Why you need to take your kids on the Alaska Railroad

Journeying by train through the wilds of Alaska was not something I expected to add to my gratitude list any time soon.

But it is a family adventure that will live in my memories as one of my life’s most fun, important and connective experiences.

We have a family of four: Mom, Dad, Sister (9), and Brother (3). I try to parent slowly. To create spaces in our lives for play sessions that drag out until the game is long over and we’re resting in the grass. I am at my best when I can join in their curiosity, venturing with mind and body and learning new things together. 

But, like most families, that is not our everyday reality. We have jobs and hobbies, school and friends. We have bullet list schedules that barely fit in the day-by-day squares on our calendar by the fridge. Our ten days in Alaska were a long line across an empty expanse of squares — this idea of days to fill with adventures instead of must-dos excited my imagination. 

Train travel allows this space. It takes what can be stressful and hard, getting from one place to another, and turns it into relaxing, bonding and invigorating. 

A smiling family (two adults, two kids) at the top of the Savage Alpine Trail in Denali with the snow-capped mountains in the bacjground
The Alaska Railroad gives travelers access to great tracts of wilderness © Sarah Stocking / Lonely Planet

The Alaska Railroad: From Fairbanks to Seward

So, in the fall, we found ourselves on The Alaska Railroad, which celebrated its centennial year in 2023. It allowed the space and time I sought for our family and a chance to journey from interior Alaska to the coast. From an Arctic desert to a rugged, wet coastline with a chance to see America’s highest peak. Fairbanks sits at 62 degrees latitude, close enough to the Arctic Circle to get there in a half-day’s drive. While Seward is firmly in the temperate rainforest; the forests dripping with mosses and the oceans teeming with wildlife.

The route from Seward to Fairbanks was completed in 1923 when President Warren Harding drove the ceremonial golden stake into the ground where the northern and southern lines come together in Nenana. While the railroad has a tumultuous history, its creation drives Alaska’s settlement and the GDP. For example, Anchorage started as a tent village for rail workers. It is now Alaska’s biggest city. The train provided then and still does transportation, mail, goods and other services to Alaska’s many dispersed communities that would otherwise be completely isolated.

The train is owned and operated by the State of Alaska, which means it considers its best uses for the state’s people first. My favorite feature of the Alaska Railroad is that it will stop when flagged down. Locals living off-grid along the train line can flag down the train when needed and often do. Look for plastic chairs and camps along the railroad tracks. Many of them with flags. These are called whistle stops.

But for the traveler, a trip on the Alaska Railroad offers unparalleled views while you relax and let someone else navigate the challenging roadways and inclement weather. The hop-on, hop-off nature of the line allows you to mix and match your ideal Alaska adventure.

Writer Sarah and her daughter smile at the camera whilst being sat on the Denali Star train
Sarah and her daughter aboard the Denali Star train © Sarah Stocking / Lonely Planet

On the train

There are two classes on the Denali Star: Adventure class and Gold Star service. We sat in the Adventure class on our way to Denali. These are bench seats, like old school buses, but very comfortable. Huge windows and plenty of room to see. There is also an upper deck with a glass ceiling and observation domes for folks in this class to use. 

Snuggled with our cameras on the domed upper deck, my daughter and I watched the rain drizzle over the colorful fall landscape. Grey cliffs shot through with white granite and black coal lines stretched down to rivers rushing through yellowing forests. Bright red fireweed blanketed the valleys, and bald eagles swooped over river deltas and intermittent lakes. All of it gently shrouded in a thin lingering fog.

“There are layers of color, Mom,” said my daughter. She was right. We talked about how we would paint the landscape with watercolor and let the colors drip into each other. 

Afterward, we wandered back to our seats because it was time for a snack. We walked to the cafe car and got sweet treats, hot chocolate and coffee. We often have at least one slow weekend morning in our house. We like to walk to our local coffee shop early in the morning and sit while the sun filters through the windows. We talk and draw and drink our warming drinks. The cafe car felt similar to that, only better. The huge windows at each table allowed us to watch for moose and bears while we chatted about the trip and drew pictures in our sketchbooks. 

