Riding the Alaska Railroad train from Fairbanks to Anchorage

by Jan 24, 2024Alaska

Alaska Railroad Denali Star Southbound Denali Talkeetna

Every summer morning Alaska Railroad trains depart on a 356-mile journey connecting Anchorage and Fairbanks with stops in Wasilla, Talkeetna, and Denali National Park. We took the southbound route for a relaxing, scenic train adventure.

” All aboaaaard!” The Alaska Railroad conductor’s loud, singsong call gave me an electric jolt of anticipation for the journey ahead. Although we had arrived in Fairbanks, Alaska, by plane a week earlier, Therese and I booked our return journey to Anchorage on the Alaska Railroad Denali Star train. This 12-hour rail journey promised a slow tour through the state’s remote interior with all the grandeur of Alaskan mountains and rivers, including Denali.

I love trains. Steam, diesel, electric, funicular, high speed, inter-city, street car, regional – it doesn’t matter. On a train, the gentle rocking motion of the railcars, the soft clickety-clack of wheels rolling along tracks, the periodic train whistle, and the conductor’s call at every station take me to a happy place. I’ve ridden trains all over the world, through both wild and urban landscapes. I’ve always wanted to ride the rails through Alaska’s interior … and now I had my opportunity.

This train journey on Alaska Railroad traverses two of state’s five geographic regions – Interior and Southcentral Alaska. I hoped, too, that if we were lucky and the weather remained clear, we might be afforded during the ride of a glimpse of Denali, the tallest mountain in North America and the train’s namesake. Although to be perfectly honest, any train adventure is a good one for me.

Michael And Therese GoldStar Viewing Platform

That’s me, with Therese, on the viewing platform of our Alaska Railroad GoldStar railcar.

Connecting the state of Alaska by rail since 1923

In 2023, the Alaska Railroad celebrated its 100-year anniversary. Construction of the now famous Alaska Railroad began in 1903, when a privately held company, Alaska Central Railway, began laying track northward from Seward. Reorganized in 1909 as the Alaska Northern Railway, tracks finally connected to the town of Girdwood.

It was not until 1914, however, that construction of the railway was jumpstarted when the U.S. Congress authorized construction of a rail line that would connect Seward with Fairbanks.  Anchorage served as a railroad construction camp and became the headquarters for the newly established Alaska Railroad Corporation. On July 15, 1923. President Warren G. Harding marked the official completion of the railroad by driving in the final golden spike in the town of Nenana (in reality, 55 miles south of Fairbanks).

Since its completion, the Alaska Railroad has provided a vital transportation link, delivering supplies and passengers, between Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage, and Fairbanks, Alaska’s third largest city. In 1985, the state of Alaska purchased the railroad from the federal government for $22.3 million and has been operating, maintaining, and improving the rail service ever since. Though plans to connect the tracks to other North American railways have been discussed, passengers traveling on the Alaska Railroad can still only travel within the Land of the Midnight Sun.

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Alaska Railroad Denali Star

Dome cars transform the trip from Anchorage to Fairbanks

In May of 1984, Alaska Railroad began pulling privately owned superdome rail cars for a company called Tour Alaska. The superdomes turned a rail journey into a bucket-list experience that tourists began eagerly booking. Today, there are numerous custom-built full dome railcars in use along the tracks. These include the privately owned Wilderness Express railcars that can be seen pulled at the rear of the train – these cars are booked and operated by cruise lines, including Holland America and Princess Cruises. Alaska Railroad operates its own dome cars, with 78 reclining seats, panoramic windows, and a large open-air platform. The GoldStar dome cars are always positioned toward the front of the train providing the best viewing opportunities.

Alaska Railroad Denali Star Adventure Class Denali To Fairbanks

Looking back along the train from the viewing platform in GoldStar. You can see both the Adventure class railcar and the old-style viewing dome car Adventure class passengers use. The white railcar is for Wilderness Express passengers only.

Therese and I booked our trip in the GoldStar class, the best Alaska Railroad has to offer. And unless you are on a strict budget or you’ve ridden this trip so many times that the train is just an efficient means to get from A to B, do book GoldStar class and not the alternative Adventure class.

The Adventure class railcar offers a single deck with large windows and what seems to be plenty of room to move about. There is a small vestibule area between cars for fresh air and photography. While the seats are not as plush as those found in GoldStar, they seem comfy, although there is no table for eating or reading. During the summer months, Adventure class travelers do have access to a smaller, old-style dome car where seating is open to all. In theory, there is a 20-minute limit on how long each guest may remain – meaning you theoretically can’t settle in for the duration. Meals and drinks are not including in the ticket price, but there is a dining and a bar service offering a nice selection of drinks and snacks for purchase.

