Hitch a ride on the rails

Taking a day trip on the Alaska Railroad is an unforgettable experience for people of all ages. From its unique flag-stop service to exhilarating rafting-and-riding combination packages, the Alaska Railroad has something to offer travellers of all ages and inclinations.

From the comfort of roomy coaches with oversized seats and giant windows, you can see Alaska at its most wild. The railroad climbs through mountain passes and across open valleys, skirt within a few hundred yards of glaciers and parallel coastal inlets.

You can take in this spectacular scenery from the comfort of the rail cars, while eating in the dining car or while standing outside on the small platforms between cars. The Alaska Railroad even features special domed cars that offer a bird’s-eye view of the surrounding landscape in a doubledecker glassed-in enclosure.

But with its unique flag-stop service, the Alaska Railroad takes sight seeing by rail a step further. This is just one of the services that make this state-owned railroad so special.

“We have what is called the Hurricane Turn, a flag-stop service, and it runs … from Talkeet up to Hurricane (Gulch),” said Alaska Railroad sales executive Jeff Johnson. “For a long time it has been popular with the locals to reach their cabins, although it is becoming more popular with campers and fisherman.”

The flag-stop service harks back to an earlier era and conjures images of a Norman Rockwellesque engineer waving to his passengers as if they’re old friends. In times past, getting around via train was just that easy: get off the train where you choose, and flag it down when you want to get back on. In Alaska, where so much of life has remained consciously simple, that freedom still exists today.

Locals may see the flag-stop service as a necessity, but visitors to Alaska will be intrigued by the recreational opportunities it affords. Board the train in Talkeetna, about two hours north of Anchorage, and bring along a fishing pole, camera or backpack. On clear days, the hulk of North America’s highest peak, 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, dominates the landscape. If you get off close to Hurricane Gulch, hang on. The Hurricane Gulch trestle is nearly 300 feet above the creek below and offers wide-open views in every direction.

The flag-stop service is a great option if you’re an independent traveler comfortable with your wilderness survival skills. Carry a map and compass, be prepared for cold weather, even in the summer, and be respectful of private-property owners. It’s a great ride even if you don’t get off the train, offering a glimpse of some of Alaska’s most remote back country.

Sound just a bit too ambitious? If you like the idea of an off-train excursion, but would prefer the company of others, the Alaska Railroad has yet another option, this one brand-new for 2003, called the Glacier Discovery Train.

The train takes off from Anchorage and arrives near Spencer Glacier, at which point passengers may disembark for a raft trip down the Placer River or stay aboard for a few more miles to the scenic, much-photographed area of Grandview. Those who opt for the two-hour float trip will meander through the wilderness until they reach the Seward Highway, where the Placer River crosses. Visitors then board a motorcoach for a leisurely drive back to Anchorage, just in time
for dinner.

“There really seems to be a need for more day tours out of Anchorage and we thought it was a perfect fit,” Alaska Railroad Marketing Manager Susie Kiger said. “(Passengers) will enjoy a nice lunch out on the boat of fresh fruit, caribou, and salmon. They’ll be pampered a bit, but it won’t be difficult, just beautiful. In fact, a 5-year-old could do it.”

Don’t think of the raft trip as a white-knuckle adventure, said Johnson. “Actually, it’s a very mellow float, so it’s good for everybody — it’s a very scenic float just a few hours out of Anchorage, and that’s why it’s special.”

The Alaska Railroad offers many other tour packages on its more than 500 miles of rail. An Anchorage-to-Seward day trip called the Coastal Classic is one of the most popular trips. Or try the 356-mile trip between Anchorage and Fairbanks. The Alaska Railroad: (800) 544-0552 www.alaskarailroad.com

For more information on travel to Alaska, please visit www.travelalaska.com