Our Alaska Train Trip
For many years I had wanted to ride the famous Alaska train Denali Star from Anchorage through the interior to Denali and on to Fairbanks. As a child, I had imagined life and adventure in Alaska. I always wanted a husky and saw myself mushing through the cold and snow. Some of the books of my childhood were set in Alaska–Buck in Call of the Wild and White Fang. My daughters watched Balto overcome the Iditarod trail to Nome to save the children over and over. I cannot count the number of movies I watched about adventure and trepidation in Alaska. I am still watching Northern Exposure on Netflix and thinking about the unique personalities (or characters) I have encountered in Alaska. I pictured the interior through these works along with Doctor Zhivago and the Gulag Archipelago descriptions of Siberia. An Alaska train trip seemed a great way to see this land I had imagined for so long.
Beginning at the Depot
The Alaska Railroad Corporation operates the Alaska railroad system which has many routes and destination within the state. Our trip started at the Anchorage depot departing at 8:15 a.m.
We had stayed the night at a nearby hotel and took a cab to the station. The depot interior is simple with a small gift shop and a coffee shop. People from all over the world were waiting for the train. Lisa and I sat by some teachers from Australia who had been traveling in the U.S. and Canada for the summer. We had lunch with the later on the train. The Alaska train was their last leg before flying home.
We had booked the Gold Star Dome car level so we boarded the train and headed up to the second level. Gold Star features include:
- Glass dome ceilings on the upper level;
- Upper level outdoor viewing platforms;
- Full service dining on the lower level of the car;
- All forward-facing seats;
- Tour guide narrations and a private bar
The seats were very comfortable and we slowly started out of Anchorage. The Alaska train is not a high speed affair. The start of the trip is along the Knik River and you cross the Palmer Hay Flats Game Refuge. Mud flats are common along the coastline of Alaska. The train moved very slowly. I could hear the clickity clack of the wheels as they hit the connections between the rails. The track and the train creak and groan along the way. The conductor came through just like the movies and I thought I recognized him. George had been on an Alaska reality show so I was not going crazy.
The Chugach Mountains are off the right side and you can see the Talkeetna mountains to the north. Then you enter the Mat Su Valley which stretches all the way to Talkeetna. This Valley is very fertile and produces the huge fruit and vegetables that you may have seen in pictures that are grown with the long summer days in Alaska. You pass through several towns the first few hours out of Anchorage including Wasilla (home of Sarah Palin), Houston, and Willow. You can watch all of this scenery from your comfortable seat on the Alaska train car. Dome cars have incredible views.
The viewing platform is where you can get that personal Alaska weather experience and also some great pictures.
We began following the Susitna River and started the slow climb to Talkeetna and the start of the Alaska Range mountains.
We headed downstairs for our first meal of the day. The food on the Alaska train is good and the service is excellent. Seating is for four and we dined with Vicki and Emily, two lifetime friends that take a trip together every year. The train was the last leg of their journey through Alaska. They lived in New England and we talked about our visits to Boston and other parts of New England. That old saying “It is a small world” always seems to be right when we meet new people. Vicki and Emily had been to Hamanasi in Belize where our daughter and new son-in-law had gone on their honeymoon. Breakfast was a great meal on the train and just like I imagined as we chatted about our travels and watched the scenery go by.
The Alaska Range
After breakfast, I went out on the car’s back platform in anticipation of seeing Denali. The tallest mountain in North America was renamed in 2015 and had been called Mt. McKinley since 1917. Denali is a native Alaskan word meaning “The Tall One.” As all my friends know, I do my research before any adventure. The Alaska Range is a relatively small, crescent moon shaped wall of mountains that separates southern from northern Alaska. About 40 miles from Denali, the Alaska train goes through Broad Pass, the lowest pass in the Alaska Range. Ten miles further, the train crosses the continental divide at 2,363 feet. Rivers south of the divide flow to Cook Inlet and the Pacific and those north of the divide flow to the Yukon River and the Bering sea. The Alaska Range is said to have some of the worst weather on earth. The Himalayas are much higher but their latitude is about the same as my home in Florida!
Denali is the tallest mountain in the Alaska Range. I was on the platform in hopes of getting the perfect view as we reached Takeetna. I had actually seen Denali from Anchorage when our cab driver pointed it out. Denali is often hidden by clouds and rain but not today. As we reached Talkeetna, the mountain appeared. I took this beautiful photo from the Alaska train platform.
Anchorage is 102 feet above sea level and Talkeetna is only 348 feet above sea level. McKinley Park which is a few miles outside the entrance to the Denali National Park is 1,749 feet above sea level. These statistics really amazed me—I thought we would be much higher. Denali is taller than Mount Everest when measured from its base to the peak. For you useful trivia people like me, you should Google the difference between tallest versus highest mountains definition.
As we began the slow climb to Denali, I stood on the platform just watching the mountain range. The Alaska train route follows along side the Park boundary and the Nenana River. Over the next few miles you cross some long bridges including the longest on the Alaska Railroad over Hurricane Gulch at 914 feet.
From Talkeetna to Denali, the travel time is a little over four hours so you have time to relax and really enjoy the trip. For me, this stretch of mountains, forests, and rivers was the most scenic of the part of the journey from the train.
After a couple of hours, it is time for lunch. We go down to the dining car and are pleased to see that we are seated with the couple from Australia. I cannot remember their names (too many numbers in my head) but they had a wonderful story to tell. They were retired school teachers with teenagers still at home and an earnest hope their house was still standing after several months traveling. They had started in Washington DC, travel to Chicago, and taken a Canadian train tour combined with an Alaskan cruise ending in Seward. The last leg of their travels was the Alaska train before their long flight home. We had a great time talking about many places they had visited. I was stationed in DC for many years and have lived in Chicago. We also had lots of questions about what we could do and see in Australia.
