Connecting remote villages in Alaska is the unique Hurricane Turn train (part of Alaska Railroad), which is perhaps the USA’s last remaining ‘flag stop’ passenger train that allows riders to catch a lift at any point along its route. There’s no need to head to a train station – all you have to do to get on the train is to simply walk up to the tracks and hail it with a white flag (you can reportedly also wave your arms or use a white t-shirt).
The train operator will stop the train and pick you up; since the two-engine train is only three cars long (with two passenger cars and one baggage car), it’s relatively easy to stop on short notice.
The tiny hamlet of Talkeetna, which only has one paved road, is straight out of many visitors’ mental image of ‘small town Alaska’. Located in the Mat-Su Valley in Southcentral Alaska, this is an outdoorsy and artistic town which has retained much of its early Alaska flavour from the time when it was a gold mining centre at the turn of the 20th century.
Thanks to the discovery of gold, Talkeetna became a riverboat steamer station by 1910, supplying miners and trappers in the nearby mining districts. After a brief population boom during WWI, it declined after the Alaska Railroad was completed.
However, it’s since bounced back as the jumping-off point for ascents of Denali, Mount Foraker, the Moose’s Tooth and other high peaks in the region.
Lying in the shadow of Denali, North America’s tallest peak, log cabins, a roadhouse and clapboard storefronts line Talkeetna’s dirt streets. With its mixture of heritage, natural wonder and good coffee, Talkeetna is easy to explore in a leisurely afternoon.
Complimentary shuttles run into town from the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge throughout the day. Some of the hotspots to visit include the Talkeetna Roadhouse, which has been a go-to spot for baked goods and savoury pies for 100 years. Popular with world-class alpinists, the walls are coated with paraphernalia relating to Denali mountaineering history.
Meanwhile at the National Park Service headquarters, you can see who is tackling what routes on Denali on any given day in the Alaska Range. In addition to historic artifacts, experienced rangers are eager to share stories about Denali here.
The history of Denali and the climbers who made the first ascents is well preserved at the Talkeetna Historical Society Museum, a small complex consisting of four restored buildings.
Beyond the small town, there’s plenty to do other than viewing Denali. You can visit Talkeetna Canyon, Devils Canyon, Chulitna River and Tokositna River on riverboat and jet boat tours; the areas are also popular for charter fishing trips. On land, there are horseback excursions that offer majestic views of Denali.
The Hurricane Turn route cuts through the wilderness around Denali National Park, in a remote stretch of the Alaska Railroad between Fairbanks and Anchorage. The unique flag stop system allows riders to get on and off in the backcountry – including those who own remote, off-the-grid cabins in the area – between the Indian River Valley and Hurricane Gulch which is known for its picturesque bridge, the railroad’s longest and tallest that looms 90 metres above the waters of Hurricane Creek.
There are actually two different routes: summer and winter, which has an extended service to Anchorage.
During the summer (mid-May to mid-September), the 88.5km-long trip which takes approximately 2 hours starts from Talkeetna, a village north of Anchorage at the base of Denali, and leaves civilisation behind as it makes its round-trip journey through the wilds of the Indian River Valley. While locals use this service to access their remote cabins for hunting and fishing, it’s one of Alaska’s best-kept secrets for visitors to this part of the world.
Most of the region’s residents live in an area known as Chase, at 16km from Talkeetna, which is home to around 40 year-round inhabitants. The railway is their lifeline to transport necessary goods from the larger cities back to their homes in the wilderness. Often these individuals are very open to sharing their stories, and will paint a picture of what life is really like in backcountry Alaska.
As the passenger train brakes only when it needs to pick up or drop off passengers, the schedule can be quite erratic. Unlike all other Alaska Railroad trains, there is no dining service on Hurricane Turn so passengers are advised to bring their own meals aboard or buy to-go lunches at the endpoints.
The panoramic views at the train’s turnaround point – Hurricane Gulch – is a highlight for many visitors, with views of Denali towering over the braided Susitna River on a clear day. You can also opt to head to Chase, then slowly float back down to Talkeetna on the glacial river with Denali View Rafting. Along the way you’ll be able to see salmon spawning areas, or walk on glacial silt islands, keeping an eye out for bald eagles, bears, beavers, foxes, and moose along the way.
In winter (October to May), the Hurricane Turn makes the round-trip journey from Anchorage north to Wasilla, Talkeetna, and the flag stop area south of Hurricane Gulch. At 268km-long, this service is much longer than the summer version.
However, it only operates once a month on Thursday, allowing residents living in the remote cabins to spend Friday in Anchorage before catching the northbound Aurora Winter Train back to their cabins on Saturday.
Those visiting Anchorage in winter can also hail the Hurricane Turn to explore Talkeetna, or simply enjoy the ride through the snowy landscape by rail.
The easiest way to access the Hurricane Turn and Talkeetna is from Anchorage, which is 185km away. The Hurricane Turn train only has Adventure Class seats, which offer large picture windows and open-air vestibules between railcars to provide fresh air and photo ops. The summer return fare from Talkeetna to Hurricane Gulch costs US$106 (US$65 in winter). The summer route runs from Thursday to Monday, while the winter route is only operational on one Thursday a month.