Alaska by Train: A Comprehensive Traveler’s Handbook

0
Train in Denali National Park, Alaska

Have you ever wanted to visit Alaska? Most people have The Last Frontier on their bucket lists, and even people who have visited before generally want to return. It’s vast and beautiful, and there’s no other place like it.

One great way to enjoy and explore America’s Land of the Midnight Sun is by train, but many people don’t think about this option until after arriving.

At that point, it may be challenging to add a train tour to one’s itinerary, so you might want to consider this fantastic method of travel early on in your planning stages. That way, you can work around it rather than try to work it in later on.

Experience the majesty of Alaska Railroad's scenic adventure ticket.
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

Two railroad companies serve Alaska – and they’re both wonderful. Whether you use them as a primary mode of transportation while visiting Alaska or combine train trips with other travel methods, you’ll love exploring Alaska by train. Read on to learn more about it, and check out these top tips for visiting Alaska.

TL;DR

Train Route Departure City Arrival City Travel Duration Scenic Highlights Ticket Price
Denali Star Anchorage Fairbanks 12 hours one way Denali National Park, Hurricane Gulch $269/$489
Coastal Classic Anchorage Seward 4.5 hours one way Kenai Mountains, Kenai Fjords National Park $119/$243
Glacier Discovery Anchorage Grandview 5.5 hours one way Turnagain Arm, Spencer Glacier $158

You can book travel on either railroad alone, but you’ll also see rides on both offered as part of cruise ship excursions. If you travel during the heavy tourism months in Alaska, you’ll almost certainly be sharing your train trip with cruise ship passengers, whether you are on a cruise or not.

Train Trips By Alaska Railroad

Alaska Railroad on the Turnagain Arm
JT Fisherman / Adobe Stock

If you want to see Alaska by train, you’ll likely want to spend some time on the Alaska Railroad. This company has 470 miles of track in Alaska. It starts at Seward in the south and terminates in Fairbanks in the state’s center.

Whether you ride a portion of the route offered by Alaska Railroad or from end to end, you’re sure to have a great time, enjoy excellent service, and see a lot of beautiful Alaska through the windows. Alaska Railroad does railroad travel right.

On some Alaska Railroad trains, two classes are offered: GoldStar Service and Adventure Class. Adventure Class is the standard service. You’ll get an assigned seat, and onboard dining and bar service is available for purchase. It’s a comfortable and affordable way to travel, and you won’t be disappointed.

GoldStar Service is the higher class. It’s available only on the Coastal Classic and Denali Star trails. When you purchase a GoldStar Service ticket, you’ll be seated in a car with glass dome ceilings, outdoor viewing platforms, inclusive dining, and a private bar, and an Alaskan tour guide will provide narration along the way.

Interested parties have five train routes on this rail line, each of which is simply lovely. It’s also possible to buy tickets from one station to another rather than traveling as a through passenger from one end of a route to the other. Sometimes you can even get discounts on Alaska Railroad tickets when you buy through third-party sites like Viator.

The five train routes offered by Alaska Railroad are:

Coastal Classic

The Coastal Classic train departs from Anchorage and goes along Turnagain Arm along the coast, stopping in Girdwood. It then heads inland into the Alaskan wilderness before stopping in Seward.

Many people take this train trip as a round-trip journey to explore Seward for the day (there’s a seven-hour layover) or even overnight before heading back to Anchorage.

  • Train Route: Anchorage -> Girdwood -> Seward
  • Departure City: Anchorage
  • Arrival City: Seward
  • Travel Duration: 4.5 hours one-way
  • Scenic Highlights: Turnagain Arm, Chugach Range, Resurrection Bay
  • Ticket Price: $119 one way or $203 round trip Adventure Class; $243 one way or $413 round trip GoldStar Service

Denali Star

Vibrant blue and yellow Alaska Railroad passenger train car with scenic reflections in Alaskan wilderness
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

Alaska Railroad’s flagship train is the Denali Star, and a twelve-hour journey from Anchorage to Fairbanks is a wonderful way to see a lot of the Alaska interior with little effort on your part – just sit back and enjoy the ride!

