Alaska Railroad Tours (©Walter Radske/Courtesy White Pass & Yukon Railway)
Although no railroads connect Alaska with the Lower 48, there are two railroads in Alaska—and the passenger services and experiences they offer include the luxurious and adventurous. For the independent traveler, these excursions will offer both transportation to fascinating destinations, as well as an en-route experience unparalleled by other railways. The Alaska Railroad spans such cities as Seward, Anchorage, Talkeetna, Denali National Park and Fairbanks while the White Pass and Yukon Route departs out of its southern location of Skagway and winds up through Fraser, BC and Carcross and Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.
Beginning first with the Alaska Railroad, it has a history that dates back to 1903, more than 50 years before Alaska became a state. The original 51-mile track extended through the mountainous Kenai Peninsula terrain from Seward to Upper Turnagain Arm, just south of Anchorage. It is thanks to the random decision to base a railroad construction camp for the Alaska Engineering Commission in Ship Creek that the city of Anchorage–in a location surrounded by no significant source of natural resources or fishing–was constructed. It originated as a tent city just south of the rail yard, and most of Anchorage’s economy through the 1920s and 1930s was structured around the railroad’s operations.
Today, the 44-railcar train system provides regularly scheduled public transportation from the shores of the Pacific Ocean to the heart of Interior Alaska. The Alaska Railroad is one of the nation’s few passenger and freight railroads. It has three main passenger routes: the Coastal Classic, with service between Anchorage and Seward on the beautiful Kenai Peninsula; the Denali Star, with service between Anchorage, Talkeetna, Denali National Park and Preserve and Fairbanks; and the Glacier Discovery, with service to Whittier and a sightseeing route into the Kenai Mountains.
A destination of its own, this is not your run-of-the-mill, get-to-where-you-need-to-go kind of train. Its signature yellow and blue cars snake through picturesque scenes of colossal snow-capped mountains that tower over alpine meadows, rainforests, lakes and rivers in parts of the state inaccessible by road. Both the Denali Star and Coastal Classic trains each have luxury-class service, known as GoldStar Service, in specially designed double-deck, glass-domed railcars with upper-level, outdoor viewing decks (only found on the Alaska Railroad), original Alaska art, dining-room seating with a view and a full-time bar attendant. The dome-level seats can rotate to comfortably seat groups of four or families with children.
The dining rooms on board the Denali Star and Coastal Classic offer all travelers a choice of hot or cold meals featuring Alaska seafood, chowder, quiches, salads and other delicious dishes that can be paired with a glass of wine or a locally brewed beer, with the option to pre-pay for meals when rail tickets are purchased. This convenient option makes for a no-hassle, enjoyable full-service ride. All Alaska Railroad trains, with the exception of the Hurricane Turn Train, feature Wilderness Cafes for lighter food choices.
Tailored around some of the state’s most popular destinations, vacation packages ranging from two to 12 nights that take the guesswork out of planning a trip to this vast state. Vacation packages center on rail travel and include tours and hotels to places like Spencer Glacier, Denali National Park, Fairbanks or Seward. Each destination offers the opportunity to venture farther into the region by taking advantage of a wealth of recreational activities such as flightseeing, glacier cruises, Denali National Park tours, dogsledding tours, ice climbing, rafting and more. A list of optional tours that can be paired with a ride on the Denali Star, Coastal Classic and the Glacier Discovery trains is listed on the Alaska Railroad website and comes in handy for independent travelers.
The Hurricane Turn Train is a feature favored by locals and also geared toward the independent traveler. Offered Thursday through Sunday in summer, and on the first Thursday of each month in winter, the Hurricane Turn provides old-fashioned, flag-stop service, known to be the last in the United States, along its route from Talkeetna along the Susitna River and through the Indian River Canyon to Hurricane, 55 miles north. This service is offered in the winter months as well and takes off from Anchorage instead of Talkeetna. Passengers on this train have access to Alaska’s backcountry anywhere along the route with the wave of a hand.
Throughout the year, special-event trains like the Great Alaska Beer Train from Anchorage to Portage and back or the Blues Train from Anchorage to Seward draw many locals and visitors and offer a chance to enjoy the sights while mingling with likeminded travelers and friends. The trains tend to sell out early and seating is limited so advance booking is highly recommended.
