Stepping aboard a train bound for the Alaska 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 builds to a steady rhythm; the spectacular countryside begins to open all around.

Then, the train begins to slow. Although the last station might be 160 kilometres behind and nothing but wilderness 160 kilometres 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.

Modern Comfort From A Bygone Era

Alaska is one of the few places in the U.S. with a working railroad that hauls both passengers and freight daily. Most of the tracks are surrounded by wilderness, and 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.

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. And let’s face 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 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. Learn the natural history and Alaskan Native culture of the region spiced with anecdotes featuring the sourdough characters who left their homes to stake their fortunes here over 100 years ago.

3 Days, 3 Destinations

Have a couple of days? Explore the stops along the Anchorage-Denali-Fairbanks route on a three-day/two-night itinerary.

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. Plus stunning views and abundant wildlife.

nps photo/Jacob w frankNPS Photo/Jacob W FrankHeading north from Anchorage, the train passes through the Matanuska Valley, known for scale-busting vegetables grown under the midnight sun. Another 120 kilometres north, passengers catch what is often the highlight of their trip: the first spectacular view of Mount McKinley. From each bend Mount McKinley shows off its different faces and angles, making it one of the most photographed mountains in the world.

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.

mckinley frank flavinFrank FlavinSpend the night at Denali National Park and Preserve before heading north to Fairbanks. Side trips within the park include rafting on the Nenana River, helicopter and 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.

Short But Still Spectacular

glacier brian adamsBrian AdamsLooking for a shorter excursion from Anchorage? Head 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 centre, 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. Or 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.