For me, this is part of the magic of trains. The long stretches of travel time become inherent in the overall journey. The scenery is laid before you for you to enjoy, and so is time. It’s an opportunity to process what you’ve already seen. To speculate on where you’re going and prepare for the stop. It’s time to read, to think, to just be. 

On the way from Denali to Anchorage, we sat in the higher-class Goldstar service from Denali to Anchorage. The seats are captain’s chairs with drop-down tray tables. Perfect for homework and projects. My daughter made bracelets for some of the other passengers. The ceiling is domed glass, and it feels like you are flying through these gorgeous landscapes like the eagles that follow the train. 

There is also a small outdoor deck if you are particularly interested in filming and photographing along the route. Passengers get two alcoholic drink tickets, and juice and soda are bottomless. There is a small bar in the rear of the car. Passengers in this class are also served meals depending on the time of day on the train. We ate lunch and dinner in the dining car, a step up from the cafe, with severs, white tablecloths, and great food. 

A woman in a bobble hat walks around the edge of a lake in Denali with trees surrounding the edges
Denali is just as nature intended © Sarah Stocking / Lonely Planet

The best stops on the Alaska Railroad

The Alaska Railroad is a hop-on-hop-off train. You can book long journeys to travel from Fairbanks to Anchorage in a day, or you can book smaller legs. These are the stops we took advantage of and are still telling stories about. But there are other places to experience, like Talkeetna, which has had cats for mayors since 1997. Aside from that charming fact, it is an adventure town and serves as a gateway to the southern and less developed side of Denali National Park. 

Fairbanks: Alaskan wilderness and the Northern Lights

While one of Alaska’s largest cities, Fairbanks retains a small-town sensibility. The museums are just a bit out of town, near the University. The river offers opportunities for wildlife viewing and water-based excursions. Starting in September, Fairbanks is one of the best places to see the Northern Lights. I ventured out of our room around four in the morning, bundled in my hat, down coat and pajamas.

My three-year-old joined me. He couldn’t sleep either. We didn’t see the northern lights. But we breathed the crisp air and watched the smattering of stars in the dark sky, and it felt so exciting to be so far from home. 

Sarah hikes along the Salvage Alpine Trail in Denali past some trees with the snow-capped mountains in the background
The Salvage Alpine Trail is just one of the numerous hikes through Denali © Sarah Stocking / Lonely Planet

Denali: mountains, national parks and ancient forests

I do not have enough words to describe how much fun we had in Denali. There is so much to do and see; filling any number of days isn’t difficult. But here are my top tips. The train will drop you off at midday. You can leave your bags at the depot, or depending on where you are staying, the bus driver for your accommodation will take them for you (that’s what we did). We stayed at the Denali Cabins and can’t say enough about the service there and we loved the hot tub after our long hike. 

Go straight to the visitor center and speak with the rangers. Get a Jr. Ranger booklet to work on that during your stay. Tell the rangers about yourselves, what you like to do, and what kind of nature activities so they can help plan your visit to suit your family best. Trail hikes? There are plenty. We loved the Savage River Loop, Horshoe Loop and even just meandering down the Park Road trail was pretty amazing. The ranger-led hikes are so enriching in Denali. There is just so much to learn. 

And definitely see the kennel dogs and stay for the talk. These fascinating animals are smart and friendly, and the kennel rangers are incredibly knowledgeable. The dogs are integral to the science and conservation efforts in Denali. 

One tip, or maybe a love note. In Denali, the bus drivers like tiny humans to be in car seats. The park offers them on loan at the small gift shop to the right of the bus depot. On our first trip, we asked the driver to return the car seat as we walked back to the visitor center. It was no problem. On our second ride, we wanted to be dropped off at one stop and picked up at another. The bus driver left the seat for us at our destination with our name on it.

If I could insert a heart-eye emoji in an article, I would. I’m telling you, the Denali Rangers are superb. But that was the feeling we had all over Denali. Everyone was just so ready to give the best tips to help in any way they could to ensure that our experience was seamless.

