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Riding the Alaska Railroad is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many. We had the opportunity to ride the railroad and experience the legendary Vista Dome experience firsthand. In our full Alaska Railroad review, we’ll highlight what’s better: the GoldStar Service or the Adventure Class.
Welcome aboard the Alaska Railroad! The popular mainline stretches from Seward to Fairbanks, covering a distance of 470 miles. The railroad connects communities from Alaska’s interior to the Southcentral region throughout its passage.
The Alaska Railroad is a staple for any trip to Alaska. And for us, it was a must-have, must-do for our Denali National Park itinerary.
Completed in 1923, the Alaska Railroad is more used today than ever. Amazingly, it took only nine years to create this massive railroad, and President Warren G. Harding inaugurated it on a visit to Alaska. Today, it’s a great way for tourists to explore some of Alaska’s top destinations and colorful culture with some of the best Alaska day trips imaginable.
- Alaska Railroad Route Map
- Routes of the Alaska Railroad
- Denali National Park Stop on Alaska Railroad
- Train Ride from Denali to Fairbanks
- Adventure Class or GoldStar Service: What’s Best?
- GoldStar Services
- Adventure Class
- Adventure or GoldStar: What do we think is best?
- Best Train Rides On The Alaska Railroad
- Aurora Winter Train
- Coastal Classic Train
- Glacier Discovery Train
- Denali Star Train
- Alaska Railroad History
- Further Development of the Railroad System in Alaska
- Alaska Railroad Today
- Alaska Railroad
- Value for Money
- Customer Service
- Alaskan Travel Experience
Alaska Railroad Route Map
Here is a map of the Alaska Railroad map to help you plan for your trip.
In 1943, the railroad underwent significant expansion, encompassing an additional twelve miles to the overall length of the rail line. Presently, the railway extends to Whittier.
Whittier is a small yet stunningly beautiful town encompassed by breathtaking natural landscapes and picturesque views. It’s also within easy reach of the equally stunning Spencer Glacier.
Despite seasonal scheduling variations, the railway operates throughout the entire year. During the summer months, from May through September, the train service experiences a tourism boom as it attracts numerous visitors. However, as the temperatures in Alaska plummet, the crowd size tends to dwindle, starting in September.
Additionally, passengers can book their tickets through corporations affiliated with the Alaska Railroad Corporation, such as Denali Rail Tours, The Wilderness Express, and Princess Rail Tours. It is crucial to note that the railway operates with a single departure every day, necessitating advance booking to ensure a seat on the train.
Routes of the Alaska Railroad
The Alaska Railroad starts from Seward and reaches the state capitol, Anchorage, in 4.5 hours. From there, it moves on to Talkeetna, a 3-hour ride. The time between Talkeetna and Denali is another 4.5 hours.
Depending on how you want to enjoy your train travels, you can do what many travelers do and treat each leg of the journey as its day trip mixed in with overnight stays at these towns. That way, you can plan for additional excursions, which I highly recommend.
Denali National Park Stop on Alaska Railroad
Denali is known internationally for its beauty and stunning views. However, don’t be surprised if you don’t spot the peak of Denali from the National Park Station since it’s only visible from that distance for a few weeks every year.
Denali National Park is a remarkable place that you’ve got to experience to believe. If you plan to see the whole park in one go, hop on the shuttle to take you around. Or, if you’re with a group or family, take the van tour for more private time.
Another way to explore the park is by renting a bike, but if you’re feeling adventurous and want to take in the beauty of Denali from above, book a flightseeing tour.
From the bird’s eye view of a plane or helicopter, you’ll be able to appreciate the sprawling beauty of the tundra, vegetation, and glaciers underneath.
How cool is that?! It was exceptionally cool – we were on some massive glaciers. It doesn’t get any colder than that! If you plan on spending more time near the water, you can go rafting in the Nenana River. You can either choose a guided tour where the guide commands the boat or book a tour where everyone gets hold of a paddle to navigate the boat themselves.
Whichever you choose, the view of snow-capped peaks from the middle of the water is bound to make you feel at peace. If you can spend a little time in and around Denali and absorb the tranquility, check out these best places to stay in Denali while you are there.
Train Ride from Denali to Fairbanks
Once you’ve soaked in enough of Denali Park, hop back on the railroad and head to the last stop – Fairbanks. It’s a 4-hour train ride that takes you through nature, including thick alpine forests and picturesque snow-dusted mountain ranges.
