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Train travel is magical. It’s relentlessly consistent but un-rushed; it shows you the world but each moment is fleeting and requires a certain mindfulness to appreciate. Even if you don’t consider yourself a “railhead” (a super-nerd about trains), there are some pretty incredible train rides in Alaska. Thanks to the unique organization of the Alaska Railroad and its role in Alaskan history, visitors today can travel across the state and back in time each time they board the Railroad’s iconic blue and yellow trains.
People are often surprised to learn that the Alaska Railroad isn’t the only train ride in Alaska – and while there aren’t a ton of different rail lines, there are a surprising number of different rail routes to experience. Depending on your Alaska itinerary, you may be able to do one or more of them.
To be honest, I don’t remember riding trains often while growing up in Alaska. It’s one of those experiences which is both more financially and logistically reasonable when you’re visiting instead of raising a family in Alaska. But since I became a travel writer, I’ve been fortunate to ride the Alaska Railroad and White Pass & Yukon Route Railway a few different times – most recently February 2020, August 2021, and June 2022 – and almost all of the routes – the Aurora Winter Train, part of the Glacier Discovery, the Summit Route, and the Coastal Classic!
If you’re sold on taking a train ride during your Alaska vacation and just need help deciding which one, this post will help. Below I’ve broken down the five main routes for train rides in Alaska and what makes each one special. You can always let me know in the comments if you are uncertain which one to book and I’ll try to help make it work in your itinerary.
In this post, I promote travel to destinations that are the traditional lands of many Alaska Native groups, including the Aleut, Athabascan, Haida, Inupiat, Tlingit, and Yuit peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
Denali Star Train
The Denali Star is the Alaska Railroad’s flagship train. Each summer morning, the northbound Denali Star leaves downtown Anchorage at 8:15 am to embark on a scenic journey to Fairbanks. At the exact same time, there’s a southbound sister train in Fairbanks which makes the same trip in the reverse.
A 12-hour ride, the route traverses two of Alaska’s five geographic regions, Southcentral and Interior Alaska, showing passengers diverse landscapes and wildlife along the way. The train makes three stops: Wasilla, Talkeetna, and Denali National Park – the prime attraction of the Alaska Railroad’s Denali Star Route. Honoring its name, the train offers astounding views of Denali as it passes within 46 miles of the summit.
You can choose between two onboard services, GoldStar Service or Adventure Class. For those who can afford a little splurge, GoldStar Service is the premium class of services. It offers glass-dome ceilings to enjoy panoramic views and a full-service dining room. There’s also an observation car with an open platform to enable you to get great photographs without the problems of window reflections. If you’re on a budget, Adventure Class is a more affordable alternative, offering comfortable seating, large picture windows, and onboard dining and bar service available for purchase in the Wilderness Café.
(P.S. I didn’t include the Hurricane Turn route on this list because it’s basically the same as this route; if you want to do a day trip instead of overnighting in Denali, take a look at that route from the AKRR.)
Coastal Classic Train
One of the most beloved train rides in Alaska, the Coastal Classic departs from Anchorage and has Seward as its final destination. The first leg of the journey from Anchorage to the old Portage Station offers dramatic mountain vistas as the train winds through the Cook Inlet and Turnagain Arm. The second leg of the journey ventures into the backcountry wilderness of the Kenai Peninsula. Have your camera ready to capture the gorgeous glaciers, waterfalls, and scenic rivers that dot the landscape.
A 4-hour journey, the first service departs at 6:45am and arrives at 11:05am. This train ride is an excellent alternative to driving if you’re planning a day trip to Seward. There’s a seven-hour layover until the return train to Anchorage (6:00 pm), so you’ll have plenty of time in Seward before the return rail journey to Anchorage that evening – including enough time to take a Kenai Fjords cruise.
Just like with the Denali Star Train, there are two classes of services: the Adventure Class and GoldStar dome service. If you go with the Gold Star package, you’ll be put in a fully-domed, brand-new railcar that gives you fantastic views in all directions. The Adventure Class is advertised as the standard service. But trust me, there’s nothing standard about this service. You’ll get to sit in comfortable railcars, with plenty of room to stretch your legs while you look at the breathtaking scenery through the large windows.
