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Travel: Alaska by Rail

Rory Moulton
summit daily news
As the train curves around bends, it's a great time to take a beautiful photo and see the surrounding landscape reflected in a mirror image on the side of the train.
Photo by Joshua Strong |

Chugging deliberately along the Turnagain Arm on an overcast spring morning, I’m acutely aware why so much of Alaska’s territory remains an impregnable fortress.

Mountains with 70-degree slopes plunge into the grumbling ocean, making its displeasure known with six-foot swells spitting sea spray. Unforgiving rivers running swift from snow and glacial melt push over boulders and uproot Alders and Willows from ever-shrinking banks. The chocolate skies build rumbling clouds that intermittently dispense precipitation in all its variations – hail, rain, snow, sleet – in hellish 15-minute barrages.

But I couldn’t possibly be happier – enjoying the icy rain and angry seas over a plate of piping-hot biscuits and gravy from the comfort, warmth and style of an Alaska Railroad passenger car.

The Alaska Railroad operates three lines comprising a perfect must-see shortlist for Alaska.

So, skip the $4/gallon gasoline and let someone else drive as you tour Alaska by rail with this six-day itinerary beginning and ending in Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage.

The spectacular Coastal Classic train ends in idyllic Seward – a coastal town of about 3,000 residents located on dramatic Resurrection Bay. I recommend upgrading to Gold Star service for this route, which is regularly ranked among the world’s finest sightseeing trains.

Upon midday arrival in Seward, take the free shuttle into “Old Town” for a few hours at the SeaLife Center – an impeccably run aquarium/museum/learning center that explores the unique relationship between Alaska’s abundant marine life and man. Sit at the underwater viewing window for feeding time – watching Puffins dive for fish is worth the $20 admission fee alone.

The next morning, take the 8 AM Kenai Fjords boat tour. Bring bomber rain gear, binoculars and, of course, a camera. On any given day, you may see whales (Humpback and Orca), Steller Sea Lions, Sea Otters, Bald Eagles, Harbor Seals, Arctic Terns and Puffins.

Holgate Glacier, which your captain will skillfully navigate to within a few hundred meters (conditions permitting), marks the turnaround point. Tidewater glaciers like Holgate sit partially in salt water, making them extremely active – regularly shedding enormous pieces of ice (called calving), the sight and sound of which you won’t soon forget.

Two options: For those seeking a coastal town with all its salty trappings head to Whittier or stay on the train all day for exclusive stops in Portage and Grandview accessible only on the Alaska Railroad.

This lovely day trip hugs the coast before heading into glacier territory.

Denali National Park needs little explanation because it’s dead-easy to see (thus, its cheeky nickname “Disnali”).

Two nights allow enough time for a daylong bus tour and some extracurricular activities, like hiking, rafting, flightseeing or biking. There are few things you can’t do in or around Denali (shoot the animals would be one).

The green buses, which you can hop on and off at your discretion, traffic the park road all day. There are no hiking trails in Denali, so purchase a map and inquire about conditions at the backcountry office.

Denali is the closest thing to guaranteed wildlife viewing. My first day, I saw two grey wolves, a moose cow weaning her calves, a grizzly bear, innumerable Dall sheep, caribou galore, one mystical lynx and a plethora of birdlife (birders should spend time at Wonder Lake).

The departing noon train arrives in Anchorage in time for most late-night flights “Outside” (lower 48).


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