Alaska by Rail

For the first-time Alaska visitor, stepping aboard a train bound for the wilderness is the beginning of a journey filled with adventure and surprise.

The trip might start like any other. The train pulls away from the downtown station, the sound of metal wheels on rails building to a steady rhythm. Secure in a comfortable seat, countryside begins to open all around.

But within minutes, you realize the trip north from Anchorage toward Fairbanks is special. Around each curve, the majesty of glaciers, mountains or Alaskan wildlife comes into view. A moose might be grazing near a stretch of braided river. The blue of a glacier peeks out from under melting mid-summer snow on a mountainside. A view of Mount McKinley, North America's tallest peak, emerges in the splendor only afforded by the routes traveled by Alaska's trains.

Then, the train begins to slow. Although the last station might be 100 miles behind and nothing but wilderness 100 miles ahead, a figure stands alongside the track. The train slows to pick up a hunter, a moose rack resting at his feet, looking for a ride to the next town.

A traveler might then retire to a dining car, enjoy a meal of fresh halibut served on china and linen, and contemplate all he or she has witnessed.

Welcome to Alaska and a train trip like no other.

The largest state's train system has the distinction of being the only "flagstop" train system, where passengers can stand by the side of the track in vast wilderness and hitch a ride. But the trains that chug through Alaska offer something else unique in the country: access to wilderness and wildlife most urban travelers only dream of seeing.

Alaska is one of the few places in the country with a working railroad that hauls both passengers and freight daily. Only a third of Alaska is accessible by car; the train offers options that go beyond what a highway traveler might see.

The 75-year-old system runs through Alaska from tidewater at Whittier and Seward north to Anchorage, then through the heart of Alaska to Fairbanks, the commercial hub for northern communities. Most of the tracks are surrounded by wilderness. Long stretches of the railroad parallel the rugged coastline of Southcentral Alaska, offering spectacular panoramas - all at a pace that recalls the beginning of the 20th century and the Alaska Railroad.

The state's rail system began with a $35 million appropriation from Congress to haul coal out of the Matanuska Valley north of Anchorage and open up the Interior region to development. With only the most basic tools on hand, workers completed the track in 1923, overcoming obstacles and conditions that would seem impossible even by today's standards. It was joined together with a sledge hammer and golden spike by President Warren G. Harding on July 15, 1923 in Nenana, then one of the state's largest cities.

Every year, more than 500,000 people ride the Alaska rails, whether for a practical means of getting around parts of the state or for the sheer romance of it.

Seeing Alaska from the comfort of full-service, glass-domed cars with oversized coach windows is breathtaking.

The 12-hour trip north from Anchorage to Fairbanks threads through Denali National Park and features seemingly endless views of mountains, wildlife and rivers. Onboard, guests enjoy the hospitality and amenities that originally gave train travel such a decadent reputation. Cocktails and other beverages are served throughout the day. Gourmet meals feature a hearty New York steak or a selection of fresh Alaska seafood entrees. Each linen-covered table is set with silver and fresh flowers, and train cars that feature Alaskan art.

The vast amount of scenery flashing past is almost overwhelming in scope. So the railroad provides easy-going, knowledgeable guides to narrate the trip. Travelers learn the natural history and Alaskan Native culture of the region complete with anecdotes featuring the sourdough characters who left their homes to stake their fortunes here over 100 years ago.

For those who want to spend more time exploring the stops along the Anchorage-Denali-Fairbanks route, a three-day/two-night itinerary works well.

The trip begins in Anchorage, Alaska's largest city. With almost 265,000 people, Anchorage is a popular urban setting with all the advantages of a much larger town. But such stunning views and abundant wildlife surround no other city in America. The waters of Cook Inlet meet the steep foothills of the Alaska Range. And just minutes east of downtown, the pristine wilderness of the Chugach Mountains begins.

Heading north from Anchorage, the train passes through the Matanuska Valley, known for scale-busting vegetables grown under the midnight sun. Another 75 miles north, train travelers can catch what is often the highlight of their trip: the first spectacular view of 20,320-foot Mount McKinley. From each bend in the railroad, Mount McKinley shows off its different faces and angles, making it one of the most photographed mountains in the world.

And if the sight of the highest peak in North America isn't enough, the route affords views of several of the 20 highest peaks in the country.

Closer to the ground, blue-green spruce forests, crystal rivers and wildflower meadows roll past. All along this route there is an excellent chance of seeing wildlife, including bears, moose, Dall sheep, caribou, bald eagles, red fox, beavers, and the state bird, the ptarmigan. Conductors frequently slow the train for picture-taking opportunities and the tour guides are well versed in each species.

Spending the night at Denali National Park and Preserve before heading north to Fairbanks opens up a world of adventure. Side trips within the park include rafting on the Nenana River, helicopter and fixed wing flightseeing trips, guided natural history and wildlife viewing opportunities. The Park Service offers a number of free activities ranging from guided hikes to daily dogsled demonstrations at the park kennels. Visitors can observe the natural behavior of wild animals such as grizzly bears, moose, caribou, wolves and red fox as they roam the tundra.

When the train pulls into Fairbanks, "The Capital of the Interior" and Alaska's second largest city, visitors can explore a city that began as a trading post and mining town in 1901. Fairbanks remains close to its gold rush roots and has a small-town atmosphere despite a population of 60,000.

Fairbanks has a sophisticated side as well. The city is home to the University of Alaska, the world's leader in Arctic research. From Fairbanks, visitors can fly back to Anchorage to continue their Alaska adventure or arrange to rent a car or take a motorcoach and continue from Fairbanks.

Travelers looking for a shorter excursion from Anchorage should consider a trip south to Seward or Whittier. A four-hour trip from Anchorage takes passengers along the Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet to the port city of Seward. Established in 1903 by railroad surveyors as an ocean terminal and supply center, Seward has a frontier-town atmosphere with homes and buildings dating back to the early 1900s. The Kenai Fjords National Park offers coastal cruises past tidewater glaciers, whales, nesting seabirds, fur seals and sea otters. Visitors can explore the new Alaska SeaLife Center, with glass tanks that make viewers feel like they're under the sea. Visitors can also take a 2.5-hour trip from Anchorage to Whittier on the "Glacier Discovery" train, allowing passengers access to the many tours available in Prince William Sound and the massive tidewater glaciers the Sound is known for. Daily seasonal service from Anchorage to Seward and Whittier operates from mid-May to mid-September.

The Alaska Railroad offers limited winter service between Anchorage and Fairbanks. From the cozy vantage of the coaches, passengers can see aurora borealis, or northern lights, as they paint the sky red, blue, purple, green, orange and yellow. And to make the snowy winter even more attractive, special events trains allow passengers to get out into the frozen wilderness.

The Nordic ski train operates two times a year during the winter and takes passengers from Anchorage south to Turnagain Arm. There, backcountry skiers can spend the day in winter wilderness. Then they climb back on the train, and enjoy live music and refreshments on the trip back to Anchorage.

A number of other special trains are dispatched during the year. A romantic Valentine's Day dinner excursion is popular, as is a special train that takes people to the official starting line of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Wasilla, where they can watch eager teams begin the 1,049-mile dog sled race to Nome.

For information on the Alaska Railroad call (800) 544-0552 or write P.O. Box 107500, Anchorage, AK 99510-7500. For Alaska Visitor Information write to: Dept. 712, P.O. Box 196710, Anchorage, AK 99519-6710, call 800-862-5275, or visit the web site

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