Alaska Railroad’s Centennial

by Adam Sawyer

One of the dictionary definitions of the word “romance” is a quality or feeling of mystery, excitement and remoteness from everyday life. With all due respect to the countless other places and things capable of inspiring such a feeling, the dictionary could easily follow that definition with the sentence, “See the Alaska Railroad,” and just call it a day. Celebrating its 100-year anniversary in 2023, the Alaska Railroad was completed three decades before Alaska attained statehood. Stretching 470 miles from Seward to Fairbanks and providing transport for both passengers and freight alike, the “Backbone of the Last Frontier” is the ultimate all-purpose railway.

The railroad provides passengers with arguably the most intimate and simultaneously convenient way to take in Alaska’s legendary scenery via two different service levels. Adventure Class is the more budget-friendly option, that still provides amenities like large picture windows, and onboard dining and bar service. Those looking to take their rail-bound experience to the next level will find it in the form of Goldstar Service. Among other perks, the premium service provides glass-dome ceilings, full-service dining, and outdoor viewing platforms. Whatever class you choose, from wilderness and wildlife to glaciers and mountains, it is next to impossible not to be awestruck by some of this continent’s most beautiful backdrops. During the warmer months, the railroad draws visitors from around the globe to experience three primary, specialized routes: Coastal Classic, Glacier Discovery and the Denali Star.

Coastal Classic: Along with visitors from afar, this convenient route is also a favorite among locals. From Anchorage, the train traces Turnagain Arm, the scenic waterway that branches off from the Cook Inlet. On its way to Seward, the train winds through the backcountry wilderness of the Kenai Peninsula where hanging glaciers cling to cliffs and seemingly sky-born cascades fall on either side of the cars. Pro tip: Most visitors take advantage of the seven-hour layover in Seward to take a boat tour of the spectacular Kenai Fjords National Park, teaming with whales, dolphins, otters, bald eagles and other wildlife. Then enjoy dinner and story time on the train on the way back to Anchorage.

Glacier Discovery: Varied schedule and destination options make this route a choose-your-own-adventure dream for day trippers taking off from Anchorage. Southbound trains stop in Girdwood before continuing on to Whittier, Portage, the Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop and Grandview. On the return trip, passengers headed for Anchorage or Girdwood can opt for a direct motorcoach transfer, or stay on the train for the more leisurely journey back. Pro Tip: Many visitors will disembark at the Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop to take a scenic float tour out to the Spencer Glacier itself.

Denali Star: The Alaska Railroad’s flagship train is a showstopper. Departing from Anchorage and ending in Fairbanks with a sister train running the reverse route, the train stops in Wasilla, Talkeetna and Denali National Park. When conditions are right, the train’s namesake mountain dominates the horizon for much of the journey. Pro tip: A number of visitors choose to stay over a handful of nights in Denali to tour and experience one of the country’s finest National Parks.

In the winter months, only two lines run: The Hurricane Turn and the Aurora Winter. And while both provide visitors with the serenity of a true Alaska winter, the trains also offer flagstop service. Alaskans that reside in the state’s more remote areas can wave the train down and hop on from almost any spot along the tracks. For all that it offers, the Alaska Railroad is a one-of-a-kind experience that resides in a class by itself.

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