Alaska is huge, and there’s a reason why it’s the biggest U.S. state and known as the last frontier. Its position high above the equator line means cold icy plains and wilderness terrain.
Traveling around Alaska is best done by train.
An Alaskan train trip is one of the best scenic train rides in the world, not only would I agree but it’s easy to see why!
According to the AKRDC, Alaska receives more than 2 million visitors every year, and almost all of them want to know what the best train trip in Alaska is!
Although ‘best’ can be subjective, the best Alaska train trips are those considered to cover the main National Parks, has spectacular views of the wilderness, has the possibility of spotting wildlife, and is an all-around comfortable journey.
Fitting all these requirements into a train trip can be a challenge, but we feel at least one of the train trips in Alaska pulls this off very well!
The best train trip in Alaska is the Denali Star between Anchorage and Fairbanks and operated by Alaska Railroads. It offers scenic views of the Denali National Park and the most beautiful views of the wilderness. This Alaska return train trip requires at least two full days to complete.
This is the short answer, but to find out why and which other routes are available (that may better suit your trip) keep reading!
The good news is that there really isn’t a bad train trip in Alaska (discounting those that travel during night-time so there’s nothing to see) but it is such a big, beautiful, and varied state, there is always something amazing to view.
There are two main passenger railroad companies operating trains within Alaska, Alaska Railroad and White Pass and Yukon Railroad.
Some routes are more rustic day-to-day commuting trains for residents and far-out explorers, whilst other routes focus on vacationers with all the luxury gold trimmings!
Each option provides different experiences, viewpoints, and comfort levels.
In this article we will look at which train trip in Alaska may be right for you, and overall, what our view is on the best train trip based on the most desired requirements.
The Alaska Railroad took 8 years and 4,500 men to complete. It was also the first U.S. Government operated train and took its first passenger-filled journey way back in 1923.
The Alaska Railroad operates most of the Alaska rail network and has a mainline running 470 miles between Seward in the south, and Fairbanks towards the north.
Let’s look at the most popular Alaska Railroad train trips for tourists and wilderness lovers alike.
Denali Star: Anchorage to Fairbanks
For those visitors wanting to experience as many sights and sounds of Alaska as possible on a single train trip, then look no further than the Denali Star.
Rather than simply name each route from its starting point to destination, the Alaska Railroad provides each route with a name.
The Denali Star route runs between Anchorage in the south and Fairbanks in the north. The total train trip is 356 miles (or 573 km, for travelers from Europe) it takes around 12 hours for the journey to complete.
This is due to speed limits in certain areas where the train feels like it’s traveling at a snail’s pace at just 30mph but is great when it does as it feels the world stops moving and gives even more of a chance to take in the magnificent scenery.
It passes through several stations but important for travelers is that the Denali Star, by its very name, passes through and stops at Denali National Park.
It doesn’t stay long enough to explore the park, so visitors wishing to see more of what Denali has to offer on foot will need to have a ticket that allows a departure at Denali and then a second ticket, or an open ticket journey to the destination at another time.
This can be onward to Fairbanks, or simply return to Anchorage.
Remember trains pass through each station just once a day in both directions.
Considering the round trip takes a total of 24 hours journey time across two days, this train trip needs plenty of planning and time available on land, especially if arriving by cruise ship.
Coastal Classic: Anchorage to Seward
One of the most popular train trips in Alaska is the Coastal Classic route which travels between Anchorage in the south to the most southerly stop on the Alaska Railroad network, Seward.
This 114-mile, 4-and-a-half-hour journey, offers travelers amazing scenery. Not just the coastal areas of Alaska but it winds through mountains too.
Travel is possible in both Adventure Class and Goldstar Service (for that extra special trip) on this route. Mountains, waterfalls, lakes, and canyons can be spotted along this route.
Once at Seward the Alaska Sealife Center is a nice place to stop, especially with children.
The Kenai Fjords National Park is within reach when departing the train at Seward.
The Kenai Fjords National Park Visitor Center is a 20min walk (1 mile) and there are plenty of shuttle services and taxis. From here excursions and information about how to explore the park can be found.
Considering the return Coastal Classic journey is still less than a one-way journey on the Denali Star, this train trip is best for those visitors who have around a day to spend on land, or those wishing to spend a day experiencing a scenic rail journey in Alaska.
There is just one train a day in either direction meaning a one-day return trip from Anchorage to Seward will depart at 6:45 am and not arrive back until 10:15 pm, giving travelers approx. 6.5 hours in Seward to explore and shop.
It is worth noting that the Coastal Classic route does not travel through or even near to the Denali National Park.
To see or visit Denali the Denali Star is the best train trip to take, or the Aurora Winter Train between September and May, which essentially is the same journey as the Denali Star but operates in the colder, darker months with less tourists.
Glacier Discovery: Anchorage to Whittier
The Glacier Discovery route is perfect for those travelers who wish to explore Whittier rather than Seward, and who do not want to leave as early as 6:45 am for the day return trip.
The 2-hour route travels between Anchorage in the south, a popular cruise port, to Whittier even further south, and carries on to Grandview before returning the journey.
Like many of the Alaska Railroad routes, there is just one train a day in either direction – i.e., the same train, which means return journeys will take a full day.
The train departs Anchorage at 9:45 am and arrives at Whittier just over 2 hours later at 1:15 pm.
The train continues to Grandview, where a brief 10min stop sees the return of its journey arriving back at Whittier at 6:45 pm, and the onward journey back to Anchorage arrives at 9 pm.
Whittier is a small southern coastal town of Alaska and is home to only 500 or so residents but is a large tourist destination due to it being a cruise port.
This is also the train route needed to explore Prince William Sound’s abundant wildlife and glaciers.
Experience Onboard the Alaska Railroad
The Alaska Railroad offers two classes of travel and experience, the Adventure Class, and the premium and popular Goldstar Service.
Both classes are available on the Denali Star and Coastal Classic Route, but the shorter Glacier Discovery route only has the Adventure Class service.
Although the Adventure Class is likened to an economy service it still offers a decent amount of space and quite comfortable seating.
There hasn’t been much of an upgrade to the carriages for many years, but it is generally clean and serves its purpose of providing travelers a great view – with its extra double-height carriage – with which to experience and see the sights many book their tickets for.
Although specific seats cannot be booked online in advance, and are assigned once the ticket is issued, it’s possible to leave your seat and explore the other Adventure Class carriages for a different viewpoint.
Also, if you do travel on the Adventure Class be sure to try and get some time in the Vista Dome car. It’s up a small flight of stairs but offers the best view in the class.
Although, unless your train is particularly empty, it’s advised to spend no more than 20mins in the Vista Dome car so other passengers can experience some time there. Time in the Vista Dome isn’t monitored, but we should all be considerate of others when we travel.
Food can be purchased in the Wilderness Café, which has a few sandwiches, soft drinks, hot drinks, and alcohol available. The Alaska IPA is a particular treat.
There is an outside observing area. Not as nice as the Goldstar Service observing area – which is to be expected – but is perfect for fresh mountain air and uninterrupted views.
Although the Goldstar Services comes at a premium price, it comes with premium services as well as a better view, free food and drink and a much better outside deck area for sightseeing.
The seats are comfy and spacious, although the leg room is equivalent to Adventure Class, but certainly plentiful enough.
The dome shaped glass windows offer almost panoramic views of the immersive and inspirational Alaska frontier.
Three meals are included with the Goldstar Service, and they also cater for vegetarians. The food menu isn’t expansive, but it certainly does the job.
Free unlimited soft drinks are included, as well as free hot drinks and although alcohol is an added extra each passenger receives vouchers for two complimentary alcoholic drinks on board.
A nice touch on board this service are the friendly tour guides, who at least help you get an idea as to what you are actually looking at!
Although the Goldstar service can come with a premium price tag (around $480 per passenger) for a once in a lifetime trip to the Last Frontier, it really is worth it if budget allows.
Before You Book
Before booking any train trip across Alaska it’s wise to plan the route into your itinerary carefully.
A 2-hour train ride from Anchorage to Whittier may seem like a great way to spend 5-6 hours, trains do not run as frequently as they do elsewhere in the U.S.
The train heading out is the same train that will come back.
One train departs a day from both the departure and arriving destinations – so to do even small journeys by train may require a full 12 hours to be sure to get there and back.
This is especially essential to know if you are stopping on as part of a cruise itinerary and are limited on time.
It is also worth knowing that frustratingly it is not possible to book a preferred seat onboard on either the Adventure Class or even Goldstar Service.
