Updated February 25, 2020
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For many travelers, a trip to Alaska is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The 49th state offers unspoiled wilderness, wildlife, glaciers, and the highest mountain in North America, Denali. The national park of the same name is open year-round, but summer is the most popular time to visit, when the park’s one road is open, days are longer, and temperatures are a bit warmer.

Summer is also the time to take advantage of the state’s most scenic train trip, Alaska Railroad’s Denali Star. From May 14 through September 20, 2020, the train runs north from Anchorage to Fairbanks, and a sister train runs south from Fairbanks to Anchorage, both leaving their stations every morning at 8:20. Riders wishing to visit Denali National Park can stop there and spend a day or more exploring, with ranger-led hikes, bus tours, sled dog demonstrations, and wildlife sightings.

Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The train ride, with spectacular views of pine forests, winding rivers, and snow covered peaks, is a destination in itself. Glass-domed ceilings and an outdoor upper level viewing platform make an upgrade to Gold Star Service worth the splurge for many travelers. A full-service dining room serves meals and beverages, which are also included in the price. Adventure Class offers comfortable seats, large picture windows, open seating in the Vista Dome car, and dining in the Wilderness Cafe.

Journeys originating in Anchorage arrive in the town of Wasilla after the first hour. Following a brief stop, the train continues to Talkeetna, located among three rivers, with a historic downtown and buildings dating to the early 1900s. Views of Denali emerge from the clouds on clear summer days, just the beginning of what’s to come for riders on the Denali Star.

Denali Star Train just south of Talkeetna. Great view of Mt. McKinley from the GoldStar outdoor upper-level viewing platform.
Glenn Aronwits / Alaska Railroad

From there, away from towns and roads, the train passes through rustic backcountry, home to rugged individuals who choose life away from most of civilization. Passengers learn that they are riding on the conveyance that links those hardy homesteaders to many of their basic needs. Without a train station, Alaska Railroad provides flagstop service, meaning that with a wave of a flag, passengers can get on or off the train at any point. Remote cabins dot the backcountry area, the Indian River winds through, and views of Hurricane Gulch from the steel-arch trestle Hurricane Gulch Bridge reveal the expanse below.

After up-close scenes of dense pine forests, half-frozen rivers and lakes reflecting the trees and clouds above them, and perhaps a glimpse of wildlife, the snow covered Alaskan Range comes into view. Riding high over Healy Canyon with the Nenana River curving below, the train approaches Denali, arriving just before 4 p.m. Travelers staying in Denali have time to relax before enjoying the sunset. The Denali Star continues to Fairbanks and arrives at 8 p.m.

Breathtaking scenery, photo opportunities in every direction, and so much to marvel at along the way make exploring Alaska, whether by train, car, or ship among a traveler’s most memorable journeys. Cruises combining both land excursions and views from the sea offer the full experience of quaint towns, enormous glaciers, marine life, and Alaska’s interior wilderness.