it back. It’s also the constellation on the Alaska state flag, though the Alaska Railroad has been around for far longer. In fact, the railroad has seen (and been part of) many of Alaska’s milestones: the creation of Denali National Park in 1917; statehood in 1959; the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the 1970s. It even predates many of the communities it stops in, making it a big part of the region’s history. Anchorage, now the largest city in the 49th state and home to nearly half its population, was formed as a tent city to support the railroad’s construction.
But when the full route reopens for the summer season in 2023 (it runs an abbreviated leg during the winter), it’ll create a milestone of its own. It’ll have been 100 years since President Harding drove a golden spike into the rail belt near Nenana, signifying the completion of the Alaska Railroad.
At its inception (construction started in 1903 and wrapped in 1923), the Alaska Railroad was meant to connect Seward, a small port community on the southern coast of the Kenai Peninsula, with Fairbanks’ Chena River, a tributary that links with the Tanana and Yukon rivers that served as interior Alaska’s watery highway system, 500 miles north. Combining the transportation routes, the government decided, would be the key to the success of mining and military efforts in the then-territory.
While the Alaska Railroad still hauls freight, today it’s more commonly used to shepherd tourists from southcentral to interior Alaska—each year, roughly 500,000 people ride at least one of the five main routes that link Seward and Fairbanks.
This morning, we’re en route to Denali National Park, 240 miles from Anchorage, and home to the tallest mountain on the continent. It’s slow going—the train tops out at 30 miles per hour (at one point, a young bull moose passes us on his sprint to the forest), so it’ll take eight hours to reach our destination, whereas the same journey by car would take roughly four. Nonetheless, the train tracks don’t run parallel to the highway for the second half of the trip. And though I lived in Alaska (and frequently traveled between Anchorage and Denali) for nearly seven years, this was part of the state I’d never been able to see. Some of Alaska’s most stunning landscapes are only visible from the locomotive.
After we travel north, away from the clutch of stubby office buildings that make up downtown Anchorage and through the joint military bases of Elmendorf and Richardson, the steel and brick buildings thin out and are replaced by spruces trees and a type of bright pink subalpine wildflower known as fireweed.
As the scenery opens up, eager wildlife watchers press their faces to the glass. Every bush and rock becomes suspect. “Was that a bear?” one older woman asks the attendant. It’s not, but plenty of animals, like moose, eagles, and foxes, will make surprise cameos throughout the trip. It’s impossible to predict when a furry or feathered creature will appear, but the attendant notes that meadows, lagoons, and lakes often offer a better chance—wide-open spaces make the animals easier to spot.
It’s one of those wide-open spaces that elicits the first audible gasp from the train passengers. As the train wends around a curve, Knik River, milky blue with glacial silt, comes into focus. Behind it, the mountains of the Chugach Range tower, the jagged peaks cutting into the bluebird sky like shards of broken pottery. And the whole scene is bathed in a buttery light that looks tangible enough to gather in your hands.
Guests are encouraged to mosey around the train, so many passengers, myself included, hustle out to the open-air observation deck to take photos. None do it justice. As the train curves around the outer edge of the range and plunges into the forest, passengers come back into the cabin, shaking their heads as if they’d been woken from a dream.
For much of the next two hours, the train is sandwiched between the braided Susitna River on the left and an endless line of black spruce to the right. The attendants interpret the landscape, sharing stories of the Indigenous people and explorers who roamed here, explaining what shaped the local geography (often glaciers or earthquakes), and answering questions about the scenery.
Right before a lunch of reindeer penne bolognese, we make a quick stop, just long enough for a handful of passengers to disembark in Talkeetna, a quirky hamlet with a population of roughly 1,000 people that was once the inspiration for the TV show Northern Exposure. Though it’s small, the community once received national attention when it was widely—and erroneously—reported by national media that it had elected a cat named Stubbs as its mayor. (In reality, Talkeetna is a historic district that holds no elections, so the feline’s title was more of an honorary one.) Had it been a clear morning, we’d have seen Denali, known as the Great One to Alaska’s Indigenous population, from here. But the mountain is mysterious—it’s estimated that only 30 percent of visitors to Alaska will see all 20,310 feet of it. Today the snow-streaked summit is spearing piles of pancake-shaped clouds.
It’s just past Talkeetna that the tracks, papered canary yellow by the leaves shed from the nearby birch trees, curve away from the highway and into some of Alaska’s true backcountry, known as the Hurricane Flagstop Area.
Between here and Denali is the last flagstop service in the country, meaning travelers can wave a piece of clothing or stick out their thumb, and the train will stop for them to board. It’s a service used mainly by homesteaders who live in cabins completely off the grid—there’s no other way to reach this remote part of the state. For them, it’s a crucial lifeline, the only way to reach some of the larger cities for supplies or medical needs and sometimes the only way they’ll hear the news of the world, as cell reception is limited.
“I can see why they’d choose to live out here,” a fellow passenger tells me on the Observation Deck as we look out at the swirling patterns reflected in the Indian River. “This is country so beautiful it’ll break your heart.”
When the air gets too nippy, we go inside to find a retired teacher reciting “The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert Service, a British-born poet who frequently wrote about the Alaskan wilderness, to an enraptured train car. (We’d hear another of his renditions three days later on the route from Anchorage to Seward, an impossibly beautiful route that hugs the 60-mile-long Turnagain Arm on the Cook Inlet before climbing over a mountain pass and cruising past river gorges and a series of electric-blue glaciers before reaching the coast and Kenai Fjords National Park.) My group is still talking about the retelling as the attendant lets us know we’re about to cross over the Hurricane Gulch Bridge and that we should get our cameras ready.
