When Alaskans stand up and jockey for scenic vistas, you know it’s good. With autumn definitely on the way around Southcentral Alaska, opportunities for colorful vistas and crisp, sunny days mean it’s time to get out and explore. Reaching beyond our usual day trip solids around Anchorage, Labor Day weekend delivered us to the Historic Anchorage Depot on 2nd Avenue and a chugging, puffing train called the Glacier Discoverer. Operated by the Alaska Railroad, the Glacier Discoverer is but one of several train options for eager travelers, and mostly during the bustling summer months. What makes this train an exceptional trip for Alaskans, however, is the access it provides.
Hiking, kayaking, camping, and general scenery-ogling; that’s what I’m talking about, and off the road system as well, something we Alaskans tend to get rather smug about when such an opportunity presents itself. The Glacier Discoverer is more than transportation, it’s an experience, a drop-off-and-pick-up sort of day or overnight that leaves one refreshed, and feeling like Mother Nature herself came over to your campsite or picnic spot, patted you on the back and said “Welcome.”
The train: The Glacier Discoverer is an interesting train; part viewing platform in the form of one car specifically designed for viewing the scenic landscapes of Anchorage, Turnagain Arm, and the Portage Valley. With a second passenger car, snack and beverage bar, and helpful staff, including a cadre of young tour guides, the entire experience is pleasant, from station to whistle stop and back.
Tickets range in price from $115/adults, $63/kids, to a lower $82/adults, $42/kids, depending upon your departure points. For a full day or more of outdoor adventure, and utilizing one of the only ways to access backcountry Alaska, it’s a good deal as well.
The trip: Ever seen an airplane in someone’s back yard? Or a moose lifting his head from a swampy feeding ground? On this trip you can, and much more, as the train departs Anchorage each morning for a scenic pass-through of town, then travels along the beautiful, amber-colored meadows and forests of Turnagain Arm. Have many generations traveling with your party? This is the perfect way to settle in with a cup of coffee, pass around the binoculars, and enjoy each other’s company without watching the speed limit or other cars along the Seward Highway.
Once in either Whittier, Spencer Whistlestop, or Grandview, there are opportunities to disembark and either connect with day cruises, guided hikes, or self-imposed rambles along well-maintained and very accessible trails. Operating in cooperation with the Chugach National Forest, both Spencer and Grandview stops are delightful connectors to Alaska’s wilderness with the added comfort of other people and clearly-marked trails. Spencer offers a guided ranger hike, and ancillary activities that quickly take up the three-plus hours in the area.
Overnighters can either hike five miles (mostly up) to the new Spencer Bench cabin, a public use facility highly prized for its amazing views of the glacier and lake, or spend the night in one of the campsites available near Spencer Lake.
Those continuing on to Grandview from Spencer will find a short stop to stretch legs and explore the new platform at this new whistlestop. It is a short stop; only about 30 minutes, but perfect for smaller children.
What to know: Plan for a daylong adventure lasting between 10 and 12 hours, depending upon your mode of transportation back to Anchorage. Travelers have the option of catching a motorcoach on the return trip that departs Portage, dropping passengers back at the depot at 6:45 p.m. instead of 9 p.m. as would happen on the train. The reason is that the train must continue from Portage to Whittier to pick up day cruisers, and then go all the way back to Anchorage; a long day/evening for kids. Check the AKRR schedule for details, and plan carefully.
What to pack: We bring a soft-sided cooler full of lunches, snacks, and beverages, although I will say it was very nice to indulge in a Bloody Mary on the trip southbound. While the cafe area serves stadium-type food (sandwiches, pretzels, pizza, and the like), the supply can be limited, so having one’s own food is critical to family survival.
Bring backpacks of extra clothing, hats, gloves, and wear sturdy shoes. Hiking the trails is easy, but good footwear is essential. There are two small shelters at the Spencer Whistlestop and Grandview stop, and pit toilets at both. Waiting for the train can be chilly, so plan ahead.
Bear spray is not required, but for those staying and exploring the Spencer area, is highly recommended. Remember your best bear and moose behavior; make noise, stick together, and stay out of the way.
Pick up the train at Spencer around 4:45 p.m., and watch the glimmer of golden leaves and fading sunlight slowly turn the entire valley a fiery crimson, reminding us that winter will soon be on the way.
Three more days remain, and you won’t want to miss this.