All aboard the Aurora Winter Train
December 1, 2018
If you've ever listened to the lyrics to the tune 'Wabash Cannonball,' you'll get a sense of train travel's intrinsic hold upon us:
"Listen to the jingle, the rumble and the roar
As she glides along the woodland o'er the hills and by the shore"
Getting around Alaska by train is not just for summer tourists; it's also a winter mode of transportation that allows for access to and from some of our most treasured destinations, minus the crowds.
Come winter, the Alaska Railroad modifies its schedule, scaling back service from popular seasonal routes to focus on both winter tourism and a less stressful way for travelers to reach Interior regions of the state.
The Aurora Winter Train provides weekly service between Anchorage and Fairbanks, connecting passengers to places like Talkeetna and Healy, with opportunities to sit back, relax, and enjoy the trip north or south without the hassle of winter driving.
As winter visitation to Alaska continues to rise exponentially, communities are responding, and we Alaskans reap the benefits. Lodging, dining, and activity options have increased, making winter excursions to places like Denali National Park a pleasure rather than a gamble. Towns like Talkeetna have banded together in partnership with the Alaska Railroad to offer special events and experiences that combine with a train ride for easier access and less stress.
Cost-wise, the Aurora Winter Train is more affordable, too, with a Senior Citizen (65+) rate augmenting the cheaper fare (even though the Alaska Railroad did do away with its popular Alaska Resident Fare). Below are a few wintertime rail favorites, from north to south, with a few special events thrown in to celebrate the holidays.
The basics: Aurora Winter Train schedule runs northbound on Saturdays and southbound on Sundays; with the exception of additional days:
Northbound Tuesdays and southbound Wednesdays, Dec. 25, 2018 - Jan. 2, 2019; February 5 - March 27, 2019
Northbound Thursdays / Southbound Fridays, Dec. 27-28, 2018; February 7-8, 2019; February 28 - March 29, 2019.
It's also pertinent to note that the Aurora Winter Train is also a flagstop train, picking up and dropping off passengers who "flag" down the train from their homesteads or campsites.
Travel options: The complete Anchorage - Fairbanks journey takes 12 hours, so many passengers decide to go by rail one way, and air the other. Alaska Airlines (www.alaskaair.com) and Ravn Alaska (www.flyravn) both offer excellent fares to and from Fairbanks or Anchorage, depending upon your station of origin.
Explore Fairbanks (www.explorefairbanks.com), the city's visitor bureau, can help with lodging and dining in Fairbanks. Visit Anchorage (www.anchorage.net) can do the same for those needing overnight accommodations in Alaska's largest city.
Looking for a package tour? The Alaska Railroad partners with several companies for winter packages: https://www.alaskarailroad.com/travel-planning/packages/winter-packages.
Activities: We've become big fans of winter travel to Denali National Park for the unfettered access to groomed and ungroomed cross-country skiing trails, interesting exhibits, and a chance to visit with the National Park Service's only working sled dog team. https://www.nps.gov/dena/planyourvisit/winter-activities.htm.
The tiny village of Talkeetna has always attracted Alaska residents for its laid-back approach to life, but in the winter, that atmosphere is even more so. We usually head to Talkeetna Roadhouse for a slice of pie anytime we visit, but between October and April, guests can take the famous Pie Baking Class as well. Plus, students of this fine art get to take home their own freshly-baked creation as well. http://www.talkeetnaroadhouse.com.
Aurora-viewing is also a popular Alaska winter activity, and Fairbanks is a hotspot for gazing at the swirls of green, red, and purple in the northern sky. https://www.explorefairbanks.com/things-to-do/activities-attractions-and-tours/aurora-viewing/
Erin Kirkland is a freelance travel writer from Anchorage.