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Riding the rails
The train is a great way to explore Anchorage and Alaska’s beauty
The engineer slowed the train so it could safely twist around a tight curve squeezed between magnificent views impossible to see in Iowa.
On the left a towering rock wall ascended to a spruce covered slope that, in turn, transitioned into a lofty snow field near a glacier. To our right was a vast shimmering mud flat bared to the summer sun by the receding tide.
A visit to the 49th state gives railroad and nature enthusiasts a delightful way to penetrate the wilderness in comfort on the Alaska Railroad.
We recently enjoyed riding the train from Anchorage to the port town of Whittier, on the Prince William Sound. In past years we’ve ridden the train north to Fairbanks with stops at Denali National Park. Although we’ve driven and flown to many Alaskan destinations, riding the train is our favorite way to enjoy the Great Land. The Alaska Railroad offers opportunities for travelers to see varied parts of this vast state without the need to rent a car.
Most tourists visiting the Alaska take a package tour that often includes a cruise ship up the Inside Passage, the train or bus to Denali National Park and on to Fairbanks before flying home. It’s an enjoyable way to see parts of Alaska without the tedium of planning trip details. Anyone wishing to avoid this mass-produced tourism can plan their own Alaskan adventure. Fly to Anchorage, stay in one of many hotels near the train station, ride the train north or south, and leave plenty of time to enjoy Anchorage’s diverse activities and attractions.
Anchorage hardly existed a century ago. Today it’s a bustling city crisscrossed by busy four-lane highways and boasts museums, music, diverse shopping, and virtually any amenity available in a city of 300,000 people. About 40 percent of all Alaskans live there, representing a broad array of ethnic and racial diversity. With nearly equidistant air miles between New York, Tokyo, and Hamburg, Germany, the Ted Stevens Airport is one of the nation’s major airports. Anchorage a hopping city.
Rich once lived in Alaska. Our daughter and son-in-law live in Anchorage now, so we fly up annually to visit and travel to parts of the state and town new to us. During a July trip we biked Anchorage trails and toured the Botanical Center, Alaska Native Cultural Center, and the Campbell Creek Science Center. We always include a hike at Flattop Mountain on the edge of town to enjoy a vast view of the City, Cook Inlet, and distant mountains.
Basing out of an Anchorage hotel gives a visitor easy access to interesting museums and a 200-mile-long multiuse trail system that radiates out into the Chugach State Park and adjoining national forest. Although Anchorage sprawls over a wide area, getting around is easy. Many hotels are located downtown within walking distance of cultural attractions and the Alaska Railroad Station. Lyft, Uber, and taxi services are well developed. The Flattop Mountain Shuttle brings people to various sites.
On our most recent visit we rented e-bikes and peddled along the Coastal Trail before enjoying a delicious lunch at the Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop. Bicycling is amazingly popular in Anchorage and the Hillside Single Track Trails beckon the brave. As the weather cools many enthusiasts switch to fat tire bikes or cross-country skis. Many trails are lit in winter. “Several Anchorage companies rent bikes and cross-country skis, so there’s no need to bring them on the plane,” said Spiff Chambers of Visit Anchorage.
Although seafood is an Alaskan tradition, restaurant cuisine reflects the city’s diverse ethnicity. While there we enjoyed foods ranging from oysters on the half shell to pizza, Mexican fare and gourmet cupcakes.
When Alaska Railroad construction began in 1907 the huge state was lightly populated and lacked roads. Private companies building the line ran out of money, so Congress funded completion. A construction site was built near Ship Creek that grew into the modern City of Anchorage. The train terminal, within walking distance of downtown, is the hub of tracks that go north and south.
Alaska remains mostly roadless and riding the rails offers continuous vistas of magnificent scenery. On our visit we boarded the train in Anchorage. It headed south through city neighborhoods before passing Potter Marsh’s diverse bird life and then squeezed between Turnagain Arm and towering rock walls. About two hours later we entered a long tunnel that passed through a mountain and soon stopped at Whittier. We poked around town and ate an exquisite lunch at the Inn at Whittier before boarding the train back to Anchorage. Ours was a day trip but overnighting would allow time to try for halibut, rockfish, or salmon on a charter boat, roar across the bay on a Jet Ski, or ride a quiet boat to see marine life and glaciers.
Whittier is an odd town. It was mostly formed during the World War II as a place for the military to stage before evicting Japanese off the Aleutian Islands. The gray, startling hulk of abandoned military barracks contrasts to the beauty of the temperate rainforest of the surrounding mountains. Today it’s a port city on the Alaska Marine Highway and cruise ship routes. Residents claim that they all live under the same roof. That’s partly true. Nearly all 270 residents live in a condominium called the Begich Tower or the nearby Whittier Manor. It’s a town lacking houses.
Only about 58 miles from Anchorage, Whittier has a vastly different weather pattern. It gets doused with about 196 inches of precipitation annually, while Anchorage only gets only about 17 inches. Bring a raincoat.
The Alaska Railroad also goes to the harbor town of Seward. It’s larger and has more tourist amenities than Whittier. Various companies offer fishing, sightseeing, and even surfing adventures. We spent two nights there in 2019 and enjoyed the Alaska Sealife Museum and a boat ride to spot whales, glaciers, seals and seabirds.
Years ago, we took the 12-hour Denali Star Train north to Denali National Park and on to Fairbanks. We passed vast forests, rushing rivers, and Denali, North America’s loftiest mountain.
The Alaska Railroad operates year-round with a reduced passenger schedule during cold months. The Railroad offers a special Aurora Winter train. “We encourage people to visit Alaska during the offseason. Hotel rates are lower than in the summer, cultural and outdoor activities abound, and a visitor might consider taking a winter train north to Fairbanks on a Saturday and return to Anchorage the next day,” said Chambers.
Many people wrongly believe that the sun is always up during Alaskan summers and it’s totally dark during winter. That’s not the case. Anchorage is far south of the Arctic Circle. Even during the winter solstice there’s some daylight. In late June the sun dips below the horizon for a few hours that remain “dusky” not dark. The Northern Lights can’t be seen in summer, but a winter visitor stands a chance of seeing this dazzling display of color. “Anchorage has light pollution and clouds but anyone spending a week here in the winter has good odds of seeing the Northern Lights. Chances are better in Fairbanks but it’s much colder there,” said Chambers.
Experiencing Alaska is fascinating in any month and doesn’t require a package tour.
Basing out of Anchorage, taking the Alaska Railroad north or south, and trekking around the city on a bike or skis can all be arranged in advance. Staff at Visit Anchorage (www.anchorage.net) will help potential visitors plan their trip. The Alaska Railroad’s website (www.alaskarailroad.com) lists detailed train possibilities and fares.
Alaska is a wondrous place to visit during any season. Package tours are fine but basing in Anchorage and riding the Alaska Railroad allows a visitor to customize a unique trip.
Rich and Marion Patterson have backgrounds in environmental science and forestry. They co-own Winding Pathways, a consulting business that encourages people to “Create Wondrous Yards.”