Mr. V and I did this ride in June 2022 in GoldStar class and it was a lovely way to transfer from Seward to Anchorage after our Windstar Cruise.
White Star & Yukon Pass Route
The White Star & Yukon Pass Route not only is one of the most scenic Alaska train rides, but also one of the most historically-relevant ones; it’s also the only train ride in Alaska that isn’t operated by the Alaska Railroad.
The White Star & Yukon Pass Route railway construction began in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush to facilitate prospectors’ access to the goldfields in Canada. The current journey takes you from Skagway into the heart of the Yukon, Canada’s smallest and westernmost territory. The railroad follows the original Yukon gold trail and they even use the same vintage parlor cars!
You’ll see plenty of wildlife from the train, like Alaskan Marmots, and even American Black Bears. Besides the fabulous scenery and breathtaking views, you’ll get to learn tons of information regarding the Yukon gold rush and the brave (if crazy) prospectors, as the ride is fully narrated.
You can choose from numerous excursions, which vary in price and length. Either side of the train is good as the train loops back and everyone can see everything either on the way up or on the way down. One recommendation: if you are on a cruise, book your own with the railroad. You will save money on your ticket and will likely be in a less crowded car.
As a heads up, passports are required on all but the White Pass Summit Excursion, and things have been weird the past few years, so be sure to check the WP&YR website to understand the tour options when you plan to visit.
Glacier Discovery Train
Unlike other train rides in Alaska, the Glacier Discovery Train follows a more complex route and with more stops. This train ride has a round-trip schedule. It departs at 9:45am from Anchorage and makes a brief stop in Girdwood and then in Portage before arriving in Whittier at 12:05pm.
Since the return train departs Whittier at 6:45pm, the Glacier Discovery Train is perfect if you’re planning a day trip as you’ll have enough time to enjoy a day cruise to see the glaciers of Prince William Sound – the 26 Glacier Cruise is the way to do it!
Now, while you get to see glaciers in Whittier, this is not the real reason why this tour is called the Glacier Discovery Train. After stopping in Whittier, the train heads back to Portage and stops at the Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop. This remote wilderness area is only accessible by train and offers spectacular views of Spencer Glacier and Spencer Lake. You can explore the area on your own or book one of the rafting, hiking, and kayaking tours.
Finally, this train turns around at Grandview, a beautiful scenic point along the southern half of the rail line, and returns to Anchorage by 9pm. (If you’re confused on the geography, it’s best to check the route map here.)
The Glacier Discovery Train offers Adventure Class only, which includes a dining car, baggage service (Anchorage only), and wheelchair access.
Aurora Winter Train
Of all the Alaska train rides I’ve mentioned in this post, the Aurora Winter Train is the only one that lets you witness the magic of Alaska in the winter – and it’s one I had the pleasure to enjoy during my last winter Alaska trip in February 2020.
This train travels between Anchorage and Fairbanks and offers weekly services only. It departs northbound every Saturday morning for Fairbanks and returns southbound on Sundays. There are also select mid-week departures in November, December, January, February, and March. The complete journey between Anchorage and Fairbanks takes approximately 12 hours.
Like all Alaska Railroad train tours, the Aurora Winter Train offers unbeatable views of Alaska’s landscape. You’ll get to see the backcountry covered in pristine snow as well as Denali rising above the Susitna River.
Lastly, it’s important to note that the Aurora Winter Train is a flagstop service. In case you don’t know what a flagstop train is, it just means that it doesn’t have scheduled stops. Instead, it stops when they see a passenger waving a white cloth anywhere along the route – or when a guest on board has asked to get off. Further north, the train stops as needed at Healy and Nenana before arriving at Fairbanks.
The Aurora Winter Train offers Adventure Class service only, which includes a dining car, baggage service (Anchorage and Fairbanks only), and wheelchair access (Anchorage, Wasilla, Talkeetna, and Fairbanks only).
Have any questions about these train rides in Alaska, or which one to fit into your Alaskan itinerary? Let me know in the comments below!
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