Make sure you get a window seat and charge your phone’s battery fully beforehand because you’ll want to capture a snap of every glacier and mountain you pass by. There’s also a great chance you’ll spot some of Alaska’s beautiful wildlife outside your window.
The leg between Anchorage and Seward is probably the most visually pleasing among all routes. But every route on this Alaska train is infinitely more breathtaking than your everyday trip across (oh, I don’t know) any other part of the United States.
If you want to cover Denali and Fairbanks, take the Denali Star for an epic full-day trip. It’s a 12-hour route, making the journey every (summer) day from Anchorage to Fairbanks while another train makes the return journey at the end of the day.
Whether you’re coming or going, while sitting in your carriage, gazing out of the window, you’ll find yourself surrounded by gorgeous nature on all sides.
To give yourself a break from sitting, head over to the Denali National Park or catch a bite at the stops in Talkeetna and Wasilla. If you’re lucky enough to be visiting the park on a clear day, you might catch the sight of Denali, which is the tallest mountain in North America. Other key sights along the way include the Savage River and the Mountain Vista.
The views get even better at sunset, and there are few sights I’ve seen in this world more moving than watching the sun slip behind one of the peaks.
If you plan to take a day trip from Anchorage, another good route is via the Glacier Discovery train since it offers a convenient round-trip from Anchorage to Whitter. The train stops at Girdwood for some time, allowing you to take pictures or fuel up with a snack and coffee before continuing your trip.
Like the one taken by the Denali Star, this route is also framed with views of the Alaska Wilderness. The trees, lakes, rivers, and mountains are just otherworldly in beauty.
You do not very often find all the most stunning elements of peaceful, sub-arctic, and arctic nature in one place. But that’s what makes the Alaska Rail Road unique. As for the Alaska train cars, they’re very comfortable, which is great since your butt will be planted on one for a while.
See Related: Things to Do in Homer, Alaska
Adventure Class or GoldStar Service: What’s Best?
With its pristine national parks, majestic mountains, and abundant wildlife, Alaska is a destination that captures the imagination of any nature enthusiast. A train journey through this land of wild beauty is an unrivaled experience that leaves one spellbound.
The legendary Alaska Railroad offers train tours that take you through some of the most breathtaking landscapes in the world. Which classes, GoldStar or Adventure Class, should you opt for while taking an Alaska vacation?
Let us begin our review with the GoldStar class, which epitomizes luxury and comfort. The train tracks weave through Alaska’s wilderness, past snow-capped mountains and crystal-clear streams.
The GoldStar class boasts glass-dome ceilings, offering panoramic views of the stunning scenery. The private outdoor viewing platform provides an up-close look at Alaska’s wild beauty and prime opportunities for wildlife viewing on the go.
The GoldStar class also includes complimentary meals and beverages. It has access to an exclusive upper-level dining room, where gourmet meals are served with stunning views perfect for your Alaska vacations.
For those seeking an Alaska vacation that is both affordable and adventurous, the Adventure Class presents an excellent choice. This class features large picture windows, comfortable seating, and access to the train’s lower-level viewing platform.
Though the Adventure Class doesn’t include meals, you can satiate your hunger and thirst at the café car that serves a variety of food and drinks.
Independent travelers who desire to explore Alaska’s national parks can book multi-day packages that include train service and accommodations in the coastal towns of Seward and Whittier. It allows them to explore Alaska’s natural wonders and cruise at their own pace.
Adventure or GoldStar: What do we think is best?
When it comes to exploring the wild beauty of Alaska, there is nothing quite like absorbing it all on a train ride along the Alaska Railroad.
As a traveler, you can select between two classes of service – Adventure Class or GoldStar Service – depending on the route you plan to take. Both are excellent services, but my recommendation? Without a doubt, the GoldStar Service.
The GoldStar Service provided me with an experience of a lifetime that I will cherish forever. The panoramic views of Alaska’s majestic wilderness from the top-level service with its glass roof were truly awe-inspiring, as were the equally impressive views from the bottom level, where I enjoyed full-service dining.
In addition to the exceptional service, I was pleased to note that the Alaska Railroad provides wheelchair access, non-smoking cars, and baggage service at several key locations, including Fairbanks, Talkeetna, Anchorage, and Denali.