Adventure Class Railcar Denali Star Alaska Railroad

This is what the Adventure class railcar looks like.

Adventure Class Viewing Dome Denali Star Alaska Railroad 6762 Edit

The viewing dome in Adventure class.

It is in the GoldStar class, though, where the Alaska Railroad Denali Star earns accolades as a must-do travel experience on par with those of the Rocky Mountaineer in Canada. Therese and I were assigned reserved seating in super comfortable, reclining chairs located on the upper deck of dome car – the lower deck is where one finds the bathrooms and the dining room. The glass-dome ceiling and huge panoramic side windows on the upper deck allowed us to sit back and watch the Alaskan landscape slip by … whenever of course we found ourselves seated – which was not often to be honest. Why? The rear open platform on the upper level offers fresh air, shelter from the wind and elements (unless you lean out), and is such an amazing vantage point for landscape and mountain photography as the train chugs along.

Michael Hodgson Therese Iknoian Photographers Denali Star

The viewing platform in the GoldStar railcars is a perfect place to capture photographs.

As a bonus, for those times we did end up sitting inside, we thoroughly enjoyed listening to a very well-trained high school student who would point out wildlife, historic sites, and other points of interest as we clattered along the rails.

GoldStar class also means unlimited access to non-alcoholic drinks from the small bar located, conveniently, right next to the door leading to the viewing platform. Passengers also can order up to two complimentary alcoholic drinks during the journey, which Therese and I saved to use during meals that were served in the restaurant on the lower deck. Food choices are basic – salad, soup, pasta, burger, gumbo, and pot roast for example — but delicious.

Inside GoldStar Service Passenger Car Alaska Railroad

Inside a GoldStar service passenger car.

The journey southbound from Fairbanks to Anchorage

The 12-hour, 365-mile journey passes by all too quickly. My favorite sections, ones where only the call to sit down for our meals pulled me off the viewing platform, were from about an hour outside of Fairbanks until we reached Talkeetna. I’ll do my best to give you a taste, below, of the epic Alaskan scenery along our entire route.

Fairbanks to Denali

We pulled out of the Alaska Railroad Fairbanks Depot at 8:20 a.m. and in short order passed by the beautiful University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. Quickly, the terrain turned to forest and open wetland. And after about an hour the tracks headed into Healy Canyon where we followed the curves of the Nenana River below toward Denali National Park. We pulled into the Denali Depot at 12:10 p.m. where several guests disembarked for a Denali Park stay and others boarded for the trip onward to Talkeetna.

Alaska Railroad Fairbanks Depot

The Alaska Railroad Fairbanks Depot

Alaska Railroad GoldStar Service Passenger Car

Our GoldStar passenger car.

University Of Alaska Fairbanks From Alaska Railroad Denali Star

View of the University of Alaska Fairbanks from the viewing platform.

Alaska Railroad Denali Star Near Trestle Bridge

One of the many bridges and rivers the train crosses along the journey.

Alaska Railroad Denali Star Inside Trestle Bridge

Fun view while crossing a trestle bridge, shooting over the top of the railcars behind our viewing platform.

Alaska Railroad Mountain Reflection Denali To Fairbanks

I had to lean out of the viewing platform to capture the reflection of the train, the sky and mountains on the side of our railcar.

Alaska Railroad Denali Star Train Above Nenana River

Looking forward toward another GoldStar railcar and a passenger in the viewing platform, leaning out to take a photo.

Healy View Alaska Railroad

Passing by the town of Healy.

Denali to Talkeetna

Right on time, the train pulled out of the Denali station at 12:30 p.m. bound for Talkeetna. Before long, we headed past Cantwell and through Broad Pass with stunning views of the Alaska Range. Somewhere after Broad Pass, as we were heading toward a roadless area known as the Hurricane area, we met up with the northbound Denali Star train. Here, the trains stop side-by-side on the tracks while the conductors switch trains, with ours heading back to her home in Fairbanks.

Slowly, our train began moving forward again, through another spectacular and very remote area along the Indian River. At various points along the track, we’d pass chairs set up near the tracks, or see people standing and waving. Our host explained that these folks were Alaskans who had chosen to live off the grid and the train was their only means of getting into town for supplies — town in this case being the historic village of Talkeetna. The Alaska Railroad runs a train route, out and back from Talkeetna, known as the Hurricane Turn Train. This train is a true flag stop service, meaning anyone can stand next to the tracks, wave a flag, and the train will stop to pick up them and all their gear or drop them off if requested.

