“Trains? Love them!” – Dr. Sheldon Cooper.
Alaska is big. I mean really big. Alaska is more than twice the size of Texas. It is bigger than the four U.S. states Texas, California, Montana and Washington combined. Alaska is renowned for its pristine forests, serene lakes and towering mountains. Rugged terrain, opportunities for adventure, and a past rooted in Russian and Native American history awaits.
Trains are about the ride. It is not about getting from point A to point B. Trains are simply the best way to get around. Driving is a hassle, flying is a traumatic experience. Trains are the most underrated thing. I’m not saying this as a railfan, but as a traveler.
The Denali Star departs on time at 8:15 am. Anchorage is at milepost (MP) 114.3 and my final destination, Fairbanks, is at MP 470.3 which means that my journey is 356 miles (573 km). According to schedule the trip is 12 hours long, so simple math tells me that the average speed of the train is about 30 mph (48 km/h). Top speed is a whopping 65 mph (105 km/h). The entire route runs through some of the grandest scenery that Alaska has to offer, crossing the Alaska Range at Broad Pass.
Matthew, a young student from Birchwood, AK, is our Tour Guide. “Even from Anchorage, Mount McKinley is visible on the horizon, weather permitting.” Well, clearly not this morning because it is just a little too hazy.
The Front Range of the Alaska and Chugach Mountains is looming in the distance but the ‘real’ monumental peaks will soon come into sight. The train crosses Ship Creek, the site where Anchorage had its humble beginnings as a tent city way back in 1915. There are a few military bases here in the Southern parts of Alaska. We see Elmendorf Air Force Base on our left and Fort Richardson Army Installation on our right. Elmendorf AFB is the state’s largest air base.
We cross Eagle River through a small canyon. At Birchwood (Chugiak) we see a small airport through the trees. Matthew: “Airplanes are the most popular and most practical means of transportation and children as early as age 14 are allowed to get a pilot license.”
A few minutes later the train skirts Knik Arm, an inlet of the Pacific Ocean. The tides here can reach 40 ft (12 m) which is the third highest in the world. “Moose on the right!” comes the alert from Matthew when we cross Knik River.