To book your ticket or check fare information, the Alaska Railroad website offers comprehensive details regarding the route and train schedules for various seasons to avoid disappointment, as some routes may not be available every day during the winter months.
See Related: Best Travel Backpacks
Best Train Rides On The Alaska Railroad
Alaska is a vast wilderness of spectacular natural beauty and unique experiences. Everyone knows an Alaska cruise is a great way to take it all in – you can witness towering glaciers, watch humpback whales breach, and see bald eagles soar.
You’ll also hear people rave about flightseeing tours, which allow you to take in this great land in its sheer enormity with completely unobstructed views.
But if you’re seeking a different perspective of Alaska’s unspoiled wilderness, then an Alaskan train trip is the perfect way to see the breathtaking beauty of the state. Each experience is different, and it can be hard to choose your favorite option. Here are some of the best train trips on the Alaska Railroad for your next vacation.
Aurora Winter Train
A journey on the Aurora Winter Train is a must-do for any discerning traveler. This picturesque train ride takes you from Anchorage to Fairbanks, meandering through the heart of Alaska’s wilderness.
Along the way, you may catch a glimpse of the awe-inspiring Northern Lights (or Aurora Borealis), provided that the conditions are optimal. The train route is enveloped by the majestic Denali Park and the Alaska Range, offering breathtaking panoramic views of the area’s pristine national parks.
For the most adventurous and daring travelers, the Arctic Circle offers a remote and exhilarating expedition that will leave an indelible impression.
A number of multi-day packages are available, including this one, which offers train service to Fairbanks and provides an opportunity to explore the area’s history and culture on a guided tour.
The Arctic Circle is also an excellent place to witness the spellbinding Northern Lights and experience the midnight sun during summer.
Coastal Classic Train
Another extraordinary train ride that will leave you with lasting memories of Alaska’s breathtaking landscape is the Coastal Classic Train. This remarkable train journey offers one of the most exceptional ways to discover the exquisiteness of the Kenai Peninsula, Resurrection Bay, and Kenai Fjords National Park.
The Coastal Classic Train expedition is characterized by the Kenai Fjords National Park’s unparalleled beauty, which is the excursion’s apex. For those seeking to immerse themselves in the natural wonders of the Kenai Peninsula, the Alaska Railroad offers a day trip to Kenai Fjords National Park.
The train journey commences in Anchorage and proceeds to the charming coastal town of Seward. From there, visitors can revel in the splendor of the fjords and marvel at the park’s thriving wildlife, including sea lions, puffins, and orcas.
Glacier Discovery Train
If you seek a train ride that is informative, engaging, and enjoyable, then look no further than Glacier Discovery Train. Running between Anchorage and Whittier, this train trip is an experience that will undoubtedly leave a lasting impression.
The Glacier Discovery Train traverses through some of the most awe-inspiring landscapes in Alaska. As you travel along the track through the Portage Valley and the Chugach Mountains, you will have ample opportunities to relish the magnificent vistas of glaciers, wildlife, and picturesque waterfalls.
Keep a watchful eye out for the captivating wildlife; with some luck, you may catch a glimpse of a moose or a bear, a sight to behold.
Prince William Sound is another exceptional destination easily accessible from Anchorage. This area is renowned for its captivating glaciers and flourishing wildlife, including sea otters, seals, and humpback whales.
You can embark on a glacier cruise or a multi-day package, allowing you to explore the Sound’s coastline and witness the glaciers up close.
Denali Star Train
The Denali Star Train is an extraordinary ride, considered among the Alaska Railroad’s most remarkable journeys. This awe-inspiring round-trip, spanning 12 hours with excellent service, will take you on a mesmerizing expedition through Anchorage, Talkeetna, Denali, and Fairbanks. You’ll behold breathtaking vistas of the Alaska Range, Denali National Park, and the spectacular Northern Lights.
As you step aboard the Denali Star Train in Anchorage, you’ll journey through Alaska’s majestic landscapes, encompassing snow-capped mountains, rugged terrain, and picturesque valleys.
The highlight of this journey undoubtedly lies in the Denali National Park, boasting North America’s tallest peak, Mount Denali. And you can go on a guided tour through Talkeetna by air.
The Denali Star Train’s route will also take you through several charming towns and villages, each endowed with unique character and attractions.
With the train’s large windows and open-air viewing platform, you’ll be privy to unparalleled views of Alaska’s breathtaking scenery and wildlife. It culminates in an experience that will remain in your memory forever.
