The Alaska Railroad

A visual of the southern route

Alaska abounds with great scenery, glaciers, rivers, and mountains. Toss in the huge variety of wildlife and you have a photographer’s paradise. In addition to those great subjects I often turn my camera towards the very photogenic Alaska Railroad. I enjoy riding the rails and seeing parts of Alaska that can only be seen from the train. Several sections of the railroad travel through roadless parts of Alaska, so one can get off the beaten path without having to worry about getting lost. The Alaska Railroad allows photography from the open vestibule doors between coaches, giving the photographer the benefit of not having to photograph through glass. They also offer Gold Star Service, an upgrade from Adventure class, that includes meals and drinks. The huge benefit of the Gold Star Service for the photographer is the open air deck at the rear of the coach making it significantly easier to get good photos as you travel. The only hard choice is deciding where to go.

The Alaska Railroad is essentially divided into two sections: the northern routes, which cover Anchorage to Fairbanks and the southern routes which cover Anchorage to Seward. Both have their merits and each route offers two daily trains during the summer season. The southern section is significantly shorter in length, 114 miles versus 355 miles going north, but it is just as photographic. Although the southern routes are only open in the summer, mid-May to mid-September, in many ways it is much more accessible than the northern route.

It isn’t until you reach the mouth of Turnagain Arm that the scenery really comes alive. Turnagain Arm offers incredible views of both the Chugach and Kenai Mountains.

The southern route’s Coastal Classic heads to Seward early in the morning, threading its way south through the city of Anchorage. It isn’t until you reach the mouth of Turnagain Arm that the scenery really comes alive. Turnagain Arm offers incredible views of both the Chugach and Kenai Mountains. Once past the depot at Portage, where Turnagain Arm ends, the railroad and the Seward Highway part ways. While the road is certainly a beautiful drive, the railroad is simply stunning, climbing the mountains on steep grades through numerous tunnels and crossing over countless rivers and streams, not to mention several glaciers in close proximity to the tracks. Shortly after Moose Pass the railroad travels along the shores of world famous Kenai Lake, the headwaters of the Kenai River, with its turquoise blue color due to the silt from glacier melt. The railroad schedules this train with a nearly 7-hour layover so as to allow as much flexibility as possible for folks on day trips to the port town of Seward. The town offers a great selection of restaurants though many folks step off the train right onto a cruise ship. Four and five-hour wildlife and glacier cruises are a favorite for Anchorage day trippers. The return trip arrives into Anchorage about 10:15 PM and, depending on the time of year, offers the opportunity to witness and photograph what is often a spectacular sunset.

The second southern route is the Glacier Discovery, and it covers the same territory as the Coastal Classic as far south as Portage where it takes the diverging route to Whittier. There are a number of glaciers that can be seen and photographed as the train makes its way south before traveling through the 1-mile-long Portage Tunnel and then diving into the very unique Anton Anderson Tunnel. This 2.5-mile tunnel is a shared road/rail tunnel and is the only access, other than by sea, into the small port city of Whittier.

This route also favors Anchorage day trippers as there are several day cruise options available out of Whittier. However, this is not the end of the run for the Glacier Discovery as this train will return to Portage, departing Whittier at 12:45 PM. At Portage the train will pick up additional passengers before traveling south to the Spencer and Grandview Whistle Stops. These stops allow hikers and rafters access to Spencer Glacier and the various hiking trails in the area. A popular adventure is to hike to Spencer Lake, 1.3 miles, which offers a fantastic view of Spencer Glacier, and then float the Placer River to be picked up by the Glacier Discovery after their Grandview stop. After picking up any hikers/rafters the train will return to Portage and then continue back to Whittier. Final departure from Whittier is at 6:45 PM with arrival into Anchorage at 9:15 PM. Both of these full-day trips are time well spent and offer many, many photographic opportunities. 

Check out our upcoming November/December issue for more great photos and in-depth knowledge of the Alaska Railroad’s northern routes from contributor, Frank Keller.

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