A small white boy in a red top plays a giant drum at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage
Getting hands-on at the Alaska Native Heritage Center with a drum © Sarah Stocking / Lonely Planet

Anchorage: culture, kid-friendly attractions and Alaska Native long houses

Visit Anchorage for the culture. The Anchorage Museum has an impressive collection of art from residents all over the state. Their offerings provide a perspective on Alaska that goes beyond the natural beauty that is this state’s constant companion. There is also an interactive science exhibit about volcanos and earthquakes and the earth’s formation. 

Further outside of town, the Alaska Native Heritage Center is a must-visit. With performances at different times of the day, there is an opportunity to see dances and athletic endeavors and hear stories about Alaska Native life from all different tribes. There is a collection of art from Alaska Native creators, and some artisans have tables set up where they work and sell their goods.

Out back, there is a path studded with full-scale replicas of Alaska Native long houses from different tribes throughout the state. Different ways people created shelters in the earth. You can crawl in them, and admire the drums, clothing and tools people use to create a life in the far North. We all got a better understanding of what it means to live a life in this harsh environment.

Sarah and her family smile in waterproof after hiking through Kenai Fjords National Park to the Exit Glacier
Hiking through Kenai Fjords National Park to the Exit Glacier © Sarah Stocking / Lonely Planet

Seward: scenic vistas, glaciers and family fun

Getting to Seward is like going through a portal into a magical world. Whether you journey by train or rent a car in Anchorage and drive the Turnagin highway, you will have trouble picking your jaw up off the floor as you journey down one of the most scenic highways in the world. 

Mountains erupt from the water all along the drive on one side and on the other, rugged rock faces interspersed with fields of fireweed meander up to more towering mountains. It was overcast on our journey. The sun is dimmed by low-hanging clouds, making the mountains look like blue triangles on a grey backdrop. The water glowed turquoise at their base. 

We stopped first at the Alaska Sealife Center. This small but exciting aquarium has touch pools so you can see the diverse wildlife that lives just below the surface in the bay beyond the windows. Other attractions include a vibrant and noisy seabird aviary. We spent a lot of time watching the birds fly and dive and chatting with the biologist. We also particularly appreciated the exhibit that explained the lifecycle of salmon, a staple food in Alaska. 

The next day, we did two foundational things. The first was our hike to Exit Glacier. About 10 miles into Kenai Fjords National Park, there is a visitor center from which you can hike to the base of the glacier. You can take several routes to see the glacier from many different perspectives. I particularly enjoyed that the rangers had placed date placards along the road leading into the visitor center and all along the trail right up to the point where the glacier has receded. Seeing its journey and how it has shaped the land throughout the decades is illuminating. We hiked as high as possible to make it in time for our boat trip.

And the second thing we did was a day cruise on Resurrection Bay. We saw sea otters, bald eagles, sea lions and an orca. But there are chances to see humpbacks, depending on the time of year you visit. I highly recommend this cruise. My son fell asleep standing up, waiting for another orca sighting; he loved it so much. We were disappointed because we didn’t do the longer trip into the Kenai Fjords National Park, but the weather wasn’t cooperating. The biggest tip I can give you when traveling, especially to places ruled by the natural environment – be ready for anything, adjust, and be excited about the next best thing. 

Two children in bobble hats look out across Beaver Pond in Alaska which is surrounded by evergreen trees
The Alaska Railroad offers slow journeys through spectacular environments © Sarah Stocking / Lonely Planet

Alaska by train and the gift of time

This trip was truly a gift. It was a gift that we gave each other. Time spent away from home. Away from the schedule of our lives. We leaned into slow journeys through spectacular environments. We discussed what we saw and let it sink deep into our bones. It has been over a month since we’ve been home and my three-year-old is still telling Alaska stories. My daughter can’t wait to go back.

Alaska, with its big and bold beauty, is an incredible draw, but the nature of this particular trip made it so incredibly impactful. It was easy. Both my partner and myself were able to enjoy it as much as the kids. It was with ease and wonder that we took this adventure together. The connectivity that arose from that ease remains one of my daily intentions. 

This article was first published Dec 13, 2023 and updated May 30, 2024.

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