Anchorage makes the perfect base to explore Alaska by train. Anchorage is the largest metropolitan city in Alaska. It’s full of casual to fine dining options, plenty of cultural attractions, and ample outdoor activities. The city offers a large variety of accommodations, including boutique hotels, larger hotel chains, and private home rentals. Anchorage is also one of the easiest locations to get to in Alaska and serves as the ideal transportation hub for exploring the rest of the state.
The Alaska Railroad operates year-round passenger service connecting Anchorage to coastal cities and the interior of Alaska. Many of these trips are perfect for memorable, scenic day trips from Anchorage. The summer train schedules offer trips to Whittier and Seward with a variety of options to explore Alaska’s pristine glaciers. Outdoor adventure lovers can head to Talkeetna, a charming small town and a gateway city to flightseeing, mountain biking, hiking, rafting, camping, and fishing.
Start your journey from the Anchorage Depot, which was built in 1942 and renovated in 1948. This building is a Beaux-Arts classic and is on the National Register of Historic Places. It is at the center of the Alaska Railroad system and its location makes it an easy walking distance or short car/shuttle ride from many downtown hotels.
All these trips can be booked directly through the Alaska Railroad and you can also book packages with excursions. Most trips start in the morning and return to Anchorage in the late evening.
Thank you to Visit Anchorage, Alaska for hosting me on a Press Trip.
Head Southbound On The Glacier Discovery Train
This train offers daily summer trips with multiple stops for a variety of adventures along the route. The route begins in Anchorage and heads southwest, featuring continuous stops before reaching Grandview, a picturesque area only accessible by train. The stretch after the Spencer Glacier stop is considered the most scenic, with an opportunity for views of Bartlett Glacier and Trail Glacier before winding through the Placer River Valley and alpine meadows, finally rolling into Grandview.
The following are all stops on the Glacier Discovery Train.
1. Train Trip From Anchorage To Whittier
I took the Glacier Discovery Train south to Whittier which took close to 2 hours. The views were incredible along the way with the Chugach Mountains on one side and Turnagain Arm on the other. One of the most interesting portions of the trip was the one-way tunnel used by both cars and trains rotating through. After you go through the 2.5-mile tunnel, you pop out to views of Prince William Sound.
From the Whittier Depot, it is just a short walk across the street to the marina where I boarded one of Phillips Cruises and Tours’ high-speed catamarans, the 26 Glacier Cruise. You actually view 26 glaciers on this cruise, and we even saw one calving. Tons of ice plunging into the water was something I will never forget. The cruise lasts about 5 hours and includes one of the best lunches I have had on a day trip. I saw plenty of wildlife including a group of Dall’s porpoises that frolicked around the boat. Viewing a kittiwake bird rookery, with more than 10,000 birds nestled on the rocky cliffs and waterfalls roaring into Passage Canal, was an incredible experience.
The cruise finishes up just in time to catch the Glacier Discovery Train back to Anchorage, arriving just before 10 p.m.
2. Train Trip From Anchorage To Girdwood
Both the Glacier Discovery Train and the Coastal Classic Train make stops in the town of Girdwood. From the train depot, you can catch the free local bus to the Alyeska Resort. You can do this as a day trip, but I recommend you spend the night in Girdwood. There is so much to see and do.
Start with a ride on the Alyeska Aerial Tram to the top of Mount Alyeska. I stepped out onto the observation deck for stunning panoramic views of seven “hanging” glaciers, the Turnagain Arm, and the Chugach Mountain range. There is a variety of hikes and, if you are adventurous, you can take the trail back to the resort. Keep an eye out for bear and moose sightings.
Back at the resort, check out the new opulent Nordic spa with hot and cold pools and a variety of beauty and wellness treatments. For the ultimate in fine-dining, book a reservation at the Seven Glaciers restaurant, which includes a tram ride to the top of Mount Alyeska. For a unique experience, take a summer glacier dog sled tour. Find more options for Girdwood activities here.
3. Train Trip From Anchorage To Spencer Glacier
The Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop was developed through a partnership with the Chugach National Forest and the Alaska Railroad. This remote wilderness area is only accessible by train. At the station, services are limited to a covered shelter and restrooms. It is named for Spencer Glacier — a massive wall of ice that cascades down the mountains to Spencer Lake. It is one of the most visible glaciers on the Railbelt.
