Visiting Alaska National Parks – By Train

Turnagain Arm view by Jim Burnett

The Coastal Classic Train offers great views along Turnagain Arm, between Seward and Anchorage. Jim Burnett photo.

It's not too soon to start dreaming about and planning for next summer's trip to Alaska, and the Alaska Railroad offers an appealing means of travel to a pair of outstanding parks: Denali National Park and Kenai Fjords National Park.

Unless they have the time to make the drive from the Lower 48, many tourists arrive in Alaska either in conjunction with a cruise, a package tour or by air through Anchorage. If you're taking a package tour, your arrangements are already made, but anyone in the other two categories is in a great position to take advantage of a trip to Kenai Fjords or Denali via the Alaska Railroad.

We are talking about Alaska, and although there are good reasons to visit the state outside the traditional travel season, a summer or early fall trip offers the widest range of options for both train travel and activities in both Kenai Fjords and Denali.

Seward, about 100 miles south of Anchorage, is a key port for many cruise ships serving Alaska. Far too many passengers miss a great opportunity by disembarking from their ship in this lovely small town, boarding the cruise operator's bus, and heading to Anchorage for their flight home. Others, on a southbound boat, make the same choice in reverse.

If you're on a cruise and have the opportunity to add at least a couple of days on your own, forgo the package ground transportation between Seward and Anchorage, spend a night or two in Seward, and sample Kenai Fjords.

The park headquarters and docks for half-day and full-day boat tours of the park are all located just a short walk from the cruise ship terminal in Seward. NPS rangers accompany many of those tours, which offer a great opportunity for viewing marine wildlife and tidewater glaciers. I had an excellent experience on an all-day version, but don't be surprised to encounter some rough water for a bit near the middle of the ride, since the longer trips get out of the protected waters of the bay for a bit. Take necessary measures with a patch or your other preferred preventative for motion sickness if it's a windy day (and that's the norm).

Experienced kayakers have plenty of opportunities to explore on their own, but check for information on the park website; this is not an area for beginning boaters; wind and currents can be a big challenge, so consider a local guide service for water-based trips.

There are also nice opportunities for hiking, including easy trails and ranger-guided hikes at Exit Glacier, the only part of the park accessible by road. Serious hikers might consider the 7.4 mile-round trip from the Exit Glacier Visitor Center to the Harding Ice Fields; it's rated as strenuous, so read and consider before planning this trek! Exit Glacier is about 12 miles from Seward by paved road, and transportation to and from Seward can be arranged.

If you have the time, or run into unusually bad weather, the Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward is well worth several hours of your time. Seward has a number of options for overnight lodging, and the Seward Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau website has plenty of suggestions.

You can travel between Seward and Anchorage by road, but the same journey by train can be one of the highlights of your visit. Earlier this year The Society of American Travel Writers published their list of the ten most scenic and exciting train rides in the world, and the Alaska Railroad can claim one of the listings.

The Coastal Classic Train makes a daily round trip between Anchorage and Seward from about mid-May to mid-September; each way the trip takes just over four hours, and you'll want to be sure you have a spare battery and extra memory cards or film for your camera(s)! Views of mountains, glaciers and the shore along Turnagain Arm are outstanding. For the best photos minus window glare, spend some time in one of the open-air vestibules between cars. Just don't forget your jacket.

You'll find complete information on the Alaska Railroad website, including schedules, fares, and a trip planner, which explains the difference between the first-class GoldStar service and the standard Adventure Class. I enjoyed a trip in the standard cars, found the service to be excellent, the scenery outstanding, and would definitely repeat the trip if I ever have the chance.

If your destination is Denali National Park and you prefer independent travel to a package deal, the Alaska Railroad promotes the Denali Star as its flagship train. It also runs from about mid-May to mid-September between Anchorage and Fairbanks, with stops at Talkeetna and Denali for visitors headed to the park. The trip from Anchorage to the station for Denali takes about seven and a half hours, and the same two levels of service are available as on the Coastal Classic Train.

The park website has plenty of information about how to get around via shuttle bus, so it's certainly feasible to see the park without a rental car. Unless you plan to camp, the one downside to staying at Denali without a car is, you're likely limited to lodging in the touristy gateway community called Denali Park, but I trust you don't plan to spent a lot of time in your room anyway, other than to sleep.

If you're visiting Denali in the off-season, which is defined locally as mid-September through mid-May, you can still take the train, but the name of the route changes to the Aurora Winter Train, and it makes one run a week: northbound from Anchorage to Fairbanks on Saturdays, southbound on Sundays.

There's a reason this train is named the Aurora and makes only one trip a week, so unless you're a die-hard fan of winter and have done some very careful advance planning, you stick to the summer schedule!

Comments

The Denali Star is a great and relaxing way to travel. The train is not fast but the scenery is incredible. Moose, swans, and perhaps Denali can be seen on the ride. And more! For the independent traveller I would suggest using your Denali time wisely and go stay in the backcountry. One can get away from the crowds and the hustle of the front end of the park. The ride to the back country is not fast either but again the scenery is magnificent and the wildlife viewing opportunities excellent. You will travel the entire park road and go to places the other tours do not. There are three lodges in the Katishna area at the end of the road. Denali Backcountry Lodge, Kantishna Roadhouse and Camp Denali offer multiple night stays and lots to do. Having spent time visiting in the crowded front country and having been to the Kantishna area I highly recommend, after a great train experience, a trip and stay in the backcountry of Denali Park.