Alaska Railroad History
This mighty stretch of the railroad began in 1903 when the Alaska Central Railway built a 50-mile railroad from Seward. The plan was to help connect northern Alaskan settlements to her southern seaports and ferry lumber, minerals, and animal goods south via the railroad.
In 1910, the railway was extended to 71 miles from Seward, while the Alaska Central Railway was rebranded as the Alaska Northern Railway Co.
Three years later, in 1914, the US Congress agreed to finance the further extension of the railroad to Fairbanks, Alaska’s largest city, located in the state’s center.
At the time, the project was estimated at $35 million, and the Alaska Northern Railway Co.’s headquarters were then established in Anchorage, the state capitol.
By 1923, the railroad was entirely constructed. President Warren Harding marked the completion of the project by driving the final railroad spike into the ground. Following the American railroad tradition, this final spike was made from solid gold.
By the 1930s, the Alaskan industry had increased rapidly, thanks mostly to the railroad and the business that came with it. There was now just enough money and population in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Seward to keep the railroad in business.
It wouldn’t be until 1938 that the railroad saw its first year of profits. These profits would continue to grow with the outbreak of World War 2 as America used the railroad to help supply Canada and Britain with arms and war materials.
Eventually, her forces, once she finally joined the fight against evil. The railroad played a major role in transportation during the war, and its legacy was secured by that horrific period.
See Related: Things to do in Talkeetna, Alaska
Further Development of the Railroad System in Alaska
In 1943, the corporation built two tunnels via the Chugach Mountains to give the railroad access to Whittier. At that time, Whittier was an important town since it was a vital military port, and the Alaska Railroad was imperative in supporting the war effort. The next year, Whittier opened another railroad port as faster, more reliable diesel machines replaced steam engines.
The war’s end saw profits decline as the need for war materials evaporated. In 1996, marks the year when the last steam engine left the railroad, with all engines now running on diesel.
In 1981, the railroad agreed with the career centers in Anchorage and Fairbanks school districts to initiate a tour guide program for high school students.
This program aimed to train the kids to host passengers on trains, as the state was seriously considering buying the railroad and using it as a tourist attraction. Just three years later, the Alaskan railroad took a step toward the classiness that it exudes today.
In 1984, the railroad accepted contracts for the double-decker luxury coaches. The following year, Alaska acquired the railroad as state property.
In the subsequent years, the railroad was often blocked due to flooding and other weather elements, but it was always cleared, and journeys resumed nonetheless.
See Related: What to Pack for Denali
Alaska Railroad Today
In 2002, the Alaska railroad generated over $10 million in revenue for the first time. Also, the authorities started a program to use software technology to reduce noise production and diesel emissions.
The most successful year in the history of the railroad was 2003, when revenue of $14.5 million was generated.
Today, the railroad serves as a communication channel between the adjoining towns and is frequented by thousands of tourists visiting Alaska annually. Many regard it as the best way to view Alaska’s breathtaking interior – I am among those visitors.
With that, I’ll be signing off. Hopefully, the glorious natural views you’ll see from these Alaskan railroad routes tempt you into coming to this stunning state – I have a feeling they will.
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Value for Money8.0/10
Alaskan Travel Experience9.0/10
- Access to Alaska's Top Attractions
- See Alaska's Sceneries While Sitting
- Offers a Travel With Minimal Walking
- Booking Available Online
- Different Routes for Adventure Class and GoldStare Service
- Few Routes and Attractions Available During Winter
- About the Author
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Kyle Kroeger is the Founder and Owner of ViaTravelers.com. He is a full-time traveler and entrepreneur. Kyle started ViaTravelers.com to help travelers experience a fully immersive cultural experience as he did initially living in Italy. He’s a converted finance nerd and Excel jockey turned world wanderer (and may try to get lost on purpose). After visiting 12 countries and 13 national parks in a year, he was devoted to creating and telling stories like he’d heard.
Plus, after spending more time on airplanes and packing, he’s learned some incredible travel hacks over time as he earned over 1 million Chase Ultimate Rewards points in under a year, helping him maximize experiences as much as possible to discover the true meaning of travel.
He loves listening to local stories from around the world and sharing his experiences traveling the globe. He loves travel so much that he moved from his hometown of Minneapolis to Amsterdam with his small family to travel Europe full-time.