Alaskan winters are long and cold, so I’m always looking for new ways to make the season fun and exciting.
I contacted the Alaska Railroad to find out about their winter schedule, and learned that the Aurora winter train runs on the weekends. It starts out on Saturday mornings in Anchorage and stops in Wasilla, then in Talkeetna and then goes on to Fairbanks. On Sunday mornings it does the trip in reverse.
I’ve always wondered what this winter travel experience would be like, so I decided to catch the train in Wasilla and go to the enchanting town of Talkeetna.
My husband, John, and I boarded the train at 9:50 am on a Saturday morning. The Wasilla Train Station is not open, however you can park your vehicle or be dropped off next to the station building. Be sure to be standing on the station side of the tracks at least 15 minutes before the train is due to arrive and dress warmly! It’s also best to pack lightly—I suggest a backpack for just the overnight stay—it’s much easier to deal with than a suitcase.
When you purchase your tickets online or over the phone, the friendly train staff will greet you with your tickets when you board. The train is spacious, comfortable, and relaxing, and there’s food and snacks available in the dining car. The ride from Wasilla to Talkeetna is only one and a half hours long so a little snack was just perfect. It’s quite mesmerizing to watch the winter wonderland go by outside.
Talkeetna is a small little hamlet, which bustles in the summer with lots of tourists, outdoor activities and mountain climbers. Although in the winter it is much quieter and subdued, there are still fun adventures available, such as cross-country skiing, snow machining, and sled dog rides. You might even choose to take a sightseeing plane ride to see the great Denali up close and personal.
I chose the Talkeetna Cabins for our one-night stay. Almost everyone I contacted for lodging offered to pick us up at the train station, but the train stops right in town and is easy walking distance to a nice variety of lodging choices.
The Talkeetna Cabins are located right in the middle of town and have reasonable winter rates. All the cabins include a fully furnished kitchen, private bathroom, dish TV and wireless internet.
After checking in and relaxing for a bit we headed over to the Denali Brewing Company and Twisted Creek Restaurant for dinner. Shawn Stanley was so knowledgeable and happy to tell us all about their beer, and started us off with a beautiful sampling tray of 12 little snifters—a variety tailored especially to our taste.
For appetizers we chose the smoked provolone wedges—provolone cheese dipped in a beer batter, fried golden brown and served with the house marinara sauce—so delicious! We also tried the Talkeetna gourmet—succulent pork belly topped with candied bacon, served in a tangy mother ale barbecue sauce with crispy shoestring onions and a bacon, bell pepper jalapeño relish—it was to die for! For entrées we chose the boneless short rib—tender boneless beef short rib, hand rubbed with their signature spice blend and braised in their single engine red ale—slow cooked to melt in your mouth, and the rib-eye steak dinner—a choice 16-ounce cut, charbroiled and finished with an herb compound butter, served with mashed potatoes and fresh sautéed vegetables—it was cooked to perfection, tender and tasty.
We capped off dinner with a piece of their peanut butter pie—a rich creamy peanut butter mousse in a chuli stout brownie crust topped with a dark chocolate ganache, peanuts and fresh whipped cream—ridiculously good!
All the dishes are homemade, and they use their beer in the sauces, batters, marinades, barbecue sauces and even in their desserts. All are unique and delicious—you can tell they care about the quality of the food.
After dinner we took a stroll around town, which was so charming with all the historically rich buildings and cute little shops decked out with lights—it felt just like walking around a classic Dickens village.
In the morning we headed over to the Roadhouse Bakery and Restaurant. We met with the lady of the house, Trisha Costello, who proudly told us some of its history. We learned the main lodge buildings were built in 1917. It was officially established in 1944, and is one of the last remaining roadhouses in Alaska. Everything was so well maintained that it was easy to tell that this place is loved by its owners. The roadhouse boasts five private rooms, a four person hostel-style bunk room, three cabins and one apartment. It also has a nice cozy great room with a fireplace, comfy bench seating, and a large table where you can hang out, watch TV, play games, read or just relax.
Their bakery is fantastic. It was loaded with breads, cakes, bagels, cookies, savory pasties, quiches and pies. As a matter of fact, Trisha offers pie classes especially planned for folks visiting who have come in on the weekend train. For breakfast we had to try the famous hundred-year-old sourdough pancakes with birch syrup and the caribou poutine—very special and tasty.
After breakfast we decided to traipse around town and check out the buildings, take photos and see what we could find to do. Off on a little side street we found a funny little A-frame building, a place called the Tee Pee Oasis Bar. It was quiet and we had the place to ourselves. They have a free billiards table so we stayed for a couple games and then we headed off to the West Rib Pub and Grill. The West Rib is named after one of the more difficult routes to the summit of Denali. We weren’t super hungry so we only ordered the caribou nachos, which were very yummy and hit the spot while we enjoyed a football game on their widescreen TV. The hamburgers being served nearby were huge and looked fantastic, so I wished I had come with more of an appetite.
The West Rib is the home of Mayor Stubbs, a sweet older gentleman tabby that has won the hearts of locals and tourists alike. The West Rib is also famous for their Seward’s Folly Burger—two pounds of caribou, half a pound of smoked ham, twelve strips of bacon, six ounces of Swiss cheese, six ounces of American cheese, and a pound of french fries. Eat a full size folly and fries by yourself in one hour and get a free Seward’s Folly t-shirt—a challenge so great it was featured on the Man versus Food TV show.
The owners, Kjetil & Stephanie Spone, are warm and friendly. They have created a favorite local establishment, and a wonderful place to hang out while you’re waiting to catch the train.
We had an amazing time visiting Talkeetna and look forward to a return visit.
By Suzette Lord Weldon