To Do in Fairbanks 5: Go Ride A Train

Posted by lwpetersen | May 27, 2011 | Things to do in Fairbanks

I initially had a few concerns about taking the train the leg between Fairbanks and Denali. My first concern was that since I have made the drive down the Park’s Highway a few times, I’m not really sure I’m going to see anything new by taking the train. Secondly, there is the obvious drawback that riding the Alaska Railroad is not my definition of “cheap” transportation. The ride is structured mainly for tourists, it’s not timed properly or priced for using solely as transportation – otherwise it would be perfect to kick back and relax for the ride down to Denali National Park, or even to Anchorage.

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My first concern was crushed immediately. The RR doesn’t really follow the Park’s Highway at all. I can count on one hand the number of times we actually see the road on this 4 hour train ride. After leaving Fairbanks the train goes around the ‘back’ (western) side of Ester Dome. I’ve never seen this side before. There is almost nothing out there. You are immediately immersed in the vastness of the Alaska landscape, even before you’re out of the greater Fairbanks area.

Being away from the road means that you are almost always away from homes and businesses too. You really only see them as you approach the few towns the railroad passes through between Fairbanks and Denali. On the way to the park the elevation increases subtly as you pass through a variety of different landscapes.

This was quite possibly the largest beaver construction I have ever seen. I do not have either end of it in the frame because it was too big.

This was quite possibly the largest beaver construction I have ever seen. I do not have either end of it in the frame because it was too big.

Arriving in the Alaska Range from the north — people pile into the outside section of the observation deck once we get into the mountains. The fancy shmancy gold star members get the fancy car with glass ceiling. Low level people like me have to hang out the window in between cars.

Getting into the Alaska Range from Fairbanks — people pile into the outside section of the observation deck once we get into the mountains. The fancy shmancy gold star members get the wondrous car with glass ceiling. Low level people like me have to hang out the window in between cars.

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The last few miles before entering Denali National Park I'm pretty sure you pass through Morhdorh. We just happened to have some magnificent skyscapes on our ride too.

The last few miles before entering Denali National Park I’m pretty sure you pass through Morhdorh. We just happened to have some magnificent skyscapes on our ride too.

When the world around you turns to rock you’ll be paralleling the Nenana River which has carved out quite a nice looking little valley for itself.

When the world around you turns to rock you’ll be paralleling the Nenana River which has carved out quite a nice looking little valley for itself.

So the train arrives at the DNP train station at about 12:15ish, depending on how often you stop for other trains or wildlife. They will slow or stop for bear, moose, and (no joke) to let off a stowaway iridescent butterfly. The train is not to be taken for speed, driving down is much faster.

Once you arrive in the park you have about three hours before needing to check in for the trip back, or you can stay in one of the many hotels or campsites in the area. It would actually make a great multi-day trip or backpacking trip. Ike Watts has a good hiking guide to the park. There are a few day packages offered where you can go rafting or flightseeing before heading back. Just walking some of the trails near to the visitor center can be a great activity while there (all we had time/money for). There is a pretty good chance to see some wildlife, even close to the park entrance. The views aren’t too bad either. We took some time on the Rock Creek and Meadow View Trails and did see one moose before heading back to the restaurant to split a sandwich. Here’s a link to the trails near the visitor center.

Hey, that's me. A quick bite at the grill, and a trip to the bookstore before heading back to the rail depot. The next trip by rail will certainly be multi-day.

Hey, that’s me. A quick bite at the grill, and a trip to the bookstore before heading back to the rail depot. The next trip by rail will certainly be multi-day.

I’ve come up with a fail-safe formula for getting over the price of tickets. The money you fork over is well worth it if you like at least two of these things: people-watching, nature, animals, big animals, forests, rivers, mountains, hiking, doing something you don’t do every day, and/or relaxing. Actually the price is pretty comparable with that of a theme park; except here it’s easy to pack your own lunch which can quickly make the train ride cheaper than a theme park. Some prices are shown below.

The seats on the train have lots of legroom, big windows, and an observation deck with panorama views (they ask you limit yourself to 20 minutes on the deck to give others a turn). There’s a dining car that has snacks, lunches, breafasts, etc., and alcohol. You can also stand in between cars and hang out the window; just watch your head when approaching things like bridges/bears.

As far as my tourism concern goes, all I can say is, “eh, whatever”. You are separate from those that came up from the cruise ships, they all have their own cars. I was more of a tourist than anyone else, standing in the window the whole time taking pictures. Half the people on the train were asleep on the way down which made it a calm and pleasant trip.

There are some pretty unique views of the Nenana River and people rafting.

Now I fully understand why dogs do this in cars. It feels so good. Fun.

Now I fully understand why dogs do this in cars. It feels so good. Fun.

A few more landscapes as we come into Fairbanks:

During peak season, which is from June 1st to August 31st a one way ticket from Fairbanks to Denali is $68 ($32 for children). Alaska residents and US military can get a 20% discount on all fares. For a break-down of all the fares and segments visit the Alaska Railroad website here. Or, just go to the Alaska Railroad Corporation site here.

I didn’t write much about Denali National Park here. You can also get more park information from the NPS site here. Or search my site for more Denali NP adventures.

The full photoset can be found here – thanks for visiting!

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