Sprawling national parks, scenic wonders, and impressive wildlife make Alaska a family vacation destination like none other, but how to tackle a state as vast as California, Montana and Texas combined? Large cruise ships visit one small part of the Inside Passage, but miss out on the parks of the interior. But Alaska by train allows travelers to see much more. The main line of the Alaska Railroad stretches nearly 500 miles from the southern port of Seward to the interior city of Fairbanks, and is an excellent way to sample the diversity of the state.
Families taking the train enjoy the “history, transportation, and recreation” the Last Frontier offers, says Alaska based family travel writer Erin Kirkland. The Alaska Railroad offers year-round passenger transportation with two classes of service: Adventure Class and the premium Gold Star service. Both classes of service offer panoramic windows and dome cars to enjoy the scenery, but Gold Star service includes glass dome ceilings for all seats, an outdoor, upper-level viewing platform, included meals in a full-service dining room, and two adult beverages per trip (for passengers 21 and over). In addition, an Alaskan tour guide accompanies each trip to unlock the history, point out notable landscapes and spot animals all along the way.
The Alaska Railroad offers an integrated vacation experience. Families can purchase vacation packages that bundle train tickets, overnight lodging, and excursions. However, even without a vacation package, stops along the rail belt all know and cater to the Alaska Railroad schedule. Hotel shuttles wait for passengers at the depot, and tours always make sure their passengers are back in time to catch the train.
We rode the rails of the entire Alaska Railroad main line, and share our best tips for this family vacation through Alaska by train.
Arrive in Anchorage
Where to Stay: After a long flight to Alaska, settle into The Lakefront Anchorage Hotel located just two miles from Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. The hotel’s complimentary airport shuttle will pick you up and deliver you to the lakeside resort.
Where to Eat: On a nice day, grab a burger and Alaska microbrew on The Deck and watch float planes come and go at the busiest seaplane base in the world.
What to Do: Get a good night sleep, there will be an early start in the morning to catch the train for your first ride on the Alaska Railroad. Another advantage of The Lakefront is its free shuttle to the train depot as well.
Days 1 & 2: Anchorage to Seward
The Anchorage to Seward Coastal Classic route departs the station at 6:45am, and passengers need to arrive at the depot one hour ahead of time. Guests are rewarded for the early wake-up with one of the most scenic train trips in the country. This route travels along the Turnagain Arm coast, passes multiple glaciers (one only accessible by rail), and offers the chance to see wildlife all along the way. The four-hour trip flies by as quickly as the scenery out your dome car windows.
Where to Stay: The Seward Windsong Lodge is nestled in the woods just outside the downtown area. Don’t worry: the lodge has a free shuttle to the train depot and all Seward attractions. The Windsong Lodge is made up of multiple smaller wildflower-named buildings, making a camp-like setting. There’s plenty to do in Seward, and it’s worth staying multiple nights in the area.
What to Do: The Alaska SeaLife Center is a great way to get oriented to the ecology and wildlife of the area. The facility is the only rescue and rehabilitation center for marine life in the entire state, and a site of active research as well. Anyone planning a boat tour of the bay and Kenai Fjords National Park should visit the Alaska SeaLife Center first for a greater appreciation of the experience.
There are a number of glacier and wildlife cruises that depart from Seward’s Small Boat Harbor on Resurrection Bay. Kenai Fjords Tours and Seward Windsong Lodge are both operated by Pursuit Collection making it convenient to combine a day cruise with your stay. Our family opted for the nine-hour Northwestern Fjord tour that ventures deep into Kenai Fjords National Park. This tour was the highlight of our Alaska trip and we spotted seals, sea lions, eagles, puffins and killer whales in addition to glaciers, waterfalls and dramatic scenery.
Seward Windsong Lodge sits in the Exit Glacier Valley, the only glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park accessible by land. The lodge offers guided hikes of Exit Glacier daily (for an extra fee), or head to the national park nature center yourself for ranger led hikes or walks on your own.
Where to Eat: Resurrection Roadhouse and Goliath Bar & Grill at Seward Windsong Lodge offer convenient dining options for those staying at the hotel. We opted for the Goliath nachos after our day on the water and quickly devoured the mountain of chips. In town, the locals head to Thorn’s Showcase Lounge, a retro 1960s club with its original décor that offers some of the best halibut in town in its “bucket of butts.” After dinner, head across the street to Sweet Darlings for fresh homemade gelato.
Day 3: Seward to Anchorage
The Alaska Railroad Coastal Classic route from Seward back to Anchorage is so scenic you won’t mind doing it twice. Knowing when the glaciers and notable sights appear only enhances the journey. You will be more ready with the camera, and it gives you a chance for different weather and lighting. Plus, you never know what wildlife, like the stately moose, will appear along the tracks.
Where to Stay: We opted for the Alaska House of Jade Bed & Breakfast during our stop in Anchorage. Our suite on the lower level was ideal for a family (with a queen-size bed for mom & dad and two twins for the kids) to spread out and rest after the first few busy days in Alaska—not to mention adjusting to the time change and early morning wake ups for train rides.
Where to Eat: Moose’s Tooth Pub & Pizzeria offers gourmet pizza and Broken Tooth Brewing craft beer. People wait, with beer in hand, for tables to open at this eclectic Anchorage icon. During the summertime, the pub occasionally hosts outdoor concerts too.
What to Do: The Anchorage Trolley takes a one-hour, 15 mile loop around the city. The narrated trip starts at the Log Cabin Visitor’s Center and visits many of the historic sites around the city including: Earthquake Park, Westchester Lagoon, multiple views of the surrounding mountain ranges and more.
The Anchorage Market & Festival is a large open-air market near the train depot that features an array of local artists, crafts and souvenirs.
The Alaska Native Heritage Center preserves the traditions, languages, and art of Alaska’s First Nation. Six life-sized Native dwellings occupy camps around a lake where families can learn about the culture of multiple indigenous groups including the Athabascan, Inupiaq/St. Lawrence Island Yupik, Yup’ik/Cup’ik, Aleut, Alutiiq, and the Eyak, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people.
Day 4: Anchorage to Denali
Anchorage to Denali was the longest leg of the trip, boarding the Denali Star train by 8:15am and arriving at Denali at 3:40pm. This allowed our family to enjoy both breakfast and lunch in the dining car on the train (included with Gold Star service). The leisurely meals and casual conversation as the scenery whizzed past the window made the time fly. Note: families can break up this leg by making an overnight stop at Talkeetna.
Where to Stay: Staff from the Denali Bluffs Hotel met passengers at the depot and distributed hotel keys and information on the shuttle to the property. This allowed everyone to bypass the check-in desk and head directly to their rooms. The hotel sits on the slopes of Sugarloaf Mountain with sweeping views of the Nenana River Canyon and Alaska Range from your room’s private balcony.
Where to Eat: Mountaineer Grill and Bar at the Denali Bluffs hotel has an all-you-care-to-eat breakfast buffet to fill you up before heading to the park. For dinner they specialize in BBQ fare and salmon. Alpenglow Restaurant at Denali Bluffs’ sister property, the Grand Denali Lodge, offers upscale dining of steaks and seafood.
What to Do: Give yourself time to explore Denali National Park. The mountain is only visible 30% of the time. Therefore, the longer you stay, the greater your chance of seeing the peak. The Denali Bluffs Hotel provides shuttles to the Denali National Park entrance, or you can book a tour that picks up directly at the hotel. We chose Denali Backcountry Adventure, a 13 hour tour of the park that is the only one that travels the entire 92 mile park road. Along the way we spotted caribou and bear, and at the end of the road we enjoyed a buffet lunch at Denali Backcountry Lodge. After lunch we took a short hike to century-old homestead of iconic frontierswoman Fannie Quigley, and learned a bit about what it was like to live in the Alaska wilderness during the 19th century. On the return trip we saw Dall sheep and moose. Even during a cold, rainy, foggy day, when the mountain was not visible there were plenty of wildlife active.
Denali National Park also hosts sled dog demonstrations at the Denali Kennels. These canine rangers work the park as they have since the 1920’s. During a tour of the kennels, you can meet and pet the dogs, and watch how they are hitched and pull a wheeled cart during the 30 minute demo.
Days 6 & 7: Denali to Fairbanks
The last leg of the Denali Star Line pulled out of the Denali station at 4:00pm and arrived in Fairbanks at 8:00pm. Fairbanks is known as the “Golden Heart City,” due to its location near the center of Alaska as well as the discovery of gold in the area. It’s also the end of the line for the Alaska Railroad.
Where to Stay: We stayed in a two-bedroom suite at the Wedgewood Resort. After a week on the road, it was great for our daughters to have their own separate bedroom from the parents. The Wedgewood Resort is surrounded by a 75 acre wildlife sanctuary and 2,000 acre migratory waterfowl refuge. There are plenty of trails throughout the reserve including a ramble around Wander Lake. In addition, the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum sits on the Wedgewood Resort property as well.
What to Do: Fairbanks is home to some surprising museums such as the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum and the Museum of the North. The Auto Museum houses nearly 100 pre-World War II vehicles (all of them run) staged with period fashions of the era as well. While the Museum of the North is a natural history and art museum on the University of Alaska main campus. In addition, the Riverboat Discovery Tour is a half-day cruise down the Chena and Tanana Rivers making stops at Iditarod champion Susan Butcher’s sled dog kennels and a Chena Indian Village. Gold Dredge 8 is a national historic monument to the interior’s gold fields, and guests can try their hand at panning for gold. Spoiler alert: everyone is guaranteed to find gold.
Where to Eat: The Pump House Restaurant & Saloon sits on the banks of the Chena River and offers a fine dining menu of steaks, seafood and game. The Alaska Salmon Bake is an all-you-care-to-eat experience where grilled salmon is cooked over an open fire along with carved beef and beer-battered cod. For a quick bite, we enjoyed The Crepery that makes giant fresh crepes stuffed with sweet or savory concoctions.
After your stay in Fairbanks, you can rent a car to further explore the Alaska interior, fly back home via Fairbanks International Airport, or sit-back, turn-around and take the 12 hour return trip to Anchorage on the Alaska Railroad.
By Dave Parfitt