As lunch was ending, the man took out a business card and handed it to me. There was a beautiful scene of a young couple at their wedding. For many years he told me, he had been officiating marriages and unions for people. His face was glowing as he described marrying past students over the years and now some of their children. I could tell being part of these very happy occasions for so many people had brought a lot of joy to both of their lives. You meet the nicest people doing some of the most wonderful things on trips. I think it is part of the mindset that makes people want to travel the world.
We met several other people on the train and got to know the servers in the dining car a little as well. Young people go to Alaska to work in the summers for adventure and the experience. The servers were young, cheerful women from Europe mostly and it was fun talking with them about their homelands.
The Alaska train arrives at the Denali Park railroad station at 3:40 p.m. We stayed two nights at the Crow’s Nest where we had time for some excellent meals and a cooking demonstration with executive chef Tom Chapman. Tom lives in Washington Terrace, Utah just a few miles from where we lived for many years. Another interesting story, Tom is from Britain and was trained as a classic French chef. He was the chef for Team Europe at the 2012 Ryder Cup and was a teaching chef at Sur la Table. He came to Alaska to be the executive chef at the Crow’s Nest from the Medinah Country Club in suburban Chicago, the hosting course for past national championships. Another crazy story of how someone got to Alaska! There will be more about Tom in a separate article about the Crow’s Nest and Denali Park & Preserve that will follow soon.
You could easily spend several days in the Denali area. There is only one road into the Park and after a few miles, the road is restricted and private vehicles are not allowed. Bus tours are available and we took the all day tour to the observation point at the Eielson Visitor Center.
The vastness of the land and its rugged beauty is amazing. The wildlife that inhabits Denali lives naturally with no management by the Park Service. All species in the Park are native to this land.
North to the Tundra
As the Alaska train leaves Denali, you pass into the Nenana River gorge and more beautiful scenery. The train runs along the river past Healy and into terrain that is what I imagined Siberia to be like. There are epic views of miles of flat lands with small, scrub trees. The earth appears frozen but with standing water in places near the tracks. This is a relatively short part of the journey.
Even though I am on the train, I can still feel the stillness of the land. I get the same feeling driving through the Plains or the Badlands of North Dakota. The train moves slowly and I think about what it must have been like getting through Alaska without the roads or the train years ago.
In a few miles, the Alaska train enters Nenana. Goods travel from Nenana on the regional waterways including the two thousand mile long Yukon River. Now I know that name! From the train you can see a large black and white metal tripod. This tripod is placed in the middle of the river when it freezes each year and contestants guess when the spring thaw will occur. Predicting the exact time has become an international event. Tickets go on sale February 1 each year so go to the Nenana Ice Classic web site and get in on the festivities! The tripod floats down river where a rope tied to it pulls a pin in a clock measuring the exact time. The official break up in 2016 was April 23rd at 3:39 p.m.. Just out of town is the site where President Harding drove a golden spike in 1923 marking the completion of the railroad.
Now we are only fifty miles or so from this historic town—one of the gold rush destinations in my books and movies. Just before we start into the outlying areas of Fairbanks, I see hundreds of sandhill cranes in the distance. Florida has these cranes and I cannot believe they are all the way up here in Fairbanks. Amazingly, thousands of these cranes live in the western parts of North American and migrate this far north. Fairbanks even has an annual Tanana Valley Sandhill Crane Festival in August. They are magnificent birds and you can learn more about them in this article in Alaska Fish & Wildlife News.
Arriving at the Fairbanks Alaska train station you are the most northern point of any railroad in the world. You can tell this is a tough place and people work very hard to stay here. As we disembark, we wave to the Australians as well as Vicki and Emily and all go our separate ways. I look at a map as we are waiting for our ride to the Crow’s Nest. The Arctic Circle is only 120 miles away but we are still not even half way up to the Arctic Ocean.
We stay several nights at the River’s Edge Resort and enjoyed a cruise on the Chena River which included seeing a sled dog demonstration at Trail Breaker Kennel, established in 1980 by Susan Butcher who won the Iditarod four times and her husband David Monson. A separate article about Fairbanks will follow shortly.
My Next Train Trip
After a few fun days in Fairbanks, we flew to Anchorage and on to a fishing lodge. I started thinking about a couple more train trips I want to take even before this train ride was over. One trip for sure is the winter trip on this same line. The Alaska train runs all year and I think it would be awesome to see this same scenery covered in ice and snow. Oh yes, Fairbanks is a great spot for another bucket list item—the Northern Lights.
I was sitting in the hot tub at the Crow’s Nest when a couple joined me and we started talking about the train. I told them about wanting to take the train from Winter Park, Florida to Penn Station in New York City. This is an historic line where people years ago came to Florida for the winter and then returned home. I think it would be cool to ride, eat, and sleep on a train through the eastern US. The couple was from New York and he said, “That train is really slow and always very late.” I didn’t have a response—I had not thought about the time.
Make A Train Part of Your Alaska Vacation
Adding an Alaska train trip to a fishing vacation, cruise, or any trip to Alaska is simple. We can help you plan your Alaska fishing vacation and include the Denali Star. You won’t regret the decision. Get together with your friends and family and decide to do something special.
If you want to talk about our experiences and how we can help, complete our contact form or just call Lisa at 855-711-7773. We hope to see you in Alaska on the water very soon.