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A Beginners Guide to Alaska

30 October 2019

One of the last frontiers in America, Alaska is a land where amazing scenery comes to life and fantastic adventures await around every bend. From the mountains to the sea, and from fjords to glaciers, Alaska has it all. Moving out of the wilderness and into the cities, incredible culture enraptures visitors and the landmark sights and interesting activities make even the coldest months of the year a great time to visit Alaska. One thing that makes Alaska so unique, though, is that many of the best locations throughout the state are linked by rail, meaning your time traveling can be spent sightseeing across the boundless landscape. Follow this guide to learn all about the best of Alaska.

Popular Trains Through Alaska

Denali Star - Following a 356-mile route, the Denali Star is a true gem of the Alaska Railroad. This train takes riders from Anchorage to Fairbanks, stopping in Wasilla, Talkeetna and Denali National Park along the way. In all, riders who stay on for the full route can expect a 12-hour ride through Alaska's southcentral region and its interior. A true highlight of the journey is the views of Denali, the tallest mountain in North America.

Coastal Classic - Spend 4 hours traveling along Alaska's coastline and through rugged mountainscapes aboard the Coastal Classic. This Alaska Railroad train takes travelers from Anchorage to the town of Seward, right on Resurrection Bay. There is a stop midway through the journey in Girdwood, and after, travelers enjoy some of the most magical scenery the state has to offer as they travel through the wilderness en route to Seward.

Glacier Discovery - The Alaska Railroad's Glacier Discovery train follows much of the same route as the Coastal Classic; however, passengers are treated to additional station stops along the way. This train's route begins in Anchorage, and over the course of 5 1/2 hours, takes travelers through Girdwood and Portage, off on a detour out to Whittier, back to Portage and then onto Spencer and Grandview. In addition to the coastal and backcountry views, those traveling on this train will also enjoy a look at two famed glaciers: Bartlett and Trail.

Favorite Alaskan Destinations By Train

● Anchorage - The largest city in Alaska, Anchorage covers 1,900 square miles and is a favorite of city dwellers and wilderness adventurers alike. Although this portside destination boasts fantastic restaurants, unique museums and an ever-growing music scene, there is also a natural side to the city. Anchorage is situated right on the Cook Inlet and encompasses Chugach State Park. This means visitors can spend the day shopping, dining and touring city attractions or hiking, dog sledding and wildlife spotting. To further combine the city with nature, Anchorage includes well-over 100 miles of bike trails, some of which take travelers right along the coastline. Must-see attractions inAnchorage include: Alaska Native Heritage Center, Anchorage Museum of History and Art and Flattop Mountain, the region's most popular hiking spot.

● Fairbanks - Thanks to its far north location, Fairbanks, Alaska is a unique destination all throughout the year. From mid-August until mid-April, visitors can enjoy an array of colors covering the sky each night, as the Aurora Borealis makes its appearance. From mid-April to mid-August, the days get longer and longer, and beginning in May, Fairbanks offers 24 hours of sunlight. These are not the only things that make this city special, though. Native culture and the arts are of great importance here, and visitors find many museums, events and attractions that highlight them. While in Fairbanks, visit one of the many art galleries, venture out to Chena River State Recreation area for a dip in the hot springs or to tour Chena Indian Village, and do not forget to get your picture taken under the famous antler arch.

● Seward - The city of Seward may be small in size, but it makes up for its land mass with its wide range of activities. Seward is located on the Kenai Peninsula and covers just over 21 square miles, a third of which is actually water. The city is bound by mountains on one side and the scenic waters of Resurrection Bay on the other. This destination is one of the best cities in Alaska because it is a gateway - a gateway to the water, to a spectacular national park and to the vast wilderness that only Alaska can provide. Popular activities in Seward include whale watching, kayaking, fishing and cruising around the Bay; sightseeing in Kenai Fjords National Park and even exploring glaciers, with Exit Glacier located just outside Downtown. City lovers have plenty to do, too, with the Alaska SeaLife Center, an assortment of museums and galleries and a diverse dining scene.

● Talkeetna - A quaint town that epitomizes Alaskan charm, Talkeetna is located in southcentral Alaska, just 2 1/2 hours south of Anchorage. This old mining town is brimming with history and filled with outdoor adventure. Visitors to the town can learn about mining and frontier life on a walking tour of the town, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, or peruse local art at one of the popular galleries. Main Street in Downtown Talkeetna is the only paved road in the town and offers an array of shops and even a brewery to tour and sample at. Outdoor adventurers love Talkeetna for its easy access to true Alaskan entertainment, including flightseeing, salmon and rainbow trout fishing, jet boating, hiking, snowmobiling, dog sledding and so much more.

