Take a Ride On the Alaska Railroad's Winter Trains

By Erin Kirkland
Alaska Travel Expert,
For many, train travel invokes a sense of nostalgia that's hard to ignore once the "All aboard!" call is given and a noisy diesel engine pulls away from the station. In Alaska, trains represent an interesting link to the state's history and sense of independence, even though some of the passenger rail line is at a standstill during the winter. 

Stretching about 500 miles between Seward on the Kenai Peninsula, and Fairbanks in the Interior region, the Alaska Railroad connects people and goods, and accounts for a very popular segment of the state's annual visitor numbers. With a mainline supply route that runs year-round along the entire system, and a seasonal route carrying passengers between Southcentral and the Interior, the Alaska Railroad is a familiar sight and sound across much of the Last Frontier. 
Historically, the city of Anchorage owes its existence to the Alaska Railroad, for it was in 1915 that a group of surveyors arrived to plat the swath of land along Ship Creek below what is now known as downtown.

The original historic depot still stands near this area today, a testament to the fortitude and longevity of the railroad's necessity in Alaska. It is here that the bulk of the Alaska Railroad's passengers arrive and depart, on their way to or from cruise ships, land tours, or, in the case of residents, headed to a cabin in the remote wilderness. 

Summer brings thousands of rail-riders to depots in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Whittier, Seward, and Denali National Park, and many little stops in between. But come winter, the Alaska Railroad takes on a different approach to travel, and passengers reap the benefits. 

The Aurora Winter Train and smaller, once-monthly Hurricane Turn Train are the only passenger-based services available during the months between September and May. For skiers, backcountry cabin owners, or those merely seeking an easier way north or south than navigating often-treacherous roads, the winter train is the perfect option for relaxation and a dose of that train-nostalgia I mentioned earlier. 

Snow-frosted trees and tundra race by as one sits next to the expansive windows of the usually-uncrowded train, with moose often spotted along the tracks as they browse for winter forage. Denali is the superstar on a clear day, rising 20,310 feet into the icy air, and the engineer usually slows down for photo opportunities of the tallest mountain in the United States. 

Hop off the train in smaller communities like Talkeetna and continue your journey on the train's return, or travel all the way to Fairbanks and fly home on Alaska Airlines or Ravn Alaska for a one-way adventure. Whichever you choose, you'll be treated to a slice of real Alaska that can't be duplicated any other time of year.

A few things to note
Only the Aurora Winter Train offers dining service through a cashless system, so bring your credit card if you think you might get hungry or thirsty. Passengers on all Alaska Railroad routes are welcome to pack picnic items, but no alcohol. 

The Alaska Railroad is slow, especially between Talkeetna and Curry (or reverse), due to the number of off-grid cabins and homesteads scattered near the tracks. A flagstop service, the train will often stop for those hopping on after spending weeks in remote places. Take time to visit with these sourdoughs; these are real Alaskans.

Aurora Winter Train runs September through May, traveling northbound from Anchorage to Fairbanks on Saturday; and southbound from Fairbanks to Anchorage on Sunday. Stops along the way include Wasilla, Talkeetna, and Nenana, among others, and the entire trip can take up to 12 hours. GoTip: Take the train one way and fly home; Alaska Airlines often runs specials in conjunction with the railroad.

Exception: The Aurora Winter Train does have select midweek departures during February and March; check the Alaska Railroad website for the annual list, usually in conjunction with Fur Rendezvous festival in Anchorage, or school breaks.

Hurricane Turn Train departs Anchorage on the first Thursday of each month, October through early May, and takes a scenic journey through some of the most breathtaking winter scenery in Alaska. A long day trip, the train returns to Anchorage at 8 p.m. There is no dining service (or any service at all, really), so bring everything you'll need for a comfortable day on board. GoTip: Consider boarding the train in Talkeetna midday, then return in time for dinner and an overnight stay in this quaint little town.

While ticket prices do vary from year-to-year, active-duty military with ID always receive a 20% discount off regularly-published fares; children ages 2-11 receive 50% off the published fare of the adult accompanying them. Visit the Alaska Railroad fares page for complete and up-to-date information.

Travel in comfort during a winter visit to the 49th state, wrapped in the sense of remembrance of a bygone era of train travel, and savor every moment.


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Travel Magazine: Take a Ride On the Alaska Railroad's Winter Trains
Take a Ride On the Alaska Railroad's Winter Trains
Travel Magazine
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