An Exhilarating Day: Traversing the Alaska Railroad and Kenai Fjords

When my husband, Eric and I were planning our honeymoon to Alaska, we received a lot of questions. “Wouldn’t you rather go somewhere warm?” Ironically, it ended up being 90°F some days, even warmer than the weather at home! “Oh, you’re going on a cruise, right?” Not exactly; we were planning on visiting Eric’s grandparents and exploring the lesser-known gems of Alaska.  Even with a land-based itinerary, we would still see plenty of whales, glaciers, porpoises and sea lions. Alaska is full of surprises!

Eric and I ventured to the Great North for our two-week journey full of excitement. Eric’s grandfather, Ron, is originally from Pennsylvania as we are, but was stationed in Alaska when he was in the Marines and found himself wanting to stay after his service commitment. You hear a similar story from many Alaskans who were once visitors and then captivated by Alaska’s rugged beauty and challenging, yet rewarding, lifestyle. Even though this was my first visit to Alaska during the hot and lovely summertime, I, too, could have easily been convinced to stay forever.

We stayed in the small town of Palmer, located about 45-minutes north of Anchorage, making it a great option for a day trip. Mountains frame the area, and braided rivers weave throughout the land. It’s a small town in a big landscape. Palmer is absolutely charming and boasts a cute town center that hosts festivals and is home to several boutique shops. In the summertime, there is a festival every week called Friday Fling where artists, food trucks, and local musicians showcase their talents for the community. In August, Palmer is home to the renowned Alaska State Fair, where you can see monstrously large vegetables that take advantage of the extra hours of sunlight in the far north.

Unbeknownst to us, Eric’s grandparents surprised us with tickets for the Alaska Railroad and for a nature cruise in Seward! Eric and I were so thankful for their thoughtfulness, and we were excited to cross two items off our bucket list in one day.

The day came and we awoke early for the first leg of our journey, driving down to Anchorage. While Eric’s grandfather drove, I could see the train tracks from the truck as anticipation mounted. The sun was still rising upon our arrival at the station. After some hugs, we checked in. I enjoyed a latte from the café and read a few brochures about the history of the Alaska Railroad.

The Alaska Railroad was instrumental to the development of the state. The first tracks were laid in 1903, beginning in Seward and stretching 50 miles north. Over time, it connected Anchorage to Fairbanks making for a total 482 total miles of track. In 1915, Anchorage was still a tent town, but the Alaska Railroad moved its headquarters and helped grow Anchorage into the largest city in Alaska. The connectivity helped transport people and natural resources to Seward, where they could be transferred to ships and distributed throughout the world.

Eric and I would be traveling on the Classic Coastal itinerary; this five-hour journey goes from Anchorage to Seward and is very similar to the original tracks. They offer several routes, another popular option being Denali Star. This route begins in Anchorage and makes stops in Wasilla, Talkeetna, and Denali National Park. The train passes very close to Mt. Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley), and on a clear day, you can enjoy spectacular views of the tallest mountain in North America. In winter, The Aurora Winter Train links Anchorage and Fairbanks. This is a cozy and relaxed way to experience the backcountry Alaskan winter. All of these itineraries offer great opportunities to see the pristine natural beauty of Alaska.

We boarded the train around 6:00 a.m. and began our Coastal Classic journey. The train chugged out of the Anchorage Station, soon the tracks edged parallel to the coast, allowing us to watch the daybreak over the Turnagain Arm. Pastel pinks shifted into brilliant cyan skies over the sparkling waters. Our soundtrack was the rhythmic thump of the train tracks as an announcement was made to look out the windows. Positioned between the coastline and cliff walls, we had our first opportunity for wildlife viewing. Dall sheep were meandering 30 feet above us on cliff edges!

Eric and I made ourselves comfortable in our spacious seats. Alaska Railroad offers two different classes of service, Adventure Class and Goldstar. We enjoyed the Adventure, which is the economy service, but would like to experience Goldstar on our return trip. Goldstar is the premium service, which provides extra amenities, such as glass dome ceilings and an outdoor, open-air viewing platform. It also includes freshly prepared meals and two alcoholic beverages per adult. In Adventure Class can still order food and drinks, but they aren’t included in the cost of your package. The train itself wasn’t overly crowded despite it being high season for travelers, and there were several different cars that you could walk between to stretch your legs, which featured a dining car, and plenty of restrooms.

Enjoying a light lunch in the dining car.

There is also a baggage service for guests who need to check any luggage or oversized bags. We particularly enjoyed the very last car, as the back window was open for travelers to enjoy fresh air and stunning views of the changing landscape close to the tracks. Alaska Railroad’s passenger trains are also wheelchair accessible, and they welcome service animals aboard. However, it would be ideal to make either request with Frontiers at time of booking, to ensure everything goes smoothly.

We made our first stop briefly at the small town of Girdwood to pick up some more passengers. Girdwood is home to the Alyeska Resort. The resort is in a perfect spot surrounded by lush forests, mountain peaks, and ocean views. This is a popular destination for skiing in the winter, and they offer hiking, kayaking, and fishing in the summer. We continued our journey, and the train carried us deeper into the wilderness and brought new mountains into view. As we passed the ghost town of Portage, the announcer explained the bizarre history of this once booming town. The town was destroyed in the 1964 earthquake which sunk the area six feet. Wildlife has since overtaken the area, and instead of a town, it is now an attraction called Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.

The train carried us through the Kenai Peninsula, pausing for notable sights like the Kenai Mountains, Spencer Glacier, and thundering waterfalls. The announcer provided excellent commentary, and the conductor gave ample time for photographs every time we encountered wildlife or interesting scenery.

Around 11 a.m., we rolled into Seward to stop for a seven-hour layover allowing us enough time for our boat tour of the Kenai Fjords. The air was fresh and carried delicious seafood aromas from the surrounding cafes and restaurants cooking fresh halibut and salmon. The town sits snugly between the Kenai Fjords and Mt. Marathon. One of the oldest settlements in Alaska, Seward is a fun and lively place with hotels, shops, and opportunities to explore the surrounding area.  The Alaska SeaLife Center is located on the waterfront, and provides an educational experience for guests to see and learn about marine mammals, birds, and creatures.

Shelley at Seward Boat Harbor.

We took a shuttle from the Seward Train Depot to check in for our whale watching experience. The Seward Boat Harbor was a bustling mix of fishing, leisure, shipping, and touring boats all bobbing together peacefully. There are various excursion options to explore the fjords, and Frontiers can assess your interests and make the best recommendation for you. Within minutes of boarding our boat, the captain pointed out the bald eagles on the masts of a neighboring sailboat.

At the same time, a pair of sea otters drifted by holding each other tightly. What more could you ask for? Apparently, sea lions, porpoises, and puffins because we saw all of those on our tour!

An island full of Stellar Sea Lions.

The boat was comfortable with large, heated booths surrounded by windows. A viewing deck stretched along the entirety of the outside with benches and plenty of room. On our six-hour tour, we weaved through fjords and around islands, covering a lot of water as we traveled at a speedy pace. When the boat was still, we were able to walk around outside comfortably, but it was significantly colder on the water than on land. I suggest bringing a waterproof, windbreaking layer for being outside when the boat is in motion.

Shelley and Erik at the Holgate Glacier.

It was exhilarating to pull up beside a glacier and hear the roar of the ice calving and smashing into the water below—also another great photo opportunity. The captain allowed plenty of time for pictures and shared incredible facts. I learned that glaciers are such a brilliant shade of blue because the ice absorbs the red wavelengths, but the blue is transmitted!

Tail of a Gray Whale.

Our guides were experts at spotting wildlife as well. They knew what subtle signs to look for that indicate that a whale might be in the area. They brought the boat fairly close to the shore, and I doubted whether or not a whale would be so close to land. Surely enough, a long, smooth back rose above the surface and sprayed a blast of water, followed by the wave of a tail! We were so lucky to see these wonderful gray whales, and they stayed near our boat for a very long time. Eric loves whales, and this was truly a dream come true for him.

Back at the dock, we took the quick walk to the train station feeling on top of the world. After a wonderful dinner on board the train’s restaurant, we took a nap as we made the return journey back to Anchorage. I never thought a day could be this exciting. This gift touched our hearts and was one of the highlights of our adventurous honeymoon.

We returned to Palmer quite late in the evening, but the sunny and beautiful day lingered on. I checked the time and wondered how it could be almost midnight, but this was Alaska, the Land of the Midnight Sun. Thinking back on this extraordinary day with the images of coastlines, glaciers, mountains, and whales still fresh in my mind, I closed the blinds and went to bed smiling.

If you are visiting Alaska on a cruise, taking the Alaska Railroad is a great add on. More than likely, if you’re embarkation or disembarkation port says “Anchorage”, you will dock in Seward. In that case, you would have to either drive or take the railroad up to Anchorage if you are flying through the Anchorage Airport. You could also enjoy a more relaxed journey by overnighting in Seward before making your way north. I can assure you from experience that this is a fantastic gift and lifelong memory for your loved ones, or yourself!