Top-rated National Parks in Alaska

Denali National Park - The Denali, formerly known as Mt. McKinley, also known as the tallest mountain in North America, looms over the vast expanses of wilderness in Denali National Park. There are over 6 million acres of land within the park, many of which are untouched by the footprints of humans and are left as wild and free as they have been since the beginning of time. There is a single entrance into Denali National Park, right off Alaska Route 3. The road leading into the park is the only road the park offers. It stretches 92 miles in length and travels from east to west throughout Denali. There are no lodges directly within the park, but Denali Village offers scenic accommodation options. Within the park, activities are as bountiful as the wild animals that call Denali home. Visitors can hike, bike or explore the park on horseback. There are many off-road tours travelers can set out on, including those that focus on wildlife and those that focus on the magnificent scenery.

Kenai Fjords National Park - See whales, seals, puffins, land mammals, sea creatures and 20-plus species of seabird in this southcentral Alaska locale. Kenai Fjords National Park is located along the waters of the Gulf of Alaska. This park is named for its amazing fjords, which reach off of the Kenai Peninsula and out into the Gulf. The result is hundreds of small coves and lagoons that offer idyllic scenery and amazing wildlife viewing opportunities. The crown jewel of Kenai Fjords National Park is Harding Icefield, a place from which 40 glaciers originate. Visitors even have the privilege of getting up onto the icefield and some of the glaciers with the help of guides. Harding Icefield Trail is a favorite of explorers and offers gorgeous views of the ice during the strenuous climb. Kenai Fjords National Park is also a favorite place for kayakers and photographers. Many boat tours and cruises also set out into the open waters of the Gulf from this park.

Glacier Bay National Park - The beauty of nature is vastly untouched at Glacier Bay National Park. There are no roads leading directly into the park; thus, visitors mostly enter via the water or by chartered or private aircraft. Within Glacier Bay National Park, there are well over 3 million acres of protected lands for visitors to explore - lands that feature rugged mountains, beautiful fjords, temperate rainforests and ancient glaciers. And for the most part, these lands are all undeveloped, leaving this Inside Passage attraction a pristine example of Alaska's beauty. The only developed area within the park is Bartlett Cove, and it is here that visitors can embark on hiking trails, tour the visitor's center, gain insight from park rangers, camp and more. Many of the people who come to Glacier Bay National Park spend most of their time touring the stunning waterways and coastline, though. You will see glaciers plunging into the water and an abundance of marine life swimming about.

Best Natural Attractions in Alaska

Turnagain Arm - Complete with dramatic tides and gorgeous scenery, Turnagain Arm is one of the best places to visit in Alaska. This narrow waterway off the Gulf of Alaska has been a favorite of sailors, sightseers and even surfers for years, and thanks to the Seward Highway, even those without access to the water can enjoy the spectacular sights. There are hiking trails surrounding Turnagain Arm, which are the perfect place to watch the tides change.

Tracy Arm Fjord - Twenty-seven miles long and surrounded by dramatic cliffs rising 3,000 feet in the air, Tracy Arm Fjord is a sight to behold and one of the best things to do in Alaska. This waterway offers views of snow-capped mountains, waterfalls and even wildlife. This fjord is located approximately 45 minutes south of Juneau and is best explored by boat or cruise ship.

Inside Passage - Alaska's Inside Passage stretches over 500 miles from north to south along the coast of Alaska. The open waters here play home to various species of whales, seals, eagles, seabirds and many other forms of wildlife. There are over 1,000 islands in the Inside Passage and 15,000 miles of dramatic shoreline. Those cruising through the waters will enjoy views of sleepy coastal towns, mountains, fjords, glaciers and temperate rainforests.

Mendenhall Glacier - Gaze upon icebergs floating on turquoise waters and a truly magnificent 13-mile sheet of ice with a visit to Mendenhall Glacier. This glacier is located just outside of Juneau and is the highlight of the Juneau Icefield. Visitors to the glacier enjoy a variety of hiking trails, ranging from easy to moderate difficulty, as well as an informative visitors center and plenty of places from which to take in the scenery. Wildlife is common on the trails and around the lake here, including beavers, bear and porcupines.

Allow Vacations By Rail to bring adventure to life with one of our well-planned rail vacations to Alaska. These vacations range from seven days to several weeks of travel, giving you the opportunity to soak in all of the best of Alaska without restrictions. In addition to rail vacations, we also offer unique tours that combine the rails with scenic cruising, allowing you to see more sights and destinations in this rugged state. For help selecting your next Alaskan expedition, contact a Rail Specialist today.