Chugging in the Wilderness

Photo by: Michael W. Sullivan

For the first-time Alaska visitor, stepping aboard a train bound for the wilderness might start like any other. The train pulls away from the downtown station, the sound of metal wheels on rails building to a steady rhythm.
But within minutes, majestic glaciers, mountains and Alaskan wildlife all
come into view. The silhouette of Denali, North America’s tallest peak,
emerges, a view only possible via Alaska’s train routes.
Alaska is one of the few places in the US with a working railroad that hauls
both passengers and freight. Only a third of Alaska is accessible by car and
trains offer options that go beyond what a highway-bound traveller sees.
Seeing Alaska from the warm comfort of glass-domed observation cars is a
great way to explore the USA’s biggest state.

 

ALASKAN RAIL SYSTEM

The state’s railway has the distinction of being one of the last remaining “flag-stop” train systems, where passengers can stand by the side of the track in vast wilderness and hitch a ride. But the trains that chug across Alaska also offer something else unique in the country: access to wilderness and wildlife. The nearly century-old train system runs across Alaska from Whittier and Seward in the south, heading north to Anchorage, then into the heart of the state to Fairbanks, the main hub for the central and northern Alaska. Along the way, most of the tracks are surrounded by wilderness. Long stretches of the route parallel the rugged coastline of South-central Alaska, offering spectacular panoramas – all ata pace that recalls the early days of rail travel.
The state’s trains were originally founded to haul coal from the Matanuska Valley north of Anchorage, and open up the Alaskan Interior. With only the most basic tools, workers overcame harsh weather and natural obstacles while laying the tracks, and in July, 1923, the then-President Warren G. Harding drove the final ceremonial gold spike in at the town of Nenana to officially open the route. Today, more than 400,000 people ride the Alaskan rails, whether as a vital means of transport around the vast state, or for the sheer romance of it.

Photo by: Joycelyn Pride

ANCHORAGE TO FAIRBANKS

The 12-hour trip north from Anchorage to Fairbanks on board the “Denali Star” threads through Denali National Park & Preserve and features seemingly endless views of mountains, wildlife and rivers. To fully explore the stops along the Alaska Railroad, a 5-night itinerary works well. The vast amount of scenery flashing past is almost overwhelming in scope, so knowledgeable guides are on hand to narrate the trip where you can learn about the nature and Alaska Native culture, complete with anecdotes featuring the sourdough characters who left their homes to stake their fortunes in Alaska more than 100 years ago. The route begins in Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city. With almost 300,000 people, Anchorage is has all the advantages of a large town, but with more stunning views and abundant wildlife than any other city in America. The waters of Cook Inlet meet the steep foothills of the Alaska Range, and just minutes east of downtown, the pristine wilderness of the Chugach Mountains begins.

Photo by: Matt Hage

Heading south from Anchorage, the train winds through the wilderness heading toward Seward. Glaciers are visible from the track as well as spectacular marine wildlife. The train travels to Seward in Resurrection Bay, where you board a boat and take a tour of Kenai Fjords National
Park and can spend the night in Seward. The next day the train arrives at the “real Alaska,” with passengers being able to experience a sled dog ride, dine at an Alaskan roadhouse and see breathtaking views of Exit Glacier.
From there, the train heads north out of Anchorage, passing through the Matanuska Valley, known for scale-busting vegetables grown under the midnight sun. While continuing north, you can catch the first spectacular views of 6,190m-tall Denali. In addition, the route affords views of
several of the 20 highest peaks in the USA.

Most passengers usually end with a 200km round-trip adventure through Denali State Park and into “Devil’s Gorge.” Closer to the ground, blue- green spruce forests, crystal rivers and wildflower meadows roll past. All along this route there is an excellent chance of seeing wildlife, including bears, moose, Dall sheep, caribou, bald eagles, red fox, beavers, and the state bird, the ptarmigan. The train then returns to Anchorage for a final overnight stop at the Last Frontier.

Photo by: Stewart Sterling

OTHER RAIL JOURNEYS

The Alaska Railroad offers limited winter service between Anchorage and
Fairbanks, called the “Aurora Winter”. Passengers can see the aurora borealis (northern lights) painting the sky in multi-coloured glory from the cozy carriages, or get out into the frozen wilderness for special events.

Those looking for a shorter excursion from Anchorage can explore Seward or Whittier on the “Coastal Classic”, a 4-hour trip from the Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet to the port city of Seward.

Established in 1903 by railroad surveyors as an ocean terminal and supply centre, Seward has a frontier-town atmosphere with homes and buildings dating back to the early 1900s. The Kenai Fjords National Park offers
 coastal cruises past tidewater glaciers, whales, nesting seabirds, fur seals and sea otters. A 2.5-hour trip from Anchorage to Whittier on the “Glacier Discovery” (operating from mid-May to mid-September) takes you to Prince William Sound and the massive tidewater glaciers the sound is known for.

Photo by: Brian Adams

The Nordic Ski Train operates once a year during the winter and takes passengers from Anchorage north to the historic town of Curry where backcountry skiers can spend the day in the winter wilderness. A number of other special trains are also dispatched during the year. The annual Great Alaska Beer Train (Anchorage to Portage; 130km) and HooDoo Choo
Choo (Fairbanks to Nenana; 95km) offer a round-trip event – both in October – featuring a variety of beers brewed locally while guests take in the incredible views.

 

GETTING THERE

Currently, a journey to Anchorage requires 2 stops from Singapore,
usually stopping over in East Asia and another city in the US. For
more on Alaska, visit www.travelalaska.com.

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