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What is the Best Way to Explore Alaska? By Rail of Course

25 September 2023

America's Last Frontier is as wild as it is culture-filled and as immense as it is intimate. There are few places where roads cannot take you, yet Alaska has them in spades. There are even fewer places whose mountains, glaciers, and breathtaking coastlines are met by cities with gold-rush history and customs that pique people's interest worldwide. Alaska must be seen to be believed. If you are ready to check the 49th state off your bucket list, we have a secret that will change how you experience the Great Land: The best way to explore Alaska is by rail. But don't take our word for it; read on to discover why your Alaska trip should be a train tour.

The Alaska Railroad Opens the Door to Outstanding Destinations

Two and a half times the landmass of Texas, Alaska stands apart in size and is brimming with unique destinations. One of the most significant additions to the massive landscape is the Alaska Railroad. This century-old rail line offers over 650 miles of track throughout the south and central parts of the state, offering you connections to the places you most want to see. Route options include:

  • Coastal Classic - One of the most scenic routes offered by the Alaska Railroad, the Coastal Classic connects Anchorage, Girdwood, and Seward. The train skirts Turnagain Arm and offers terrific access to Kenai Fjords National Park upon arrival in Seward.
  • Glacier Discovery - Gaze upon the Knik Arm and Chugach Mountains while traveling from Anchorage to Grandview on the Glacier Discovery. This train stops in Girdwood, Whittier, Portage, and Spencer on its southerly route. Whether you ride it in its entirety or disembark in Whittier to cruise Prince William Sound, this route will surely impress. 
  • Hurricane Turn - This unique route offers two options, depending on what time of year you are traveling. The train has a roundtrip journey into the wilderness between Talkeetna and Hurricane in the summer. Riding this line between October and May includes a longer route between Anchorage and Hurricane, with stops in Wasilla and Talkeetna. 
  • Denali Star - The Alaska Railroad's flagship train, the Denali Star offers a 12-hour, 350-mile journey between Anchorage on the coast and Fairbanks deep in the interior. Enjoy stops in Wasilla, Talkeetna, and Denali and direct access to the protected lands of Denali National Park. Even if your journey does not end in Denali, clear days provide incredible views of America's tallest mountain, Mt. Denali.
  • Aurora Winter Train - During Alaska's long winter months, the Aurora Winter Train follows the same route as the Denali Star. Spectacular backcountry scenery blanketed in snow provides a beautiful backdrop as you travel between Anchorage and Fairbanks. There are no scheduled stops on this train, and instead, it offers flag service to travelers between Talkeetna and Hurricane.

Unlike Road Trips and Flying, Everyone Can Enjoy the Scenery

The railway is the best way to explore Alaska because, for once, everyone in your travel party can enjoy the scenery. Two-lane highways and interstates crisscross through the most populated parts of the state; however, these roads are not always paved, and from September to mid-May, it is not uncommon for snow and ice to coat them. Furthermore, being out in the wilderness does not provide reliable GPS communication or wireless reception, so navigation can be spotty. Because of this, drivers must focus on the route rather than the surroundings.

If your itinerary includes places roads do not reach - and there are plenty of those - your Alaska trip may involve flying. Sure, there are smaller private flights that stay lower to the ground, but even those make it hard to distinguish the nuances of the landscape. You will not get to see the colors of the valleys or animals strolling alongside lakes. The details of cities and villages blending Alaskan heritage and modern life are lost. On the other hand, a train tour puts you amidst all the changes and allows everyone to appreciate the areas through which they are traveling.

Experience Alaskan Glaciers and Wildlife While Traveling

Whether you choose a shorter route on the Alaska Railroad or embark on a full-day expedition into the wilderness, mountains, glaciers, and lush forests decorate the terrain. The Alaskan landscape is filled with wonders, and many are on display as the trains rumble through the wilderness. The state is sparsely populated outside the big cities, so venturing past the city limits unveils quiet beauty not visible in most parts of the nation. Wildlife like bears, moose, and caribou wander through valleys or even near the tracks if you are lucky.

The best way to see these spectacles on the Coastal Classic and Denali Star trains is to upgrade to GoldStar Service. Travelers who book a ticket in this service class are seated in the upper level of a double-decker rail car. Domed glass ceilings provide epic views over the changing landscape, and there is even an upper-deck outdoor viewing platform. This upgrade is just one of the available options on Vacations By Rail's Alaskan tours. Adventure Class travelers on the Coastal Classic, Hurricane Turn, and Denali Star trains can utilize the unassigned seating in the vista dome car for a view without upgrading.

Learn More as You Travel Thanks to Onboard Guides

When you board the Alaska Railroad, you are joining a travel experience rather than just a mode of transportation. Trains like Coastal Classic, Denali Star, and Aurora Winter train have full dining cars where hot meals are served, and all trains, except the Hurricane Turn train, have Wilderness Cafés with grab-and-go food and drink options. One thing that many travelers appreciate most, though, is the commentary. The train's staff provides exciting stories as you travel your chosen route. Your guide may be a trained adult or a local high school student who has completed the Alaska Railroad Tour Guide program. Either way, you are in for a treat.

Enjoy facts about the landscape and invaluable insight about the cities or points of interest. The guides call attention to notable sights, such as Mt. Denali on the Denali Star route, and any wildlife visible from the train. In some cases, the train may even slow down so riders can get a better view of the animals from the warmth and safety of the rail cars.

Memorable Land Tours Are Just a Train Ride Away

Because the railroad connects some of Alaska's most noteworthy locales and offers easy access to others, it is the glue that binds many of our best-selling Alaskan tours. Consider Alaska the Greatland, a tour that utilizes the Denali Star to travel between Fairbanks, where you learn about dog sledding at Trailbreaker Kennels; Denali, home to Denali National Park; and Talkeetna. Alaska By Day utilizes the Glacier Discovery, Coastal Classic, and Denali Star to connect different parts of the state for touring experiences, as does the fantastic, nature-focused Alaska Wildlife Adventure and the Deluxe Alaska Highlights tour, which spends eight days seeking out the Last Frontier's allures through memorable excursions.

Did you know the Alaska Railroad can even be used to see the northern lights? On the Anchorage & Talkeetna Northern Lights Getaway, the Aurora Winter Train sees travelers between the two cities where they can experience the hallmarks of a northern winter, including the aurora. The Northern Lights and Alaska Highlights tour also utilizes the Aurora Winter train; however, it sees guests further north to Fairbanks, one of the best places globally to watch the northern lights.

While many of our tours begin when you fly into Anchorage, it is travel on the Alaska Railroad that brings the expeditions to life. Contact a Rail Specialist to book your next vacation, and you, too, will see why the best way to explore Alaska is by rail.