As we pull up to the 918-foot-long steel arch bridge, suspended nearly 300 feet above its namesake gulch, the train slows to a crawl. From here, we can appreciate the layers of color: the blue of the fast moving Chulitna River, the red of the shrubs along its banks, the yellow of the lower-level birch trees, and the emerald of the deciduous trees higher up the embankment. And in all directions, sweeping views of the grayish-purple Alaska Range, each peak blanketed by termination dust.
From here, it’s not far from Denali National Park and its diminutive train station, where we plan to spend the next few days hiking and drinking in the fall foliage.
“Man,” my friend says as we gather our bags. “That was pretty magical. . . . I know we just spent eight hours on that train, but I’m excited about the ride back.”
Know before you go
From early May to mid-September, the Alaska Railroad operates three main train routes, each departing from Anchorage, including the Coastal Classic to Seward, the Glacier Discovery to Spencer Glacier, and the Denali Star to Fairbanks. None is a straight shot—each train makes a series of stops in communities along the way (the Denali Star, for example, pulls into depots in Wasilla, Talkeetna, Denali National Park, and Nenana while en route). There’s also the Hurricane Turn Flagstop service, which runs from Talkeetna to Hurricane Gulch (a nearly 300-foot-tall bridge spanning a canyon that, on clear days, offers views of Denali, North America’s tallest mountain).
In the winter, guests can ride the Aurora Winter train, traveling from Anchorage to Fairbanks. (It’s a common misconception that the northern lights are visible on this route, though it’s highly unlikely because the train operates during daylight hours.)
Activities on the Alaska Railroad
Typically, riders of the Alaska Railroad spend an afternoon in or overnight at their destination (it’s a long way, and the itineraries were built to give guests time to immerse themselves in Alaska’s communities). Here are a few suggestions to fill your time in the communities outside of Anchorage.
Spot whales on a day cruise in Seward
This port city, wreathed by the dramatic mountains of Kenai Fjords National Park and the steely blue waters of Resurrection Bay, is perhaps best known for its day cruises with Major Marine Tours and Kenai Fjords Tours. During the four-hour sailings, guests can see some of the more than 100,000 glaciers in Alaska, the myriad animals (from whales to Steller sea lions to marine birds), and the dizzying fjords for which the national park is named. Other options in Seward include hiking (Mount Marathon is a popular, albeit challenging route), visiting the Alaska SeaLife Center, and going for a half-day salmon fishing charter.
Raft among bergy bits at Spencer Glacier
Spencer Glacier is the Alaska Railroad’s “home glacier”—the only way to reach the 3,500-foot-tall backcountry river of ice is by taking the train. Once there, most guests opt to board rafts, which are paddled across Spencer Lake’s otherworldly blue water, around icebergs and bergy bits, to get a close look at the face of the glacier. Another alternative is hiking to the glacier, though given time constraints, it’s recommended to camp overnight and catch the train back the following day if you wish to do that.
Ride Sea-Doos to a glaciers in Whittier
This tiny community, wedged between the Chugach Mountains and Prince William Sound, is known for having the largest concentration of tidewater glaciers in the world. It’s possible to see them on a day cruise, but for a really unique experience, we’d recommend going on a guided Sea-Doo tour. Alaska Wild Guides leads half-day excursions, where guests pilot their own Jet Skis to as many as 10 glaciers, looking for waterfalls, harbor seals, and kittiwake birds along the way.
Hike in Hatcher Pass near Wasilla and Palmer
Just on the other side of the Chugach Mountains from Anchorage, the adjoining towns of Wasilla and Palmer are the jumping-off point for adventures in the Matanuska Valley, like taking a scenic drive or hike in Hatcher Pass, visiting Independence Mine, and going on a Cam-Am ride out to Knik Glacier. Riding the train in late August and early September is also a popular option for Anchorage residents to get to the Alaska State Fair.
Meet sled dogs in Talkeetna
This off-beat hamlet is an excellent stop for those looking for a more low-key day. Its main street includes sundry art stores and gift shops, cozy cafés, a brewery and distillery, and from the river on the far end, views of Denali on clear days. Dallas Seavey, one of the most decorated Iditarod winners, runs his kennel, AK Sled Dog Tours, out of Talkeetna and visitors are welcome year-round to meet the pack.
See Denali National Park from the sky
Considering this national park is home to the tallest mountain in North America, it makes sense that most of the activities here revolve around the great outdoors. One of the most popular ways to spend a day is on a bus tour of the park. Because private vehicles aren’t allowed past Mile 15 of the Park Road (the only way into the park), it’s the sole way to get into the heart of the protected area unless you want to hike or bike in. To get a better view of the mountain (or at least a closer look), travelers can opt to go on a flightseeing tour (Denali Air and Temsco Helicopters Denali are popular outfitters). There are also many hikes near the park entrance, including one trail that connects to the Denali National Park sled dog kennel.
Visit the northernmost U.S. brewery in Fairbanks
People once came to Fairbanks in search of gold, but today visitors are more likely looking to experience the midnight sun in the summer or the northern lights in the winter. In summer, travelers can take a Riverboat Discovery Tour on the Chena River to see fish wheels and dog sled demonstrations; tour the Museum of the North to learn about climate change and Indigenous art and see a 50,000-year-old mummified bison; explore the rugged backcountry with Midnight Sun ATV tours; hike with reindeer; and visit Silver Gulch, the northernmost brewery in the nation. In winter, visitors can take guided snow machining (snowmobiling to Lower 48ers) tours to Chena Hot Springs and take a bush plane with Northern Alaska Tour Company to Coldfoot, a community known for its impressive auroral displays. (It’s also above the Arctic Circle, a place fewer than two percent of travelers to Alaska visit.)