Since the early 1900’s, Alaska’s rail system has provided a viable means of transporting goods and people across the rugged landscape we call home. Today, the Alaska Railroad Corporation manages track between Seward and Fairbanks, and shows off the best of our state to both visitors and residents. Trains are iconic markers of Americana; how many of us remember climbing aboard a rumbling train on our way to see friends and family, enjoying scenery, interesting people, and a healthy does of family time? I do.
Choosing the train as an element to Alaska family vacationing can be a meaningful and stress-free option for parents. Several routes, often with sidebar trips attached, can wrap recreation, history, culture, and industry in a package that illustrates the uniqueness of Alaska. With summer season departures within reach (early May) for 2015, it’s time to outline which Alaska Railroad routes fit families best, and why.
Denali Star: This northbound/southbound route from Anchorage/Fairbanks is the longest and potentially most challenging for passengers with kids who choose to ride the entire 12-hour length. It might be better to travel to Denali National Park and stay overnight, taking advantage of the park’s stellar transportation system and the many lodges that surround the greater entrance area. The eight-hour trip from Anchorage is still a healthy distance, but for those wanting a dose of Alaska scenery, this is a good choice.
Still too long? Try the Denali Star from Anchorage to Talkeetna, one of our favorite trips and short; only three hours station-to-station. Stay overnight in Talkeetna, take a jet boat ride, eat at the Talkeetna Roadhouse, or go flightseeing with K2 Aviation. Nice.
Hurricane Turn: Yes, the scenery is fantastic (Denali, rushing rivers, bears, old homesteads). And yes, this is the last flagstop train that exists in the United States. But that’s not why I recommend the Hurricane Turn train. It’s all about Warren Redfearn. Part Captain Kangaroo, part Polar Express Conductor, “Conductor Warren” is THE reason to make reservations for the Hurricane Turn route, immediately. He loves kids, he engages them in all aspects of the seven-hour trip through the upper reaches of Southcentral Alaska and within sight of mighty Denali, not to mention the signature stop upon a narrow bridge over (gulp) Hurricane Gulch. Bring your lunch, drinks, and snacks. Add warm clothes for Warren’s spontaneous stops, and don’t forget the camera. You’re welcome. Read about our memorable day on the Hurricane Turn train, here.
Coastal Classic: Departing Anchorage at an eye-squinching 6:45 a.m. and arriving in Seward by 11 a.m., the Coastal Classic is one of the most popular ways to view the beautiful Kenai Peninsula, surrounding mountains, and abundant wildlife of Southcentral Alaska. It also is a great way to cram a full (and I mean, full) day of activities into one nice, neat package. Day cruising? Check. The train arrives about an hour before many departures for cruises, that also provide lunch. Alaska SeaLife Center? Check. Take a walk from the depot, or catch a shuttle to this kid-centric facility on the waterfront, then wander back for ice cream near the small boat harbor. Charter fishing? Yep. Go catch a lunker with the many companies specializing in halibut or salmon fishing. The train leaves Seward at 6 p.m., and arrives back in Anchorage around 10:15 p.m. It’s a long, long day, but we’ve done it several times with a toddler, preschooler, and elementary-aged kid and each time it has proven successful.
Glacier Discovery: An offshoot of the Coastal Classic route, this is the perfect trip for those who want a bit of backcountry wilderness with their train ride. Part of the whistle-stop chain, AKRR’s Glacier Discovery departs Anchorage at 9:45 a.m., arrives in Portage at 11:30 a.m., then travels on to Spencer Glacier and then Grandview. Passengers wanting to disembark and hike, raft, or canoe scenic and iceberg-laden Spencer Lake can take a water-based tour or hike the area with a Chugach National Forest Service ranger. Some people even camp. The train returns from Grandview to pick up passengers and return them to Portage, where (and this gets a little funky) a motorcoach can be arranged for a shorter trip back to Anchorage in time for dinner.
My tip? If you want to explore Spencer Glacier/Lake, drive to Portage and catch the train, if possible. It’s a mere 45 minutes from downtown Anchorage and offers a bit more flexibility for families.
That said, it is possible to add a trip to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center to this route, with a lovely lunch at the facility. Bears, elk, moose, musk oxen, and more live at this expanse of space in Portage, and it’s a great way to kill time while waiting for the train. Read our post from 2014 about this trip’s details.
Stuff you must know:
1. Bring snacks, drinks, toys, books, electronics, whatever you need to keep kids occupied on the trip. While the Coastal Classic, Denali Star, and Glacier Discovery do offer food, the Hurricane Turn does not. Bring more than you think you’ll need.
2. Go Goldstar if you can. Coastal Classic and Denali Star offer first-class-type service for $85-$110 more, but it’s worth the extra money for full dome car seating, drinks, and access to an outdoor viewing deck.
3. Consider tour packages and specials before booking. The Alaska Railroad offers several seasonal deals throughout the summer season, so it behooves the savvy traveler to check them our prior to climbing aboard. Alaskans, remember, you receive a 20% discount just for being you!