This train is also a great transportation method for anyone wishing to visit Denali National Park. Even if you don’t stop at the national park, you’ll see incredible views of Denali, the tallest peak in North America, while you ride on the Denali Star – especially on clear days.

  • Train Route: Anchorage -> Wasilla -> Talkeetna -> Denali -> Fairbanks
  • Departure City: Anchorage
  • Arrival City: Fairbanks
  • Travel Duration: 12 hours one-way
  • Scenic Highlights: Chugach Mountains, Denali, Broad Pass, Healy Canyon
  • Ticket Price: $269 one-way Adventure Class; $489 one-way GoldStar Service

Glacier Discovery

Glacier Discovery is a great train to take if you want to do a day trip from Anchorage. This train stops in Girdwood, Whittier, Portage, the Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop, and Grandview. If you don’t feel like taking the train the entire way, you can disembark in Portage to take a motorcoach back to Anchorage instead for a quicker return.

  • Train Route: Anchorage -> Girdwood -> Whittier -> Portage -> Spencer -> Grandview
  • Departure City: Anchorage
  • Arrival City: Grandview
  • Travel Duration: 5.5 hours one-way
  • Scenic Highlights: Prince William Sound, Chugach National Forest, Bartlett Glacier, Spencer Glacier, Placer River Valley
  • Ticket Price: $158 round trip Adventure Class

Hurricane Turn

The Hurricane Turn train is more of a commuter train for locals than a tourist train, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth checking out. However, this train runs only occasionally, and there’s no dining service onboard.

It only runs a short distance – from Talkeetna to Hurricane in the summer and from Anchorage to Hurricane in the winter.

  • Train Route: Talkeetna -> Hurricane Flagstop Area (Summer); Anchorage -> Wasilla -> Talkeetna -> Hurrican Flagstop Area (Winter)
  • Departure City: Talkeetna (Summer); Anchorage (Winter)
  • Arrival City: Hurricane Flagstop Area (Summer & Winter)
  • Travel Duration: 3.5 hours (Summer); 6 hours (Winter)
  • Scenic Highlights: Indian River Valley, Hurricane Gulch, Denali
  • Ticket Price: $117 round trip and $62 one way (Summer); $141 round trip and $99 one way (Winter)

Aurora Winter

The Aurora Winter Train will take you from Anchorage to Fairbanks from mid-September to mid-May, and it’s a great way to see a lot of Alaska’s incredible beauty in the winter if you don’t want to drive. However, keep in mind that it’s dark much of the day in the winter in the Land of the Midnight Sun, so be sure to be awake and attentive during the few daylight hours if you want to see the snowy Alaskan wilderness in all its glory.

  • Train Route: Anchorage -> Wasilla -> Talkeetna -> Hurricane Flagstop Area -> Healy -> Nenana -> Fairbanks
  • Departure City: Anchorage
  • Arrival City: Fairbanks
  • Travel Duration: 12 hours one way
  • Scenic Highlights: Indian River Valley, Hurricane Gulch, Denali
  • Ticket Price: $243 one way

See Related: Best Kenai Fjords Tours Through Alaska’s Wild Wonderland

Train Trips By White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad

Train on Alaska White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad
Carmen / Adobe Stock

Another option for visitors to Alaska who would like to see some of this great state by rail is the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad. This company is based in Skagway and has much less track than Alaska Railroad, but the trains are beautiful, and the views you’ll take on on the way north are incredible the entire way.

This railroad is a historic one. Its construction began in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush to help get gold seekers to the goldfields north of Skagway.

The route was completed in 1890 and remained in operation until 1982. In 1988, it was brought back as a heritage railway, and it was purchased by Carnival Corporation in 2018.

