One of Alaska’s best attributes is the unique partnerships that develop among vendors in the travel and tourism industry. It’s no surprise, given the depth and breadth of activities, and so many ways to reinvent outdoor experiences to meet the demands of a diverse visitor demographic. That said, it always makes me smile when someone comes up with a new and creative way to transform an “old friend,” as it were. The Alaska Railroad has accomplished this with the expansion of the already-popular Glacier Discovery Train, departing Anchorage daily between June 1 and September 14, 2014.
I view Glacier Discovery as an excursion train rather than a purveyor of transportation between points A and B, save for a stop at the cruise ship docks in Whittier, The ticket to ride for visitors wanting a wide range of choices for their Alaska Railroad experience. Alaska Ralroad and a number of like-minded companies have teamed up to offer everything from glacier cruises to ice climbing and floats on a scenic river, and we were beneficiaries of a new, family-friendly option a few weeks ago at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage.
Glacier Discovery is a daily route that includes stops at Whittier, Portage, and Spencer Glacier; but not all at once, not exactly. Once in Portage, the train diverts to Whittier to drop off and pick up cruise passengers, a 90 minute delay for those simply wanting to explore Spencer or Grandview further up the line. So, the Alaska Railroad, Chugach Adventures, and the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center have created a lovely time-filler to expands one’s Alaska experience even farther.
Departing Anchorage at 9:45 a.m. and arriving in Portage at 11:30 a.m., visitors are picked up at the tiny depot that sits adjacent to Seward Highway, just down the street from AWCC. A narrated tour, either walking or driving, commences at the center, where bears, moose, elk, musk oxen, a porcupine, and a healthy wood bison herd reside quite happily. Lunch follows, provided by the Bake Shop in Girdwood, then Chugach Adventures transports guests back to the Portage depot for the continuation to Spencer or Grandview at 1:45 p.m. It’s not terribly long to explore the expanse of AWCC, but for visitors short on time in Alaska, or those with limited transportation, access via the Alaska Railroad and AWCC is a nice combination.
After departing Portage, families can choose to travel to Spencer, about 30 minutes south of Portage, or Grandview, about an hour’s distance from the Portage depot. At Spencer, kids can stretch their legs, depart on a rafting trip, or take a guided nature hike with a Chugach National Forest ranger. Or, if a scenic train ride is more your family’s speed, simply stay on the train for the full ride to Grandview, taking in the scenery and many chances for photo ops with wildlife, glaciers, and even the train itself.
However, all this Alaska Railroading does require some logistical planning and preparation, and this is where things can get a little bit confusing. According to the AKRR brochure and website, total prices for tickets and activities begin from $110/RT adults/ $55/kids between Anchorage and Spencer, with an additional $50 for time spent at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. Other excursions are additional, and Alaska Railroad reservations agents can assist with pulling together a entire day trip package. Call 800-544-0552 toll free, or 907-265-2494 locally.
Also be aware that the trip back to Anchorage includes a motorcoach transfer from Portage back to town, saving passengers the final loop back toward Whittier to drop off passengers at their cruise ship. Yep, it’s a lot of shuffling, but for kids, worth the effort, because it’s a train, for goodness sake.
What should you bring? For the basic Anchorage-Portage-AWCC-Spencer, it’s wise to include warm, weather-proof layers for all family members, including a set of rain gear, hat, gloves, and sturdy shoes. Food and beverages are available on board the train, but to maximize your family economics, it’s wise to add a carry-on of snacks and drinks. Kids should bring activities for on-board entertainment; we carried books, nature journals, a camera, and some travel games for slower times on board and during the motorcoach ride back to Anchorage.
We rolled into Anchorage at 7:30 p.m., tired but pleased by our day of adventure. The Alaska Railroad has done well to take on the additional attraction of the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center; kids and adults alike will spend a full, rich day learning about the 49th state’s history, wildlife, and sense of place. And a magical place, it is.