Riding The Rails Alaska-Style

by Susan Kraus (2010)

back to list

“You know fall is coming when the fireweed tops out,” explained Tess, the pretty red-haired waitress in the dining car on the Seward-Anchorage run of the Alaska Railroad. I was savoring my glazed salmon with wild rice pilaf, baby green beans and a chardonnay. I’d given up taking pictures. Every curve in the tracks presented another postcard-perfect scene. It was all too much, so I’d put the camera away.  Sometimes taking photos distracts us from being able to really see and feel. This moment… surrounded by beauty, eating a good meal, sipping wine… was one I wanted to experience fully.
The tall purple blooms of the fireweed fill out bottom-to-top, and then slowly die off the same order. So, when the fireweed “tops off,” and the final blooms fall, it is said to be the beginning of the end of summer. Tess explained this, and more, about the kinds of trees we were passing, wildlife habitats and glacial ice and why it is so sky-blue, as she refilled my water glass and offered dessert.
In Alaska, the train is not about getting to a destination, certainly not quickly.  The ride is a destination in itself, a movable feast for the eyes, as it traverses wilderness, sidles past waterfalls, hugs sheer granite cliffs, slows to a crawl so everyone can get a good shot of a glacier. The train goes through wilderness where there are no roads. On my ride from Anchorage to Seward (and return), it stopped so everyone could see an eagle perched at the top of a tree, and, later, a baby bear climbing.  It’s the quality of the experience, not speed, that drives this engine.
Go First Class. If there was ever a time to do it up right, the Alaska Railways’ “Gold Star” service is it. You get so much more bang-for-your-buck on the train than a plane. Ample reclining seats, a personal steward for each car, the high domed glass ceilings so that you are enveloped by the forest and open to the vistas… it is so worth the extra cost. There is a private second-story open-air section for photography and feeling the wind and fresh air. People gather around the bar (alcohol costs extra but drinks are mixed bar-style, per your preferences, not self-serve from a mini-bottle). All other drinks are free, including hot chocolate piled with whip cream drizzled with chocolate syrup (of which I had three). There is a social ambiance, as locals make recommendations to the tourists, and people almost “oooh” and “ahhh” in unison.
Traveling solo? Then the train is really for you. It’s hard to fully appreciate the grandeur when you’re driving…
if not dangerous to keep craning your neck to see that cool waterfall you just passed.  Travel by train and you leave with new friends. I was given two business cards and several notes about “favorite places” from fellow travelers.
This train slowed me down from a ‘Type A’ personality to a ‘Type R’… for ‘relaxed.’ On the return run, satisfied by my salmon supper, I felt my eyes closing in a contended cat-sleep… but I didn’t want to miss any of the scenery.  I’d questioned if returning on the same route would be boring, but the angle was different, and the quality of the light, and so everything looked fresh. I could have sworn I’d never been on these tracks before. 

The winter schedule is limited but most tourists are May-to-September when there are several routes to choose from. If you’re starting or ending a cruise in Whittier or Seward (the airport is in Anchorage), think train. With up to 18-19  hours of daylight in summer, there is still plenty to see at 10 p.m.
And then there is the ‘off-road’ factor.  One run, the Hurricane Turn, drops hikers and backpackers off in the middle of nowhere (with several options, most with marked trails) and then will stop to pick them up on the return run. You just flag the train down, like in pioneer days. It’s the last flag train in the U.S.  
If I can swing it next summer, that’s one I’m coming back to try.

The Alaska Railroad website is www.akrr.com. Rates vary by season, and special deals are often available.

back to list

contact Susan

"I think we often know things in our gut way before the synapses connect in the head."