The White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad is an isolated railroad that doesn’t connect to any other lines. It begins in Skagway and winds its way 110 miles northward, through the mountains, into Canada, where it ends in Whitehorse, the capital of Yukon territory.

Several trips on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad are worth considering. Your decision simply rests on how much time you have and how far you’d like to go. Also, you might be happy to know that you can sometimes get discounts on train trips on the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad through third-party websites like GetYourGuide.com.

White Pass Summit Excursion

This train trip goes from Skagway to White Pass Summit. It covers 40 miles round trip and takes about three.

White Pass Summit is right at the Canada/Alaska border without crossing it, so you won’t need a passport for this journey. You’ll pass waterfalls, glaciers, gorges, and historic sites along the way. This train trip is fantastic from beginning to end.

  • Train Route: Skagway -> White Pass Summit -> Skagway
  • Departure City: Skagway
  • Arrival City: Skagway
  • Travel Duration: 2.5 hours round trip
  • Scenic Highlights: Bridal Veil Falls, Inspiration Point, Dead Horse Gulch
  • Ticket Price: $142

Journey to Inspiration Point

The Journey to Inspiration Point train tour is only slightly shorter than the White Pass Summit Excursion above at 36 miles round trip and two and a half hours long. You’ll see all the same things on the trip above except the last few miles; it simply runs on different days.

  • Train Route: Skagway -> Inspiration Point -> Skagway
  • Departure City: Skagway
  • Arrival City: Skagway
  • Travel Duration: 2.5 hours roundtrip
  • Scenic Highlights: Denver, Rocky Point, Bridal Veil Falls, Inspiration Point
  • Ticket Price: $135

Hikers Service

White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad also offers hiker’s service for people who want to take the train to trailheads, spend the day hiking, and then take the train back.

The Skagway to Denver option takes you to the Denver rail stop six miles up the track and allows hikes to explore moderate-level trails in lush forests before taking the train back. The Skagway to Laughton hiker’s train goes quite a bit further north, 14 miles up the track, to be exact, for more of the same.

  • Train Route: Skagway -> Denver -> Skagway or Skagway -> Laughton -> Skagway
  • Departure City: Skagway
  • Arrival City: Skagway
  • Travel Duration: 4.75 hours half day/9.5 hours full day to Denver or 3.5 hours round trip to Laughton
  • Scenic Highlights: These rides are short, but take hikers to trailheads with so much moe to see.
  • Ticket Price: $60 to Denver; $100 to Laughton

Bennett Scenic Journey

If you’d like to dip into Canada on your Alaskan train trip, this is the train tour. On this trip, you’ll go 67.5 miles from Skagway to Carcoss, Yukon Territory, and then back to Skagway again.

You’ll also be able to enjoy a 45-minute layover in Bennett, British Columbia, on the way. This adventure even includes lunch – and you’ll need a passport for the border crossing.

  • Train Route: Skagway -> Carcross -> Skagway
  • Departure City: Skagway
  • Arrival City: Skagway
  • Travel Duration: 8 hours
  • Scenic Highlights: Bridal Veil Falls, Inspiration Falls, White Pass Summit, Fraser, Bennett, Carcross
  • Ticket Price: $265 round trip

See Related: How Much Does an Alaska Trip Cost? [Average Cost Per Day]

Train and Cruise Ship Packages

Cruise Ship in Glacier Bay, Alaska
pabrady63 – stock.adobe.com

Another great way to see Alaska by train is by purchasing a train excursion or add-on from a cruise ship. Taking an Alaska cruise is already pretty spectacular on its own. Whether you choose to depart from Seattle, Vancouver, or Anchorage, you’ll be absolutely blown away by the beauty of the Inside Passage and everything else you’ll see from the deck or your stateroom.

Although Alaskan cruises are more expensive than cruises in many other places, anyone who has ever taken an Alaskan cruise will tell you that it’s worth every penny – myself included. I took one in 2008, and I’ve always wanted to go again. Soon, I think I will.

