Around Central Alaska by Rail – Fairbanks to Anchorage (Winter Edition)

The Fairbanks to Anchorage trip with Alaska Railroad is a 12-hour journey  through some of the most stunning vistas in North America.

Rail in Alaska is not for business, but for leisure. You don’t rush to get from the north to south or vice versa; you are here to enjoy the journey.

Alaska railroad from Fairbanks to Anchorage

I considered this train trip a sightseeing tour while waiting on the concourse of Fairbanks train station. It was 8:00 am, and it was still dark outside. This was the only day of the week that the Alaska Railroad train would transport passengers from the Aurora capital Fairbanks to Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage. There were no crowds, beggars, overnight sleepers, newspaper vendors, and fast-food stands.  Here, passengers shared stories with employees, tourists took photos of the northernmost train station in the USA, and my friend and I looked curiously at the model train displayed in a large glass case in the middle of the concourse, and tried to figure out the routes.

The train traveled through the darkness in the first hour. I plugged in my laptop and started watching the movie Polar Express. It was two days after Christmas, and the polar express routes are designed based on the routes of the Aurora Winter Train. A kid who sat at the table next to mine got excited and said out loud to her father, “Polar Express,” while jumping back to her seat.

It was a cold morning. Yesterday we had the shortest amount of daylight I have experienced in my life – three-and-a-half hours sunlight. The sun barely appeared on the horizon at noon and disappeared at 2:30 p.m. This morning, when the first twilight illuminated the northern sky around 9:30 a.m., the full moon showed up at its brightest, shining upon the mountain range. With all types of terrain in sight, the vista passing was dreamlike.

Alaska Railroad from Fairbanks to Anchorage

In winter, the train known as the Aurora Winter Train takes a 12-hour journey via some of North America’s most beautiful scenery and remote wildernesses. The train traveled in the remote wildernesses for hours. We did not see anyone for hundreds of miles. There were only mountain after mountain, permafrost, thick blankets of snow, frozen rivers, flocked trees, and secluded cabins – as your company, but you will end up in the middle of civilization that is the heart of Anchorage.

Alaska Railroad from Fairbanks to Anchorage
Anchorage train station, AK

I was seated near the window with the Alaska Mountains. Unlike the lengthy train routes on the mainland US, Alaska Railroad train had no sleeper cabins, first class, or business class, only the adventure class. Apart from the dining car, the seating was spacious, either front-facing or quad. Suitcases were stored in a separate car with panoramic windows where passengers were permitted to enter and take pictures. We were also allowed to walk around the train, and even stay on the vestibule for a while when the train was in its slowest speed. When the train turned with the mountains and frozen creeks on either side, my friend stuck her head out and asked me to take a picture. The subzero temperature and wind together nearly frozen our faces off.

“Be careful. You don’t want to fall off the train,” I said.

“Don’t worry. I walk faster than this train and I can always get back on.” she said

It is true at that times the train traveled unbelievably slow that if we walked a bit fast we would be able to catch up. However, none of us worried the train would be running behind schedule. We enjoyed the moment and appreciated the natural wonder in passing.

Alaska Railroad: Sunrise in Winter AK

I headed to dining car for my morning snack. The menu offered a limited selection of coffee, tea, sandwiches, soft drinks, and snacks. I opted for tea and a croissant, and sat next to the large window, watching the sky light up with the sunrise around 11:00 a.m. It was a very simple snack, but the views of the mountains ranges never stopped and locals started to wave to us from their snowmobile. The snowy Alaska mountain range interspersed with tundra and frozen river was the quintessential Alaskan winter landscape. The sunrise glowing on the snow around noon was particularly beautiful. A few miles down the road, I spotted the dall sheep, caribous, and bald eagles. I zoomed in my camera to capture those mammoth up-close.

Alaska Railroad from Fairbanks to Anchorage

Around 12:30 p.m., the train approached Denali Nationl Park. The weather was extremely cooperative and the sky was crystal clear. I could spot North America’s tallest peak, Mt. McKinney, from many miles away. I had only seen Mt McKinney in pictures, and I had read that you have to be very lucky to see the summit. But at that moment, I knew it was Mt McKinney when it was there. The conductor stopped the train, informed us where Mt McKinney was, and gave us nearly half hour to view it.

If you have time, I would recommend disembarking at Denali National Park (in the summer) and spending two to three days on this world-class national park. Spot the wildlife, trek the taiga, and view Mt McKinney up close. My other recommendation is to do the Alaska railroad trip in summer. For me, Alaska is a totally different place in summer. The landscape is so dynamic and diverse, but you won’t get to watch Aurora Borealis due to the summer solstice. Instead, you will see glaciers, mountains meeting the ocean, bears feeding on the salmons, moose running around the street, and seagulls flying overhead. You will experience endless daylight, locals mowing the lawns at 2a.m., and groups of people jogging during the midnight sun, and hunting the wildlife in the wee hours.

Alaska Railroad: Denali National Park
Denali National Park in Summer

We arrived in Hurricane Gulch around 2:45 pm. The train crossed the bridge and stopped. Frozen rivers were extended for hundreds of miles, interspersed with valleys. The conductor announced that we were in Hurricane. In case you were wondering, Hurricane Gulch was the last flag stop in the whole trip, meaning that passengers could wave a white cloth anywhere along the route and the train would stop and pick them up.

Alaska Railroad from Fairbanks to Anchorage
Hurricane, Alaska

Not long after we passed the Hurricane, the sun, once again, dipped below the horizon.

By the time we reached Wasilla, Sarah Palin’s hometown, in the dark, lights, buildings, road, vehicles, gas stations, and shops came alive. Passengers talked on board, kids played with each other, and I put my head down on an empty row of seats.

Alaska Railroad from Fairbanks to Anchorage
Wasilla, Sarah Palin’s hometown

I woke up to an announcement on the train. We had arrived in Anchorage at 8:00 p.m. on time.

Alaska Railroad: Anchorage Alaska
This post is almost come to an end, and I hereby leave you with this image of downtown Anchorage skyline. Hardly to believe this is Alaska right?

We stepped out onto the platform, went to another area to collect our luggage, and stepped onto the street. Anchorage was a relatively busy city compared to Fairbanks, but I did not mind. I loved arriving in Anchorage, and started another part of my Alaska journey. A complex of buildings appeared, coast and mountains in sight. Anchorage was not as cold as I expected, and to some extent, I wanted to take off my jacket. Next to me, my friend looked up to the skyline. We walked on the night streets and were exhilarated to find this beautiful metropolis in the last frontier.

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Around Central Alaska By Rail- Fairbanks to Anchorage (Winter Edition)

If you enjoyed reading this article, why not get a free copy of The Ultimate Guide to Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska (the most popular post of all time ).

Julie Cao

Julie Cao is a travel blogger, travel writer, and global citizen currently living in Toronto Ontario.

22 thoughts on “Around Central Alaska by Rail – Fairbanks to Anchorage (Winter Edition)

  • March 29, 2016 at 2:14 pm
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    Hiya Julie. I can tell from the way your writing how much your enjoying your trip. I could well imagine that the train going slowly adds to the whole experience. Lights out by 2.30pm phew >>> amazing!!! Safe journeys and keep on rockin!!!!!

    Reply
    • March 30, 2016 at 1:34 am
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      Thanks. I actually did the summer train trip on the same route a year after, but I just cannot get over the winter there (I know I am crazy). Sundown at 2:30pm is really really weird, 4:00pm feels like 9:00pm, but Aurora Borealis made up for it. Have a great day in my homeland!

      Reply
  • November 2, 2016 at 1:56 am
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    This is a great post! I recently went to Anchorage and wish I could have visited Fairbanks. This post makes me really want to book a flight and head back to Alaska! Next time I’ll make sure to visit Fairbanks.

    Reply
    • November 6, 2016 at 7:46 pm
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      Thanks Christine! I want to head back to Alaska too! Fairbanks is a beautiful place especially in the winter.

      Reply
  • November 2, 2016 at 4:58 am
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    This train journey by itself is an experience to have! Traveling in darkness, I guess through tunnels sound so much like an adventure.
    Just three hours of sunlight – sounds so unbelievable! I am craving for a similar kind of experience now.

    Reply
    • November 6, 2016 at 7:48 pm
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      It is surreal to see the sun setting down around 2pm. It surely is an experience you will never forget.

      Reply
  • November 2, 2016 at 9:58 pm
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    I’ve always wanted to do a journey via train! Sadly, there isn’t too many scenic rides from Toronto unless I’m take a multi-day train ride. Also, sunrise around 11 AM sounds amazing! Such a different experience.

    Reply
    • November 6, 2016 at 7:58 pm
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      haha I agree most rides from Toronto is pretty boring unless it is the one to Vancouver. Sunrise at 11am is really gorgeous and people get excited seeing the sun after being in the dark for nearly 20 hours.

      Reply
  • November 4, 2016 at 11:33 pm
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    This is definitely a train journey I want to do. The train scene looks like it’s out of Dr Zhivago. The Alaska Highway is celebrating its 75th anniversary next year too so may that’s a good time to plan a trip to Alaska.

    Reply
    • November 6, 2016 at 7:59 pm
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      I dont know there is 75th anniversary celebration there. Want to go back and visit there again next year!

      Reply
  • November 6, 2016 at 1:26 pm
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    What a cool trip to take! We’re going there next summer. I’ll be driving the route instead of taking the train though.

    Reply
    • November 6, 2016 at 7:44 pm
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      The highway from Fairbanks to Anchorage is very scenic too! I Enjoy the trip!

      Reply
  • November 6, 2016 at 6:53 pm
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    Have you ever done this trip in the summer? I want to do this train trip in the summer.

    Reply
    • November 6, 2016 at 7:44 pm
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      I did and it is a gorgeous trip. If you have any questions about this trip just ask away.

      Reply
  • November 7, 2016 at 5:22 am
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    A train journey in Alaska must surely rank high in the list of spectacular train journeys of the world. The journey really sounds so romantic and spectacular. The landscape on the way must have been really awe inspiring. And yes Anchorage looks beautiful in the night skyline.

    Reply
    • November 8, 2016 at 4:54 pm
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      It is way more romantic and spectacular in reality and the landscape is really awesome during the winter! Thanks for commenting!

      Reply
  • November 7, 2016 at 9:47 pm
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    I wanted to go to Alaska earlier this year (June) but need a way to get around without spending hundreds of dollars on flights! This looks like an awesome route to go. Can you get off at every stop, stay a couple days like you said in Denali and then get back on another train? As much as the winter sucks, I went to Europe in the winter and it’s just so beautiful! I went paragliding in the Swiss Alps and I don’t think it would have been the same in the summer. Vibrant, yes, but the snow just makes places morph into a completely different/beautiful place!

    Reply
    • November 8, 2016 at 5:00 pm
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      Hi Tatum, of course, but they do not have the rail pass in Alaska so I am afraid you gotta buy several tickets separately if you want to take multiple stop, and they have extra lines in the summer going from Anchorage to Seward, which is a beautiful ride also. Snow on the Swiss Alps must be beautiful! You are right, winter turns all these beautiful places into a wonderland.

      Reply
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