Earthbound Alteranatives Exist for Getting Around in Alaska

Reed Travel Features

ANCHORAGE -- In Alaska, the majority of which is wilderness, drivable roads are at a premium.

There are cities that are accessible only by air or by water.

Even the capital, Juneau, has no road links with the outside, a fact that has contributed greatly to periodic cries for the state to designate a new capital.

Because of the difficulties in moving around, Alaskans have become air oriented; one out of every 60 residents is a pilot, about six times as many as in any other state.

But because there are so few of them, perhaps, those highways and ground transportation services that are available are cherished.

Rail has played a large part in the development of Alaska from territory status to statehood.

The Alaska Railroad has been, and continues to be, a huge and important player in the business of hauling not only goods and material but also tourists.

Most visitors probably do not take the time to focus on the fact that those immensely popular, private, domed rail cars into Denali National Park each summer, the McKinley Explorer of Holland America Line-Westours and the Midnight Sun Express of Princess Tours, simply are hooked to regularly scheduled Alaska Railroad locomotives.

The front portion of each of those trains, in fact, comprises several standard, forward-facing, reclining-seat carriages.

The dining facilities and other on-board amenities might not be as fancy as those offered by the two giant tour companies, but the transportation is more modestly priced and is well supported by hikers, backpackers, campers and sightseers.

The Alaska Railroad is the only state-owned, state-operated rail service in the U.S., and it offers both straight transportation and tour packages.

The service operates daily year-round between Anchorage and Fairbanks, through the park, and daily in the summer between Anchorage and Seward, with reduced frequency mid-September to May.

For details, call (800) 544-0552.

Another railroad with particular significance to visitors is the White Pass & Yukon, a unique narrow-gauge service linking Skagway with Canada's Yukon Territory.

The track was hewn out of the White Pass mountainside, through tunnels and over wooden trestle bridges, at the tail end of the last century in order to transport gold prospectors into the Klondike -- and their riches out.

It traces the route taken by thousands of miners in the Gold Rush of 1898, from the community at the head of the Lynn Canal into the interior of Canada.

From the comfort of their heated carriages, today's visitors can conjure up visions of the hardships endured by those hopeful and, ultimately, mostly disappointed gold seekers almost a century ago.

Many never made it over the top of the 2,800-foot pass.

Some died of frostbite and exposure, others from falls, still others from sheer exhaustion.

Some, of course, were shot to death by the lawless types drawn to the area not so much in search of gold but by the pickings available from their more vulnerable brethren.

The king of all of the crooks was Soapy Smith, a con man and gangster, past whose grave the line runs.

Call (800) 343-7373 for information.

There are, of course, opportunities for motorcoach highway tours in Alaska in the summer.

Many tour operators based in the Lower 48 offer motorcoach packages in Alaska and the Yukon.

Seattle-based Gray Line of Alaska has been in business for half a century.

The firm boasts a comprehensive program of tours ranging from one to 13 nights from the Inside Passage ports in the south to the oil fields of the Arctic north and from Anchorage in the west to Fairbanks and the Yukon in the east.

For information, call (800) 544-2206.

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