You can travel on either of the railroads described above independently after or during your cruise or buy through your cruise line. When I went to Alaska on a Carnival cruise, the most popular excursion in Skagway was a ride on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad. My mother and I loved every minute of it!

Our cruise ended in Anchorage, and many passengers we met also added on a trip on the Alaskan Railroad to visit Denali National Park. We passed on this add-on on that trip, but I’d certainly do it next time.

Almost all cruise lines – big and small – that service Alaska offer their customers opportunities to also add train tours. If you take an Alaska cruise, you should definitely take them up on it.

See Related: Anchorage or Juneau: What is Better to Visit?

Combining Train And Road Trips

Train in Alaska with beautiful mountain backdrop
Sherry / Adobe Stock

Combining a road trip and a train trip is another wonderful way to see and experience Alaska. This self-guided land tour will give you much freedom to see what you want at your own pace by car while also allowing you to see the wilderness and backcountry on a train.

It’s important to remember that Alaska is truly gigantic. It may seem like a good idea to simply rent a car and drive to all the things you wish to see, and for some people, it is a great idea to do just that.

However, if you don’t love driving, you may rent a car to explore the area around Anchorage. Then, hop on a train to get to Denali National Park or Fairbanks for more exploration instead of driving there and back yourself.

Further, Alaskan railway trips allow people to see interior Alaska in a way you could not by car. Combining the two methods of travel will truly give you a more comprehensive taste of the Last Frontier.

The trains in Alaska offer great opportunities for people who wish to do some sort of combination trip. Don’t overlook this option when planning your vacation.

How to Pack for a Train Trip in Alaska

Packing for a train trip in Alaska should not be complicated – and it isn’t. You’ll likely have packed everything you needed for your train trip when you departed to Alaska from your home; you won’t need anything special or extra simply because you’re taking the train for part of it.

Regardless of the Alaskan rail company or route, you must wear comfortable clothes and sensible shoes. Wearing layers is wise since you’ll be on the train for part of the trip and likely off it for some of it. You can shed what you don’t need indoors and pile them back on for outdoor exploration.

Wearing sneakers or boots is also a good idea, rather than dressier footwear options, since you’ll be walking around a moving vehicle on the train, and you’ll be hiking or exploring when you disembark. Companies like REI, Patagonia, and Columbia all offer perfect clothing and footwear items for exploring Alaska.

You’ll also want to make sure you invest in travel insurance before you depart. Train travel is very safe, but you never know what might happen when traveling in general. If you’re looking to compare travel insurance packages and offers, check out TravelInsurance.com.

Two major companies offer train service in Alaska – Alaska Railroad and the White Pass & Yukon Railroad. They’re both quite good, as you might imagine, as they compete with each other and cater mostly to tourists, but they are different enough that they are both worth trying out if you have the time.

FAQs

Can you take a train trip from the Lower 48 to Alaska?

Unfortunately, although this would be an absolutely beautiful and fun adventure, you cannot. There are no direct train routes that will take passengers from the Lower 48 states through Canada to Alaska. Maybe someday – dare to dream.

When is the best time of year to explore Alaska by train?

Any time of year is great for seeing Alaska by rail. Of course, most tourists visit Alaska during the late spring, summer, and early fall to take advantage of warmer temperatures and maximum daylight. Some people, however, prefer to visit in the winter months to save money and maybe get a glimpse of the Northern Lights!

Related Resources

Christy Articola
WRITTEN BY

Christy Articola

Christy is was born and raised in upstate New York but she has lived in Denver, Colorado for the past decade with her partner, Billy, and their cat, Lucy. Traveling is her favorite thing to do in the whole world, but she also loves writing, reading, being outdoors, seeing live music, cooking, creating art in many mediums, napping, spending time with friends and family, and laughing heartily as often as possible.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *