I see the big yellow engine against the scenic winter backdrop pulling into the flagstop. The whistle blows and immediately I can feel my excitement build. The steel wheels are frosted over and look bitter cold as they creak and roll past me on the track. It sort of felt like a winter scene out of Dr. Zhivago. There’s something magical about watching a train approach and knowing the rest of the journey you simply have to ride and enjoy the scenery that rolls by. It’s a low-stress way to travel, and that’s what I love about it.
In the winter, the station in Denali National Park isn’t open, so we just stand out near the track as the train approaches. The conductor and supervisor hang out the sidecar as the train approaches and slowly grinds to a halt. They jump off and ask for our tickets. A small group of us handed the supervisor our tickets and boarded the train. A few minutes later I feel the train tug and creak to life again. We are on our way on one of the great Alaska train trips – the Aurora Winter Train.
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How you can Travel By Train in the Winter
I had made a number of trips to Alaska in the summer and I always have an Alaska train trip on my itinerary; I think it’s the best way to travel through Alaska. But this was my first trip to Alaska in the winter and I was surprised to learn that the AKRR ran winter trains.
In the summer the AKRR offers a number of tourist routes that showcase the best of Alaska, however, in the winter the train runs more for the locals than it does for the tourists. The AKRR offers a number of different Alaska Train Trips in the winter that are special Alaska rail group packages for tourists traveling between Anchorage and Fairbanks.
Discover all the things to do in Anchorage in Summer or Winter
Since we were using Fairbanks as our home base for Northern Lights Tours, we didn’t want to go all the way to Anchorage on the train and then come back the next day. Luckily the Northern Alaska Tour Company and the AKRR have teamed up and offered a Denali in a Day trip departing and arriving back at Fairbanks the same day! Northern Alaska Tour Company drives you down on a scenic tour from Fairbanks to Denali National Park with a few fun photography and cultural stops on the way. After spending a few hours in the National Park playing in the snow, you can board the train in the park and ride it back to Fairbanks. It’s a perfect day trip to experience the Alaska railroad and winter scenery!
Alaska Winter Train Schedule
The Aurora Winter Train travels weekends between Anchorage and Fairbanks, making the northbound 12-hour journey on Saturday and the return trip on Sunday, as well as select mid-week departures in December, February, and March. Along the way, the train stops in Wasilla, Talkeetna, and provides flag stop service along the 50-mile stretch of roadless backcountry south of Hurricane Gulch. Further north, the train stops as needed at Healy and Nenana before arriving at Fairbanks.
Get a complete Alaska Railroad winter train schedule here.
The trains have fewer cars than in the summer, but they still offer the great AKRR service I have come to expect. There is a dining car and a lounge car, and even though they don’t offer GoldStar service in the winter, you can still get great pictures out of the open vestibules between cars in the winter – but be sure to bundle up!
Take the Best Route on the Alaska Railroad
I’ve ridden all of the AKRR railroad routes now, and the best route on the Alaska Railroad is by far the Hurricane Turn Train. The good news is that it also runs in the winter! Experience one of the last whistlestop train services in America!
How to plan a ride on the Hurricane Turn Train
Why You Should Take Alaska Train Trips in the Winter
Taking the train in Alaska should always be on your itinerary, but here are a few of the reasons why you should add the Aurora winter train ride to your Alaska winter itinerary!
You Don’t Have to Drive
Alaska in the winter does pose a few challenges – namely driving. I was surprised to learn Fairbanks (and presumably all of Alaska) doesn’t use salt on their roads in the winter. A few locals told me the temperatures are normally cold enough to break the ice up on the roads naturally – it just shatters. However, during our trip, it didn’t get crazy cold, and it did dump a lot of snow while we were there. That meant I had a lot of white-knuckle driving – despite my recent ‘graduation’ from the Steamboat Winter Driving School! I was pretty happy to leave the car parked in Fairbanks for the day and do the Denali in a Day tour where I finally got to sit back and be the passenger!
Get Easy Access to Denali National Park
As part of the Denali in a Day tour, we went to Denali National Park and Preserve. Denali National Park is the most popular national park in Alaska. In the summer months, they see over 500,000 visitors. However in the winter months (Sep to May), they only get about 15,000 visitors! Yes, that means that the park is the perfect place for peace and quiet in the winter!
The park road is open to Mile 3, Park Headquarters in the winter. In late winter (late February / early March), they begin plowing the Denali Park Road. Ideally, this opens the road for travelers to go as far as Mile 13, Mountain Vista Rest Area. There is still a $10 entrance fee for the park, but that was included in the Denali in a Day overall tour cost for me.
Surprisingly there are some great winter activities in the park anyone can participate in. First off, they loan out snowshoes and poles to anyone who stops by the Murie Science and Learning Center which is open year around. We stopped and picked up our snowshoes, and then drove further into the park to the Mountain Vista Rest Area where we followed some snowshoeing paths! There are plenty of park paths to explore in the winter via snowshoes, hiking, or skis; the visitor center will have all of the latest trail conditions.
You can also visit the sled dog kennels in the park for free in the winter. The Denali Kennels are home to the only working sled dogs in a national park and are open year-round! The dogs love seeing people!
You Can Bake a Pie!
The AKRR offers a number of cool ‘add-ons’ to just regular train travel. They have a yummy, option in Talkeetna in the winter – train to a pie-baking class at the Talkeetna Road House! The Talkeetna Pie-Making Trip is only offered in the winter. You can take the Aurora Winter Train in Anchorage to Talkeetna, arriving mid-morning. Stay at the famed Talkeetna Roadhouse (one of my favorite places in Alaska!). In addition to cozy charm, and rich local history, the Roadhouse is renowned for its baked goods – like their incredible cinnamon rolls! This overnight excursion includes the chance to step into the kitchen and take a hands-on pie-making class from the best in the business. You can then take the train back to Anchorage, or keep heading north for the aurora in Fairbanks!
Experience a ‘Night Out’ on the Train
One of my favorite things about riding a train is you get all of the other amenities such as food and drink at your fingertips! You can of course bring your own food and snacks, or make it a complete train experience by eating a delicious dinner in the dining car and having drinks in the lounge car!
The lounge car is a great place to watch the wintry park views go by. The windows are large and the ceiling is high. They have a stocked bar, and you can even try some of the popular Alaskan craft brews! It’s also a great place to meet other people on the train, or sit at a table and play games while the black spruce and boreal forest pass by the windows!
The food on the train is always a surprise to me. The Aurora Winter Train offers a full service dining room experience. The level of service and quality of dishes is why I love eating in the dining car. I had a reindeer sausage Bolognese pasta with an incredible molten chocolate cake for dessert.
Sit Back, Relax, and Enjoy the Scenery
But the best reason to take an Alaska train trip in the winter is because it’s a unique way to get around while relaxing and enjoying the scenery. The winter trains aren’t crowded and you’ll meet some incredible people on the train with you, many being locals. You’ll also have time to chat with the conductor or the train supervisor and get some insight into what it’s like to work on the railroad and live in Alaska.
Plus, if you love photography as I do, the train provides ample opportunity for unique Alaska winter photography from a vantage point most people don’t get to experience. You can park yourself in one of the train vestibules between cars and shoot without the interference of glass, but do make sure you dress warmly!
Every trip to Alaska should include an Alaska Railroad train journey, even in the winter!
Take the Aurora Winter Train
I was a guest of the Alaksa Railroad and Visit Fairbanks, however all opinions expressed here are my own.