After tracking an uptick in winter passengers, the Alaska Railroad has introduced more opportunities to explore by rail this season.
The new Denali in a Day tour and additional midweek Aurora Winter Train departures give travelers fresh options for exploring Alaska's legendary landmarks and seasonal activities between now and late spring.
"Our current winter tours are overnight trips, and while we encourage that experience, not everyone has the time," said Alaska Railroad spokeswoman Meghan Clemens. "Denali in a Day offers a flexible way to experience the Alaska Railroad without making that longer commitment."
Denali in a Day excursions depart by van from Fairbanks and follow the Parks Highway south to the city of Nenana. This former railroad construction camp is where President Warren G. Harding pounded the final spike of the Alaska Railroad in 1923. Two years later, sled dog teams took off from Nenana with a life-saving serum that eventually stalled a diptheria outbreak in the remote city of Nome. Today, the annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race commemorates that journey.
From Nenana, tours continue to Denali National Park and the Murie Science and Learning Center. Here, naturalists share details on Denali's history, wildlife and namesake peak. Guests also learn about the National Park Service's last working dogsled team, which is located within the park. Tour tickets include a guided nature walk or snowshoeing outing in Denali.
After exploring, passengers board the Aurora Winter Train and return to Fairbanks by rail.
"Denali is very popular in the summer, of course, and there is a misconception that it's not open in the winter. But it is," Clemens said. "Crowds are smaller this time of year, and while the road is not consistently maintained and fewer businesses are open, this tour offers an opportunity to see one of America's most iconic national parks in a new way."
The Alaska Railroad has also expanded this season's Aurora Winter Train service, which connects communities between Anchorage, Talkeetna, Healy and Fairbanks through mid-May.
March nights are still long and dark enough for northern lights viewing, according to Alaska Railroad.
"We've noticed an increased demand for Aurora Winter Train departures, so we've been adding more midweek departures in recent years," Clemens said. "People are learning that Alaska is not a scary place in the winter. You're really just a warm coat away from a memorable vacation."
During the winter season, the 12-hour journey between Anchorage and Fairbanks crosses calm, snow-covered backcountry. Large picture windows in each car encourage sightseeing and photography. Passengers might spot a moose along the way, while clear days also offer the chance to see Denali, set above the Susitna River.
Families celebrating the holidays can choose from six Aurora Winter Train departures during the last week of December. Additional midweek excursions from December through March offer increased access to major events like the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous Winter Festival, which brings carnival activities, a grand parade, snowshoe softball, a "running of the reindeer" event and other festivities to downtown streets from Feb. 23 to March 23.
The train also carries guests to Anchorage for the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. On March 3, the iconic event starts its 11-mile route through the city at the corner of Fourth Avenue and D Street. The following day, teams depart from Willow and continue approximately 1,000 miles along the trail to Nome.
Major events are just part of the Aurora Winter Train's appeal. Clemens said that March is an especially good time to book a trip. Typically, the nights are still long and dark enough for northern lights viewing, while longer days bring more sunlight for sightseeing.
"There is something special about seeing the serene winter landscape from aboard a warm rail car. The vibe is relaxed, and guests are encouraged to get to know their fellow passengers, if they'd like," she explained. "It's a really nice, unique way to experience Alaska."
The Alaska Railroad's Denali in a Day trips take place on Saturdays and select midweek dates through April 21. Prices range from $243 to $263 per person.
Aurora Winter Train service runs through mid-May. Adventure Class service includes dining car and baggage service (Anchorage and Fairbanks only) plus nonsmoking cars and wheelchair access (Anchorage, Wasilla, Talkeetna and Fairbanks only).
For additional details and reservations, visit www.alaskarailroad.com or call (800) 544-0552.