There is a 1.3-mile trail to the Spencer Glacier Overlook at the edge of Spencer Lake. You can explore on your own or book a variety of guided excursions through the Alaska Railroad. Options include guided hikes, rowing up to the Spencer Glacier icebergs before floating down the Placer River, plus many more. Most people make it a day trip, but camping is available as well as a public-use cabin (reservations required).
4. Train Trip From Anchorage To Portage
The Portage stop is where you can catch a shuttle to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. This is one of my favorite activities on the trip. What an incredible experience seeing all these animals in enclosures designed to resemble their natural habitats. There is a boardwalk through the bear habitat with black bears on one side and the coastal or brown bears on the other. The coastal bears are even larger than grizzly bears and I was very glad to be behind a fence. The property is beautiful and there are areas where you will have 360-degree views of mountains. There is a nice outdoor space with a food truck and grab-and-go market.
Pro Tip: Make sure to check out the gift shop where savvy locals purchase gifts. There is such a great selection, and it helps to support the conservation center.
Take In Picturesque Views From The Coastal Classic Train
5. Train Trip From Anchorage To Seward Along The Coastal Route
The Coastal Classic Train departs the Anchorage Depot and follows the Cook Inlet along the coast. This scenic route travels past Potter Marsh, part of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge. You can see the boardwalks that traverse the wetlands. Keep an eye out for moose that frequent the area. Further along, keep an eye out for cars pulled over and people looking up at the cliffs along the rugged Chugach Mountains, where Dall sheep love to hang out. Eventually, the train route heads into the mountains and passes by Trail Glacier and Kenai Lake.
Once in Seward, many passengers choose to head out into the pristine waters of Kenai Fjords National Park. The Alaska Railroad can help passengers book these add-on excursions and more with easily-bundled packages. Some examples include ziplining, a visit to a sled dog kennel, or a visit to the state’s only aquarium and research center — the Alaska SeaLife Center. At the end of your day, head back to the depot and board the Coastal Classic Train back to Anchorage, or book lodging to spend more time in the area.
Explore Northbound On The Denali Star Train
6. Train Trip From Anchorage To Talkeetna
Talkeetna is a historic town located at the confluence of the Susitna, Chulitna, and Talkeetna Rivers. The downtown area is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Denali Star Train, the flagship train in the Alaska Railroad’s fleet, will transport you north along the Knik Arm and through the Matanuska Valley on a beautifully scenic route. When crossing the Knik and Matanuska Rivers, keep an eye out for bears, moose, and eagles.
If you are lucky enough to arrive on a clear day, incredible views of Denali, the tallest mountain in North America, will greet you. Once the train pulls into the station, you will have easy access to popular excursions in Talkeetna that can be added onto a rail trip. Options include jet boat tours, flightseeing, ziplining, hiking, biking, camping, and fishing. Leave time to shop downtown, where you will find made-in-Alaska products from local artisans. There is lodging available in the area, or you can make this a day trip.
The Aurora Winter Train
Hop aboard the Aurora Winter Train and explore Alaska’s winter wonderland from the comfort of a warm railcar.
7. Train Trip From Anchorage To Fairbanks
It is a 12-hour journey from Anchorage to Fairbanks and follows the same route as the summer Denali Star Train. The winter scenery with white snow and icy frozen rivers is enchanting. On clear days, the views of Denali are incredible. Moose are easier to spot with their brown fur contrasting against the snow-covered ground and vegetation. For the perfect weekend trip from Anchorage, book a Talkeetna Getaway package that bundles rail travel and overnight accommodations at the Talkeetna Cabins.
Alaska Railroad Services
The Alaska Railroad offers two types of service on their trains — GoldStar and Adventure Class services. With GoldStar, meals and drinks are included. Passengers also have access to a second-level outdoor viewing platform — perfect for taking pictures of the scenery, wildlife or family and friends.
With Adventure Class, passengers have reclining seats that are much roomier than an airplane seat as well as access to Vista Dome cars and large-picture windows. Not every train has GoldStar service. The ride I took on the Glacier Discovery Train only had Adventure Class service. I found the seats to be very comfortable and roomy. The bathrooms were spacious and clean. Overall, it was a very comfortable journey.
For more things to do in and around Anchorage: