Sweeping valleys, crisp air, enchanting forests, and panoramic mountain views capture every moment. The Alaska railroad is the idyllic mode of transportation through the heart of the last frontier.
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Taking the train through Alaska is a bucket list experience.
Established in 1903 and completed in 1923, the Alaska Railroad is an iconic part of any Alaskan adventure. This historic route was the only land connector of Anchorage to Fairbanks until 1971. The train helped bring visitation to Denali, aided in World War 2, and today, allows many residents to live off the grid in Alaska.
I took the Aurora Winter Train in late September of 2021 from Denali National Park down to Anchorage. This journey took 8 hours to complete! 8 hours is a long time on a train, especially alone as a solo traveler.
Even then, this train managed to sweep me off my feet in enchantment and wonder and transported me into my own world. It is so easy to feel inspired as you glide through the vast unknown of rugged Alaskan landscapes.
I enjoyed my experience so much, I want to give you everything you need to know about the Alaska Railroad.
How To Book A Ticket on the Alaska Railroad
Booking the Alaska Railroad can be a little overwhelming if you do not know what you are looking for. There are two ways to book, through the official website or with a 3rd party.
The official website can be a bit more expensive, and sells out faster, but gives you complete customization of your trip.
Booking through a 3rd party might save you some money and the headache of planning, but is less customizable. Book your tour here!
How to Book the Alaska Railroad Online
If you decided to try booking on the website first, head to the official website, and on the top, click “ride a train”. Next, you are prompted to enter your information. For me, I road the Alaska Railroad one way, but you can book a round trip if you’d like!
If traveling round trip, I would recommend riding the train from Anchorage to Fairbanks and then driving back to Anchorage. This is because the train route is 12 hours long and it goes on the same track in both directions.
This route allows stops to get off the train at Anchorage, Talkeetna, Denali National Park, and Fairbanks.
Once you have selected your dates and start/finish points the filtered train route gives you the set trains that are running. During late September, my only option is the Aurora Winter Train, but the Denali Star is the summer version of it.
In addition to connecting Anchorage to Fairbanks, you can also utilize the train to head south to Whittier and Seward! The trains to Whittier and Seward seem to follow the road for most of the way. Whittier and Seward are FANTASTIC ports to visit along the water with ocean views consuming your windows most of the way. I would personally recommend driving from Whittier to Seward if you have the opportunity.
Alaska Railroad Seating Options
Lastly, the website gives you the option to either book Gold Star Class or Adventure Class.
Adventure class has basic seating a bistro with meal service and snacks for purchase. Adventure class passengers also have one shared dome-top car.
Gold Star Class has upgraded seating, a dome-top car, an outside deck, and meals and alcohol included.
I opted for the Adventure Class because it is the cheaper of the two. If it is in your budget to upgrade, I see value in the Gold Star service. The upgraded seats are well worth it for the long journey.
Whichever class you select, the views are spectacular no matter the seat you are in.
Best Time of Year
The Alaska Railroad runs services year-round. I may be biased, but the fall is absolutely the best time to take the train. Honestly, you can’t go wrong with any time of year.
Spring is met with snowcapped mountains and foliage is starting to bloom. In Summer, you are much more likely to receive a dome top train and services are plentiful. Winter is magical with fresh untouched snow covering the valleys and mountain peaks. There is even a Northern Lights train! And Fall is beautiful with vibrant yellow fields of leaves and snowcapped mountains.
Many of the conductors on board said this is their favorite time of year to take the train too!
What to Expect on the Train
Now that you have purchased your train ticket let’s talk about what to expect once you board the railroad.
I boarded in Denali National Park, about 10 minutes early. Upon arrival, there was no staff to check us in, probably due to the fact it was late in the season and a small stop. I would recommend arriving about 45 minutes early, especially if you are here in the busy summer season.
You can check 2 free bags and bring 1 bag to carry on the train.
To board, the conductors will come out front and have a list of names of passengers. You simply give them your name and they let you know your seat assignment, although you are not forced to stay in the same seat the whole time.
Where to Sit on the Alaska Railroad
My seat was in the back of the train in seat A (the left). If you are traveling south, I would recommend sitting on the right side of the train and vice versa if you are traveling north, as Denali can be seen on this side of the train.
Denali is only visible about 30% of the time. It needs to be clear skies to catch a view of this 20,000 ft mountain. If you are traveling on a cloudy day, then the sides are about equal in the scenery. But like I said, more than likely you can move around a bit during your ride.
Adventure class seats are very basic. There is no footrest, storage, or tray table as well. I hoped to get my laptop out to write during my train ride, but due to the lack of tray tables and also the abundance of views, I opted to just enjoy the ride.
Like I mentioned before, to my understanding, every train had a glass dome top, or the availability to access one, but I did not have one.
My train looked very standard. The windows are nice and big but there were only 2 cars and neither had a dome top. Once again, this might be because it was the Aurora Winter Train and not the summer service. So if you are looking for those services, I would recommend visiting during the summer season.
A pleasant surprise on the train is the level of narration. Throughout the ride, the conductors narrate what you are looking at. Every view of Denali is mentioned, history of the railroad, bridges built, wildlife, and even the locals that live along the route. It is all included and made the experience wonderful.
Stop Protocols on the Alaska Railroad
If you opt for the 12-hour-long journey between Fairbanks and Anchorage, you are also able to get out of the train for some fresh air at the Denali and Talkeetna Stops. Denali is about 4 hours in from Fairbanks, and Talkeetna is another 5 hours from there. The train allows about 10 minutes off of the train before departing.
What to Bring
So now you have booked your ticket, you know everything to expect, but what shoul you bring? Here is a list of items I brought or had wished I brought.
Snacks/ Lunch/ Dinner
The train I road, severely lacked in food options. The food is very overpriced and the selection is limited to one burger, some soups, and some salads. I was very disappointed as I had hoped to dine on the train but I decided against it due to the lack of options. All this to say, pack your snacks!
Water is available on board, but I would bring your own for convenience.
During your train ride, you only get service near the major towns which are hours apart. This means you are going to want to bring enough entertainment to last you!
There is no Wi-Fi onboard.
A Good Attitude
Alaskans are some of the friendliest and warmest people I have ever met! Everyone is looking to strike up a conversation. Everyone is comparing stories and learning from one another the whole train ride! After 12 hours together you surely can become like family.
The Alaska Railroad is a wonderful way to see Alaska! It showcases all the beauty Alaska has to offer and slows down to allow for breathtaking photos.
When choosing whether to take the train or drive yourself, I would take into consideration what you want out of your trip. Do you want a guided narration and to enjoy the views as you go? Or would you rather have the freedom of a car to stop where you would like?
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