Seats are pre-allocated and provided to all passengers with their ticket.
It’s recommended people do explore other train carriages, within their class of course, although it is also worth noting that passengers traveling in the Goldstar Service can also explore and travel within the Adventure Class areas too.
White Pass and Yukon Railroad
The smaller and perhaps less known railroad company to those outside of Alaska, has a rustic intimate and authentic charm.
It’s known as the ‘Scenic Railway of the World’ and it doesn’t take long onboard this train to see why!
Although the Alaska Railroad caters for both residents and tourists alike, the White Pass and Yukon Railroad almost relies exclusively on tourists and has created train trip experiences to cater for those visiting the port of Skagway by cruise ship.
In fact, the entry to the train is situated alongside the pier where passengers of luxury cruise liners disembark.
There are several different excursions and routes offered depending on your type of travel from the White Pass Summit route for those wanting time-limited cruise passengers, to the Bennett Camping Adventure route for one-way journeys to popular camping destinations where visitors can really embrace the wilderness.
Although there are many routes available, and most during tourist season, here are two of the most popular.
White Pass Summit Excursion
The White Pass Summit Excursion is the most popular train trip offered by White Pass and Yukon Railroad, and almost every trip is exclusively made up of those on cruise excursions.
A 3-hour round trip covering 40 miles provides passengers with an exclusive view of mountain scenery, waterfalls, gorges, and an abundance of wildlife.
Stepping onto the train is like taking a step back in time.
It’s worth trying to find a seat on the left-hand side of the train which does give slightly better views and panoramas than the right-hand side.
You’ll even see the Trail of ’98 which is a tribute to the thousands who endured the Klondike Gold Rush conditions in 1898 in search of their fortunes.
The journey starts at sea level at Skagway and up to almost 2,900 feet at White Pass Summit.
The train can get very busy and packed at times. There are no upgrades available on these trains, all seats are the same price, same carriages, and same space.
For those traveling into Skagway by either cruise, car, or seaplane this is a unique opportunity to really see why Alaska is known as the Last Frontier!
Skagway to Denver
Not all visitors to Skagway come from cruise ships, although it does account for the majority.
There are many travelers who plan to spend more time in the wilderness by either camping or hiking.
In fact, even those from a cruise who want to spend time traversing and hiking Alaska’s trails can take this 4hrs and 45min half-day trip (or 9 hours full-day trip in time allows) and head up to Denver for some hiking and walking trails.
The journey is only 6 miles which means a good amount of time to explore the self-guided trails and experience woodlands and glaciers.
The train leaves Denver to Skagway just twice a day, so be sure to be back at the station before departure time!
Experience Onboard the White Pass and Yukon Railroad
The White Pass and Yukon train journeys is a no-frills service.
You won’t find Gold Service standards here, and no upgrade opportunities either.
The service is like stepping back in time and the carriages and train staff certainly add to the authenticity.
Water is available as well as a toilet on every carriage, but food will need to be brought, which can be purchased from the station or town.
Best Train Trip in Alaska
There are lots of amazing train trip options available for travelers to Alaska.
The route that experiences the most Alaska has to offer, and to see the most of Alaska possible in a single trip, is the Denali Star route between Anchorage and Fairbanks.
Passing across 470 miles of Alaska through mountains, waterfalls, and the Denali National Park.
Although this is the best for exploring Alaska, it may not be the best based on the amount of time available.
If time allows a combination trip between Anchorage and Seward, and then up to Fairbanks, it means both the Kenai Fjords National Park and Denali National Park can be explored.
Glaciers, mountains, national parks, wilderness, and the largest towns in Alaska are all within reach.
This type of journey will require a good four to five days to explore in any good way.
For those travelers that only have a single day to explore then the Coastal Classic route between Anchorage and Seward is a good option.
The town of Seward is a beautiful port town with a range of shops, gift and boutique stores along with bars and restaurants but also allows short excursion trips by coach or sea to explore more of Kenai Fjords National Park if time allows.
In fact, the Kenai Fjords National Park visitor center is less than a 25 min walk from the Seward train station.
Traveling on either Alaska railroad companies is an experience you need to do at least once. The railroad access places and views only accessible by train.
Alaska is full of scenic beauty of which all train trips covered here beautifully explore.