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For the first-time Alaska visitor, stepping aboard a train bound for the wilderness is the beginning of a journey filled with adventure and surprise. The trip 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. Secure in a comfortable seat, countryside begins to open all around.
But within minutes, you realize the trip north from Anchorage toward Fairbanks is special. Around each curve, the majesty of glaciers, mountains or Alaskan wildlife comes into view. A moose might be grazing near a stretch of braided river. The blue of a glacier peeks out from under melting mid-summer snow on a mountainside. A view of Mount McKinley, North America's tallest peak, emerges in the splendor only afforded by the routes traveled by Alaska's trains.
A traveler might then retire to a dining car, enjoy a meal of Alaska salmon served on china and linen, and contemplate all he or she has witnessed.
Welcome to Alaska and a train trip like no other.
The largest state's train system has the distinction of being one of the last remaining "flagstop" train systems, where passengers can stand by the side of the track in vast wilderness and hitch a ride. But the trains that chug through Alaska offer something else unique in the country: access to wilderness and wildlife most urban travelers only dream of seeing.
Alaska is one of the few places in the country with a working railroad that hauls both passengers and freight daily. Only a third of Alaska is accessible by car; the train offers options that go beyond what a highway traveler might see.
The 91-year-old system runs through Alaska from tidewater at Whittier and Seward north to Anchorage, then through the heart of Alaska to Fairbanks, the commercial hub for northern communities. Most of the tracks are surrounded by wilderness. Long stretches of the railroad parallel the rugged coastline of Southcentral Alaska, offering spectacular panoramas - all at a pace that recalls the beginning of the 20th century and the Alaska Railroad.
The state's rail system began with a $35 million appropriation from Congress to haul coal out of the Matanuska Valley north of Anchorage and open up the Interior region to development. With only the most basic tools on hand, workers completed the track in 1923, overcoming obstacles and conditions that would seem impossible even by today's standards. It was joined together with a sledge hammer and golden spike by President Warren G. Harding on July 15, 1923 in Nenana, then one of the state's largest cities.
Every year, more than 400,000 people ride the Alaska rails, whether for a practical means of getting around parts of the state or for the sheer romance of it.
Seeing Alaska from the comfort of full-service, glass-domed cars with oversized coach windows is breathtaking.
The 12-hour trip north from Anchorage to Fairbanks threads through Denali National Park and features seemingly endless views of mountains, wildlife and rivers. Onboard, guests enjoy the hospitality and amenities that originally gave train travel such a decadent reputation. Cocktails and other beverages are served throughout the day. Gourmet meals feature a hearty slow braised pot roast or a selection of fresh Alaska seafood entrees.
The vast amount of scenery flashing past is almost overwhelming in scope. So the railroad provides easy-going, knowledgeable guides to narrate the trip. Travelers learn the natural history and Alaska Native culture of the region complete with anecdotes featuring the sourdough characters who left their homes to stake their fortunes here more than 100 years ago.
For those who want to spend more time exploring the stops along the Alaska Railroad, a five-night itinerary works well.
The trip begins in Anchorage, Alaska's largest city. With almost 300,000 people, Anchorage is a popular urban setting with all the advantages of a much larger town. But such stunning views and abundant wildlife surround no 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.
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 travelers will then board a boat and take a tour of Kenai Fjords National Park. Guests will then stay the night in Seward.
The next day, travelers will experience the “real Alaska,” and will be able to go on a sled dog ride, enjoy lunch at an Alaska roadhouse and get a breathtaking view of Exit Glacier. After the full day of activities, guests enjoy a scenic train ride back to Anchorage where they will spend the night.
The following day, travelers will head north out of Anchorage, passing through the Matanuska Valley, known for scale-busting vegetables grown under the midnight sun. Continuing north, train travelers can catch what is often the highlight of their trip: the first spectacular view of 20,237-foot Mount McKinley. From each bend in the railroad, Mount McKinley shows off its different faces and angles, making it one of the most photographed mountains in the world. And if the sight of the highest peak in North America isn't enough, the route affords views of several of the 20 highest peaks in the country.
Travelers will end the day by doing a flightseeing tour of Mount McKinley and staying the night at another Alaska roadhouse in the charming town of Talkeetna.
On the final day, travelers will go on a 130-mile roundtrip 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. Conductors frequently slow the train for photo opportunities and the tour guides are well versed in each species. After touring Denali State Park, the train returns travelers to Anchorage for a final overnight stay in the Last Frontier.
Travelers looking for a shorter excursion from Anchorage should consider a trip south to Seward or Whittier. A four-hour trip from Anchorage takes passengers along the Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet to the port city of Seward. Established in 1903 by railroad surveyors as an ocean terminal and supply center, 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. Visitors can explore the Alaska SeaLife Center, with glass tanks that make viewers feel like they're under the sea. Visitors can also take a 2.5-hour trip from Anchorage to Whittier on the "Glacier Discovery" train, allowing passengers access to the many tours available in Prince William Sound and the massive tidewater glaciers the sound is known for. Daily seasonal service from Anchorage to Seward and Whittier operates from mid-May to mid-September.
The Alaska Railroad offers limited winter service between Anchorage and Fairbanks. From the cozy vantage of the coaches, passengers can see aurora borealis, or northern lights, as they paint the sky red, blue, purple, green, orange and yellow. And to make the snowy winter even more attractive, special events trains allow passengers to get out into the frozen wilderness.
The Nordic Ski Train operates once a year during the winter and takes passengers from Anchorage north to the historic town of Curry. There, backcountry skiers can spend the day in winter wilderness. Then they climb back on the train, and enjoy live music and refreshments on the trip back to Anchorage.
A number of other special trains are dispatched during the year. The annual Great Alaska Beer Train offers an 80-mile roundtrip event from Anchorage to Portage and features a variety of beers brewed locally and hors d’oeuvres while guests take in the incredible view of Turnagain Arm.
For Alaska visitor information, call 800-862-5275, or visit http://www.travelalaska.com
State of Alaska Tourism
Media Line: (800) 327-9372