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Taking the Train in Alaska: Fairbanks to Denali

I had no idea that there was passenger rail service in Alaska until I started researching how to get from Fairbanks to Denali National Park without renting a car. It turns out that Alaska actually has an amazing network of routes – stretching for 470 miles from Fairbanks in the north to Seward in the south along with a 12 mile spur to Whittier.

Train at the station in Denali National Park

The train station in Denali National Park sure comes alive when the train arrives

Alaska Train Routes

While there are two main train routes in Alaska – the northern route between Fairbanks and Anchorage and the southern route between Anchorage and Seward, I really just got a taste of what the Alaska Railroad has to offer. I did the four hour trip between Fairbanks and Denali National Park so I could catch the bus to Camp Denali but it was enough to get me hooked on the ease of train travel in the state.

You might also like: Driving Alaska’s Stunning Denali Park Road

On many of the Alaska trains you get a choice of two classes – Adventure Class which is really just the basic class of service but still more than okay. On the way to Denali, I had a seat to myself but rarely sat in it. You can hang out between the train cars and watch the world go by, which was a great way to take in the landscape on a warm sunny day. I also spent a little time in the Dome Car where you certainly get a different perspective. You can buy coffee and food on-board though it’s nothing to write home about. You are provided with some written materials so you can follow the train’s progress.

For help in planning your trip to Alaska check out the Lonely Planet Guide to Alaska – published May 2018. 

Taking the Train in Alaska: Fairbanks to Denali

On the adventure class of service you have to take turns sitting in the dome car

On the return to Fairbanks I booked the Gold Star Class which if you don’t mind forking over a few more dollars is definitely worth it. The seats are more comfortable – with all passengers sitting on the upper level of a dome car; full-service dining is offered and drinks are served at your seat. A much richer experience is provided with well-spoken and entertaining local Alaskan students narrating the interesting bits of the trip. For example, our guide pointed out the starting point of the hike to get to the bus where John McCandless spent his final days – as chronicled in the book by Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild.

Alaska trains run year round but the scheduled service varies by the season. The busy summer season begins in mid-May and lasts until mid-September. On my train ride back to Fairbanks in early August, there were only about a dozen of us – so we had could sit wherever we wanted. I understand that was a real anomaly.

Distances in Alaska are huge so if you plan to ride the trains, be smart about how long you want to spend on them. From Fairbanks to Anchorage it’s a 12 hour trip!

For more information and to have a look at the route map visit the Alaska Railroad website. If I ever go back to Alaska I’d certainly look at doing the train trip to Seward – so I could access Kenai Fjords National Park.

Taking the Train in Alaska: Fairbanks to Denali

You can hang out between trains and watch the world go by

Taking the Train in Alaska: Fairbanks to Denali

Some people enjoyed the majority of the four hour ride outside

Taking the Train in Alaska: Fairbanks to Denali

Nenana at the confluence of the Tanana and Nenana Rivers was one of the few towns we went through between Fairbanks and Denali National Park; it’s home to St. Mark’s Church – built in 1905 – and it can be seen from the train 

Taking the Train in Alaska: Fairbanks to Denali

The last two cars are the ones used in the Gold Star level of service

Taking the Train in Alaska: Fairbanks to Denali

Looking out over the Nenana River

Taking the Train in Alaska: Fairbanks to Denali

As we get close to Denali the country gets hillier and more interesting

View of bridge from the train close to Denali National Park

When you see Windy Bridge – the highest highway bridge at 215 feet in Alaska – you’re close to the train station in Denali National Park

The train station in Denali National Park

The train station in Denali National Park

Have you ever taken the train in Alaska? Any tips you’d like to share?

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Taking the Train in Alaska: Fairbanks to Denali

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Leigh McAdam

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta
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