Departures are available in any of the communities served by the Alaska Railroad, including Fairbanks, Denali National Park, Talkeetna, Anchorage, Girdwood, Portage, Whittier and Seward. Planning and reserving seats on board the Alaska Railroad is made simple thanks to a detailed website, complete with destination descriptions and tour suggestions. Fares vary depending on age, destination and fare class. All fares, schedules, day tours and vacation packages can be found at www.AlaskaRailroad.com.
White Pass & Yukon Railway
The elder Alaska railroad by several years, the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway began in 1898, built to run right up the middle of Broadway, Skagway’s main street. Founded in the middle of one of the last great gold rushes, WP&YR became essential for eager gold seekers wanting to traverse the steep rocky terrain in comfort and ease. It took the labor of over 35,000 workers and $10 million in investments to lay the rails from sea level to the 2,865-foot summit of the White Pass and beyond to Whitehorse, Yukon. One hundred fifteen years later, a new breed of eager people arrives in Skagway every summer day. Tourists from all over the world visit the small port city, nestled in a narrow valley at the head of the Lynn Canal, and the WP&YR is there to greet and show them the amazing scenery that the White Pass holds.
Stretching 67.5 miles of the original 110-mile route from tidewaters in Skagway to Carcross, Yukon, there are incredible scenic views of the Coast Mountains and rich Klondike Gold Rush history seemingly steeped in every mile of this narrow gauge rail line. Touted as "The Scenic Railway of the World," the WP&YR was blasted out of the craggy mountains in only 26 months; along sheer cliffs, past bone-chilling waterfalls, through tunnels and across bridges, in sight of awe-inspiring mountains and icy glaciers. During the summer months, White Pass & Yukon Route carries more than 380,000 tourists along a journey that retraces the steps of the gold-rush Stampeders and the “Trail of ’98."
White Pass & Yukon Route offers several daily train excursions, May through September. Be sure to check its website for specific dates and times of operation. All excursions are fully narrated by tour guides giving commentary about the history of Skagway and the Klondike Gold Rush, along with pointing out the sights and ideal times to have your cameras ready. Offering an opportunity to relax in comfortable, heated original and replica coach cars, WP&YR excursions showcase the scenery like no other mode of transportation. After tickets are collected by black-suited conductors, an announcement is made: this is not for the feint of heart—to stand on the exterior railcar platforms as the train rolls by cliffhanging drops of 1,000 feet!
The most popular ride up the rails is the White Pass Summit Excursion, a three-and-a-half hour, 40-mile round trip from Skagway to the Summit of the White Pass. Passports are not required for this excursion, as passengers do not exit the train until their return into Skagway. Another option is a 27-mile train tour to Fraser, British Columbia, where Canada Customs is located (passports are required), and is the first place outside of Skagway where the WP&YR rails meet the Klondike Highway. At Fraser, historically a stop for steam engines to take on water, passengers disembark the train and board buses for a pleasant continuation of their journey. Both the Summit and Fraser excursions are ADA-accessible.
During the summer season on Mondays and Fridays, there is the Fraser Meadows Steam Excursion. A unique, 54-mile round trip pulled by one of two original vintage steam engines that WP&YR operates from Skagway to Fraser Meadows, this is an authentic ride on historic rail equipment and is not to be missed. Passports are required, and this excursion is not ADA-accessible.
White Pass & Yukon Route Railway is a triumph of humankind’s endeavoring spirit; it's truly a man-made wonder of steel and timber. Built in the frenzy of the Klondike Gold Rush as a way to maneuver men and goods over the Coast Mountains to and from the gold fields near Dawson City, Yukon, the WP&YR has withstood the tests of time and now is a marquee experience of Alaska.
Ticketing and schedule information for White Pass & Yukon Route can be found online. Alternatively, passengers may call toll free 800.343.7373 or email firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or to book a reservation. Find WP&YR on Facebook at facebook.com/whitepassrailroad. In Skagway, the White Pass & Yukon Route Depot is located on 2nd Avenue and Spring Street. Advance reservations are strongly recommended.