Booking an Alaska Sightseeing Train: what you need to know

As a cat, one of my favorite things to do is stare out of the window. I am constantly trying to demonstrate this magnificent activity to my human companion, and I think she has finally understood! It was experiencing an Alaska sightseeing train that finally did it. All traveling cats know that one surefire way to relaxation and adventure is a scenic train ride.

In the state of Alaska, you have two main options for sightseeing trains: the Alaska Railroad which covers the south-central and interior regions, and the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad which covers southeastern Alaska. Now you just need to pick your route for a relaxing, scenic adventure! 

Pro Tip: For a more comprehensive guide to traveling in Alaska, check out our 10-day Alaska Itinerary.

Mainland Alaska Sightseeing Train: Alaska Railroad

When most people talk about the sightseeing trains in Alaska, they are referring to the Alaska Railroad. Based out of Anchorage, this system covers most of the state. Widely acknowledged as one of the most scenic railroads in the world, routes provide access to favorite tourist destinations like Seward, Whittier, Anchorage, Talkeetna, Denali, and Fairbanks

When booking any ticket on the Alaska Railroad you need to choose between two kinds of train cars: Adventure class and Goldstar service. Adventure class is the more basic service, providing assigned seating and large, picture windows. An Adventure class ticket also provides access to the Vista Dome, a glass-top car with open seating, as well as a snack bar with beer and wine. 

An upgrade to Goldstar service involves a decent increase in cost (approximately 50% depending on your route) but provides some excellent services. Perhaps the best reason to upgrade to Goldstar is an assigned seat in a glass dome train car. These cars allow you to view the entire scenery, making for stunning panoramic views when traveling through mountain passes. Additionally, you’ll receive 2 complimentary beverages from the bar, a meal in the full-service dining room, and access to the upper-level outdoor viewing platform. 

Now that you know what to expect on the Alaska Railroad, it’s time to pick your route. 

The Coastal Classic

This scenic train ride runs from Anchorage to Seward and back in one jampacked day. Leaving at 6:45 am, you’ll spend a total of 8 hours on the train and 7 hours in Seward. You can also book a one-way ticket in either direction. 

Starting in Anchorage and following the rugged coastline of the Cook Inlet, this train meanders around Turnagain Arm, one of the best-known sections of the Alaskan shoreline. This is a great area to keep your eye out for Dall sheep, mountain goats, and bald eagles. 

Alaska Sightseeing Train - Coastal Classic Route
View of Turnagain Arm from the Coastal Classic Route

As you near the end of the coastal portion of the route, look for muskox and bison as you pass by the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. The remainder of the route will take you through the Alaska Mountain Range, providing a dramatic change in scenery and stunning views of rushing rivers and waterfalls during the warmer months. 

Once you arrive in Seward, you will have a 7-hour layover, allowing enough time for almost any activity you’d like. Most excursions can be booked through the train company. The boat tour of Kenai Fjords National Park is an all-time favorite. 

You can also choose to relax in Seward. Here you can enjoy the Alaskan Sea Life Center, plenty of outdoor space around Resurrection Bay, and many amazing seafood restaurants. Additionally, there is a shuttle to Exit Glacier, which is only 20 minutes outside of town.

The Denali Star 

Traveling in the opposite direction of the Coastal Classic, this is the Alaska Railroad’s flagship train. Stopping in Wasilla, Talkeetna, Denali, and Fairbanks, a northbound and southbound train runs each day in the summer. The entire route takes approximately 12 hours, one-way. 

This route can also be utilized for a day trip to Wasilla or Talkeetna. In this case, you’d enjoy an 8.5-hour or a 6-hour layover, respectively. If you are traveling to Denali or Fairbanks, you’ll need to plan on staying the night before returning to Anchorage. Taking the train to Fairbanks and then flying back to Anchorage is a popular option for many travelers. 

No matter which destination you pick, this route is a great way to experience the interior of Alaska. On a clear day, passengers can experience views of Denali Park, home to Mount Denali, the tallest mountain in North America.

Another reason to book this train trip in the cooler months is the possibility of seeing the northern lights from one of the glass dome train cars. As always, make sure to keep an eye out for wildlife. This area is known for brown bears, black bears, and moose.

Glacier Discovery

Alaska Sightseeing Train - Spencer Glacier
View of Spencer Glacier on the Glacier Discovery Route

This is a special scenic train ride that has been optimized for glacier viewing. The roundtrip train ride lasts 11.5 hours. You can also use this route as one-way transportation to the town of Whittier or for overnight camping by Spencer Glacier.

Starting in Anchorage, you’ll begin the route next to Alaska’s stunning coastline where you’ll have plenty of opportunity for wildlife viewing. Next, you’ll take a turn into the mountains where you’ll end up at Whitttier, your first main stop. This is a great place for a 6.5-hour layover or to stay the night. Some popular activities include hiking, kayaking, fishing, and taking a glacier cruise around Prince William Sound. 

Continuing on this route, you’ll go deep into the Alaska Mountain range where you’ll view a plethora of glaciers including Portage, Spencer, and Grandview. Spencer Glacier has a “whistle stop”, which is a train stop in the wilderness. Located on Spencer Lake, this glacier is often surrounded by bright blue icebergs floating around the glacial waters.  

If you’d like to visit Spencer Glacier on foot, you can either stay for a 3-hour layover or make plans for overnight camping. Please note this is the Alaskan backcountry, so do your research on how to fully prepare for this unique terrain. 

After hitting the end of the route, at Grandview Glacier, the train will return to Anchorage the same way it came. The Glacier Discovery route is a great train ride for those who just want to relax. For travelers who tend to be a little more stir-crazy, a roundtrip on the Coastal Classic is a better choice.

Hurricane Turn 

Running 6 hours, round-trip, this train starts in Talkeetna and travels north through the mountains to Hurricane Glutch. This route is often used by locals to access the Alaskan backcountry, however, this extremely scenic route makes for a great afternoon excursion for those who just want to relax and take in the magnificent views of interior Alaska. The train leaves from Talkentena at 1 pm and returns at 7:15 pm, just in time for dinner.

Known for its flag stop service, this route is a great way to get out and explore the wilderness. Adventurous travelers can use the flag stops for a short day hike or plan overnight excursions into the Alaskan backcountry. Please note there are no amenities and likely no cell service in this area, so make sure to plan ahead for your outdoor adventures. 

Picture of Denali, from Talkeetna

As an alternative to adventuring into the backcountry, you can also book some great tours out of Talkeetna. Popular activities in the area include river floats on the stunning Sustina River, hiking, and ATV tours.  

Whether you get out and explore or simply lounge inside the train, Hurricane Turn is sure to provide the most authentically Alaskan experience out of all the train routes. 

Southeastern Alaska Sightseeing Train: White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad

Located in southeastern Alaska, the other well-known Alaska sightseeing train is the White Pass & Yukon Route. This line was originally completed in 1900 and developed in direct response to the Klondike gold rush.

With the main line running from Skagway, Alaska to Whitehorse, Canada, several new routes have been developed for scenic train rides and excursions into the wilderness. If you are visiting southeastern Alaska, this is a great activity to add to your itinerary. 

White Pass Summit Excursion

Leaving directly from the cruise ship terminal in Skagway, this 2.5-hour route is a great way to experience an Alaska sightseeing train. Starting out next to the Taiya River, you’ll see plenty of waterfalls in the warmer months.

Make sure to keep an eye out for hungry grizzly bears hunting for fish. If you happen to spot any wildlife, it’s tradition to call it out so your fellow passengers can also see. As the river narrows, the route ascends into the mountains, ending at White Pass Summit, with an elevation of 2888 feet. 

This is a popular excursion for passengers on any Alaska cruise and a nice way to sample the Alaskan wilderness, while still allowing for other activities in your day.  

Bennett Scenic Journey

If you are looking for a more extensive exploration along this railroad line, the Bennett Scenic Journey may be for you. This excursion, also starting at the cruise ship terminal in Skagway, is a mix of train rides, stopovers, and transportation by bus. 

The route goes from Skagway, Alaska to Carcross in the Yukon territory in Canada. Depending on your departure you can expect to take a train to Carcross and a bus back to Skagway or take the bus first and the train second. 

No matter your mode of transit, your first stopover will be at the historic Bennet Railhouse. This unique historical site is only accessible by train or foot. Here you’ll have 45 minutes to explore a small museum and short trails around the area. Next, you’ll travel to the end of the line, Carcross, Canada. Here you’ll have 30 minutes to explore before heading back to Skagway. The entire route takes approximately 8 hours to complete. 

Skagway to Whitehorse

If you are interested in experiencing the entire historic White Pass & Yukon Route, you can book a round-trip ticket from Skagway to Whitehorse, which will include an overnight stay in Whitehorse. This route will provide a scenic train ride from Skagway to Fraser, BC, and a connection via bus to the end of the historic line in Whitehorse, YT.

The entire route, one way, takes approximately 4.5 hours to complete, leaving plenty of time to explore Whitehorse before your return. 

Hiker Service to Denver & Laughton Glaciers

For travelers who are looking to mix some activity into their day, taking one of the hiker service routes may just be the ticket. The White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad offers drop-off and pick-up services for two amazing hikes. 

Denver Glacier – Leaving from Skagway, you’ll take a 6-mile train ride to the trailhead for Denver Glacier. Upon departing the train passengers can hike 3.1 miles (one way) to the glacier, and then back to the train stop. The railroad offers two round trips per day, depending on how long you’d like to spend on the trail, you can book a return ticket on either train. 

Laughton Glacier – This train operates two round trips per day from Skagway to the trailhead for Laughton Glacier. You can expect a 14-mile train ride from Skagway to the trailhead and then a hike out to Laughton Glacier, running 2.5 miles, one way. You can book a return ticket on either train.

Alaska Sightseeing Train
Alaska Sightseeing Train

Conclusion on booking an Alaska sightseeing train

When planning your Alaskan vacation itinerary, make sure that booking an Alaska sightseeing train is on your agenda. This unique mode of travel allows for maximum views in a relaxed (and climate-controlled) setting. Whether you are visiting southeastern Alaska or the mainland, there are plenty of options for scenic routes. 

If you are lucky enough to be on a cruise through Alaska, booking a train ride as an onshore excursion allows you the unique experience of seeing the great state of Alaska from both land and sea. If you think the inside passage is beautiful, wait until you find yourself deep in the Alaska Mountain range or viewing wildlife in pristine valleys. All in all, an Alaska sightseeing train is a great addition to any Alaskan vacation. 

Read Next: Alaskan Adventures – how to become your own cruise director

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