Around Central Alaska by Rail – Fairbanks to Anchorage (Winter Edition)
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The Fairbanks to Anchorage trip with Alaska Railroad is a 12-hour journey through some of the most stunning vistas in North America.
I considered this train trip a sightseeing tour while waiting on the concourse of Fairbanks train station. It was 8:00 am, and 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, or fast-food stands. Here, passengers shared stories with employees, tourists took photos of the northernmost train station in the USA, and my friend Hilary and I looked 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 launched into motion.We 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.
It was a cold morning. Yesterday we had seen the shortest amount of daylight I have experienced in my life – three-and-a-half hours. The sun barely appeared on the horizon at noon and disappeared at 2:30 p.m. Just this morning, when the first twilight illuminated the northern sky around 9:30 a.m., the full moon shown at its brightest. shining upon the mountain range. With all types of terrain in sight, the vista passing was dreamlike.
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.
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.
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 caribous and bald eagles. I zoomed in my camera to capture those mammoth up-close.
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.
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.
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.
I woke up to an announcement on the train. We had arrived in Anchorage at 8:00 p.m. on time.
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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