Last updated: 01:00 AM ET, Fri May 15 2015

Summer (Schedule) Comes to Alaska

Car Rental & Rail | James Ruggia | May 15, 2015

Summer (Schedule) Comes to Alaska

PHOTO: Alaska Railroad is an essential part of any comprehensive journey to Alaska and its summer schedule is up and running. (Courtesy of Alaska Railroad)

Long before Alaska received statehood in 1959, it had a railroad that began the process of connecting all those icy clean rivers, glaciers, mountain ranges, former gold rush towns and the soaring peak of Denali. Alaska, our last wilderness, is as close as America comes to having its own Serengeti. And so on July 15, 1923, President Warren G. Harding drove a golden spike in Nenana, Alaska, to mark the official completion of the Alaska Railroad (AR) from Seward north to Fairbanks. In all seasons, the AR keeps Alaska connected, carrying cargo, post and passengers to places that are as remote as anywhere in the country, but the summer schedule adds much more frequency.

So remote are some of AR’s lines that one of them, the Hurricane Turn Train, still stops when it’s flagged down by hikers, making it one of America’s last “flag-stop trains.” The Hurricane Turn Train begins its daily summer schedule today (May 14). In fact, this week, as winter’s frost retreats even as far north as Alaska, all of AR’s lines are launching the summer service, which operates through Sept. 14. As they like to say up north, Alaska has four fully developed seasons: June, July, August and Winter, and AR’s summer schedule gives you three of them and two weeks of the fourth.

AR’s trains carry about 400,000 passengers a year plus cargo to points scattered around the state. The summer schedule began last Saturday (May 9) with daily service along the Alaskan “Railbelt” to Seward, Denali National Park, Fairbanks and other destinations. The Coastal Classic is once again doing its daily round-trip service from Anchorage to Girdwood and Seward past mountains, glaciers and beautiful Resurrection Bay.

The Coastal Classic is offering GoldStar Service for the first time this year. GoldStar cars offer an all-inclusive meal service (also available on the Denali Star Train). The Alaska Railroad’s flagship Denali Star Train began running yesterday (May 13) connecting south central and interior Alaska. The Star travels between Anchorage and Fairbanks with stops in Wasilla, Talkeetna and Denali National Park and Preserve.                 

The Glacier Discovery Train will get rolling on Monday, June 1, departing daily from the Anchorage Downtown Depot connecting to Girdwood, Portage, Whittier, Spencer Glacier and Grandview. Using this train, travelers can access glacier cruises in Prince William Sound; visit the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage; go rafting, hiking and ice climbing; or hit the backcountry at the Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop.

The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC) rehabilitates orphaned and injured moose, caribou, elk, brown bear, black bear, wood bison, arctic fox, lynx and musk oxen. The train rides along the Turnagain Arm, an inlet that borders on the Kenai Peninsula. The Turnagain Arm is a body of water about four miles wide. From its shores you can look up and spot White Dall Sheep nimbly picking their way along the cliffs. Twice a day the long rolling tides of the Turnagain Arm literally change directions.

On May 14, the Hurricane Turn Train begins operating on its summer schedule along the 55-mile expanse between Talkeetna and Hurricane Gulch. Passengers can get off the train anywhere they please and hop back on for their return journey with the wave of a flag, although many just stay on board for the views of the panoramic turnaround point, Hurricane Gulch. The Hurricane Gulch Bridge spans 918 feet almost 300 feet above the creek. The most common stops for this train are Chase, Curry, Sherman, Gold Creek, Twin Bridges and Chulitna. This train runs Thursday through Monday.

For 92 years, AR has been an essential component in the life of Alaska. The trains are such an essential part of the life and lore of Alaska, that they should be experienced on any comprehensive visit to the state. Even travelers that don’t care to do one of the full packages that are available should consider adding a daytrip. The company’s website offers several daytrip possibilities as well as a full lineup of vacation packages ranging in length between two and 10 days.

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