On any rail journey through Alaska, it would be easy to become entranced by clickety-clack of the train’s wheels and the lush green forests, sparkling salmon streams, and rugged mountains that slowly roll by. So as I rode the Hurricane Turn Train into that great state’s wilderness, I was particularly glad I’d opted for a seat in the glass-enclosed dome car, able to soak up every panoramic view of this stunningly beautiful and off-the-grid area.
Nearly 500 miles of track connect the southern port city of Seward to Fairbanks, in the Alaskan interior. Five different trains chug along the various routes of the state-owned Alaska Railroad. Most set off from the central hub of bustling Anchorage. Some travel south, their riders exiting in Whittier for a scenic glacier cruise; others go north to the deep pink peonies that blanket the fields of Wasilla during high season.
But it’s the Hurricane Turn Train, which leaves from the historic train depot in Talkeetna, a few hours north of Anchorage, that offers the Last Frontier’s most authentic rail experience: Traveling through the backcountry near Denali National Park, it’s the only remaining flagstop train in the United States. A simple wave of the arm—anything to get the engineer’s attention—slows this locomotive to a creep, then a standstill, allowing passengers to board the train anywhere, even between official stops.
Gateway to Alaska’s Backcountry
The exhilarating rail journey to nowhere, as some call it, is a 6.5-hour loop that begins and ends in quirky Talkeetna. Until 2017, the former gold mining town had an honorary cat mayor named Stubbs. Tucked away in the snow-covered shadow of Denali, the town now thrives as a base camp for mountain climbers hoping to conquer the tallest peak in North America.
Five days a week from mid-May to mid-September, the train chugs along at 30 mph, rhythmically swaying through a 55-mile stretch of secluded wilderness. In winter, it only runs on the first Thursday of each month and departs from Anchorage.
It is the only means of transportation between Talkeetna and Hurricane Gulch, which isn’t really a town at all. There is no general store or gift shop, not even a snack stand or a vending machine. There is only a trestle bridge—the Hurricane Gulch Bridge. The longest, tallest of its kind on the Alaska Railroad, this steel-arch structure looms 296 feet above Hurricane Creek and stretches across a 918-foot wide chasm. It is also the turn-around point for the aptly-named Hurricane Turn Train.
This, as the conductor will note, is the only place along the route where cell service flickers alive. There is no Wi-Fi available on the train, so this is only time during the excursion when travelers can share photos of the bridge or the staggering views of the Alaska Range on social media in real time.
While the flagstop train’s timetable lists eight stops, including Hurricane and Talkeetna (the only stop with an actual depot), the schedule is fairly fluid and the train is subject to delays. If a gray wolf or black bear comes into view, the conductor might slow the train to generously call attention to the native wildlife to the delight of eager picture-takers. The train may also come to a halt to pick up a passenger at “Mary’s House” or “Ben’s Cabin,” as they’re listed alongside an associated milepost number on the cheat sheet the conductor hangs by his desk. And of course, if the engineer sees a wave in the distance, he’ll stop to pick up anyone needing a ride.
Off-Gridders and Unplugged Vacationers
Passengers on the Hurricane Turn Train should take a few minutes to chat with the affable train conductor, Ryan Rodriguez, though it’s more likely that he’ll chat them up first. Wearing hickory stripe bib overalls and an ever-present smile, he looked exactly as I expected a train conductor would. In between his narrations of the ride, he was there to answer any and all questions I had.
A ride on the Hurricane Turn Train, Rodriguez noted, is as much about the people as it is about the scenery. Take Shannon Cartwright, author of 28 children’s books, including Alaska ABC and Alaska 1-2-3, and her dog, Ella, who warmly greeted the train at their stop, Chase, at 1:15 p.m., as they do every day the train is in service.
Cartwright is one of a few dozen off-gridders who’ve cut the cord, so to speak. They live out here in the backcountry along the train route, choosing to forgo the conveniences of modern life in favor of a self-sufficient existence. She told me that she has no indoor plumbing, no microwave oven, and no social media accounts—only a milepost number, a modest home, and a cramped book gallery where she welcomes visitors with a smile, offering them a peek into her unconventional lifestyle.
Two stops later, the tiny “town” of Sherman came into view, but it’s no town. It is a turquoise house painted with the words “Sherman City Hall” and set 50 yards or so from the tracks on a small swath of land.
The population of Sherman is just two: Clyde and Mary Lovel. In 1963, they packed up and moved from Missouri to Alaska in a camper with four small children to begin their homesteading adventure. Mary later wrote about the experience in her book, Journey to a Dream, which is sold onboard the Hurricane Turn Train. They often wave down the train, too.
Late into my journey, I talked excitedly with a backcountry fisherman who lives in a small, remote cabin along the route. He boarded with palpable frustration, upset that a brown bear had eaten the entire seat of his ATV, a headache I’d never dreamed of having. He was headed into town to pick up supplies and order a replacement seat.
But it’s not just locals and writers on the train. Weekenders coming in from Anchorage to escape the daily grind ride it too, en route to rustic backcountry cabins. In summer, rafting guides take guests up-river on the train, headed for the start of a gentle 11-mile float down the glacial-fed Susitna River. And day-tripping tourists tote picnic baskets, having stocked up on reindeer meatloaf and pulled pork sandwiches at the historic Talkeetna Roadhouse. There’s no food service or dining car, so in addition to a willingness to unplug, an armful of snacks (at minimum) is a must-have for the trip.
A short time after my conversation with the fisherman, a plucky millennial who boarded with me at Talkeetna got off the train. She was going off the grid for a few days but wasn’t sure exactly where to disembark. After a quick consult with Rodriguez, she decided on Twin Bridges, a foliage-filled section of track adjacent to the gushing Indian River. I couldn’t take my eyes off her as she made her way into the dense forest with a backpack, a gallon of water, and a can of bear spray. The train wouldn’t be back for three days, so she was on her own.
Meanwhile, I was headed back to Talkeetna—back to cell service and social media notifications and the never-ending news cycle. But at least I’d gotten the chance to step out of my own on-grid existence for a taste of what life is like for an off-gridder in the wilds of Alaska like Cartwright or the Lovels, if only for the afternoon.