Just after 4:35 p.m., our train rolled across a trestle bridge over the Talkeetna River and the historic town of Talkeetna came into view. In 1896 the promise of gold and riches brought miners to the Susitna River and what would become the town of Talkeetna. By 1910, Talkeetna was a riverboat stop, helping supply miners and trappers in nearby districts. After the railroad arrived, the population declined until it bounced back when Talkeetna became the perfect staging area for climbers seeking to make ascents of Denali, Mount Foraker, Moose’s Tooth, and other nearby peaks.

Today, Talkeetna is a wonderfully funky town with a cat that serves as its mayor. Located at the confluence of the Susitna, Chulitna, and Talkeetna rivers, this town is all about adventure – mountaineering, flying, mountain biking, rafting, fishing, hiking, and more. Its downtown area is a designated national historic site. Here, in 1923, in the historic Fairview Inn, the town hosted President Warren Harding when he came to see the completion of the Alaska Railroad.

Fascinated by the town’s history and with the promise of Denali views from the bank of the Susitna River, and to break up the long train journey, Therese and I booked our trip with a stop in Talkeetna. Shortly after the Denali Star pulled into the Talkeetna Depot, we collected our luggage and headed into town to spend a few days exploring.

Conductor Mariya Rodriguez Alaska Railroad Denali Star

Our conductor from Fairbanks to just before Talkeetna, Mariya Rodriguez.

Alaska Railroad Denali Star Susitna River

Heading along the Susitna River toward Broad Pass.

Mountain View GoldStar Service Dome Car Alaska Railroad

View from inside the GoldStar railcar.

Alaska Railroad Denail Star Trains Pass

The moment when our southbound train met the northbound one.

Alaska Railroad Denali Star Mountains

Just past the historic town of Cantwell.

Alaska Railroad Train Trestle Bridge Talkeetna

An Alaska Railroad Denali Star train heading north and crossing over the Talkeetna River bridge.

Denali Star View Downtown Talkeetna Alaska

The historic downtown of Talkeetna, as seen from the train approaching the Talkeetna Depot.

Talkeetna to Anchorage

Two days after arriving in Talkeetna, Therese and I boarded our southbound train for the short three-hour journey to Anchorage. Standing on the viewing platform, I found myself smiling with that now very familiar “All aboaaaard” yell from the conductor. And, with that, the train chugged out of the Talkeetna Depot at 5 p.m.

From the platform, I had hoped for views of Denali rising above the Susitna River, but alas, the skies over the distant peaks were clouding over. Thankfully, I had enjoyed views of the magnificent summit from the riverbank during a brief sunny spell in Talkeetna. It didn’t take long before any views from the train disappeared behind a veil of mist and drizzle. Good enough reason to retreat inside and sit down to our table in the dining car for dinner.

The rain was coming down steadily as we pulled into the Alaska Railroad Anchorage Depot at 8 p.m. As I stepped onto the platform, I took a moment to glance down the line of yellow and gold railcars, glistening with raindrops. I love trains, even in the rain. And I’m already plotting our next Alaska Railroad adventure, this time down to Seward for the glacier views.

Alaska Railroad Talkeetna Depot

Our train, pulling into the Alaska Railroad Talkeetna Depot.

Susitna River South Of Talkeetna On The Alaska Railroad

Even without being able to see all of Denali, it was still a very spectacular mountain view as we pulled out of the depot.

Alaska Railroad Denali Star Wasilla

Near the town of Wasilla, and approaching civilization.

Alaska Railroad Anchorage Depot

A rainy arrival at the Anchorage Depot.

Riding The Alaska Railroad Denali Star From Fairbanks To Anchorage
 

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Disclosure: Michael Hodgson and Therese Iknoian were hosted for select parts and activities of this trip by Alaska Railroad. Any reviews, mentions and opinions here are our own, and are not approved, provided, or otherwise endorsed or influenced by Alaska Railroad or any of the attractions mentioned.


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About The Author

Michael Hodgson

Adventurer, curious traveler, photojournalist, and lover of gin. Winner of multiple gold, silver, and bronze medals from NATJA for travel writing & photography excellence -- earning medals every year since 2018. Gold medal winner 2021 to 2023 in the IFWTWA Travel Photography Awards, Best in Show award winner in the 2023 photography awards, and winner of the Excellence in Journalism award in 2022. Winner of a Juror's Award and Best in Show in the 2023 California State Fair photography competition. Still searching for the perfect gin and tonic.