All aboard the Alaska Railroad: A father-son adventure on the Denali Star

Apr 23, 2022

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It’s a once-in-a-lifetime adventure that I can now highly recommend. Taking the Alaska Railroad from Anchorage to Fairbanks (and back) was a dream come true.

One of the main items on my father’s bucket list was seeing Denali National Park in Alaska. He was generous enough to put me up at the family ranch near Butte, Montana, during the pandemic.  The least I could do was help him check this trip off his life’s to-do list.

I reported back in June that I booked the trip as a Father’s Day present. Despite my probably overaggressive agenda for us, the trip was a huge success. That was in no small part because taking the train through Alaska and back again was one of the highlights of my travel life.

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Read on for a full review of the experience.

(Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

In This Post


Booking process for Alaska Railroad. (Screenshots courtesy Alaska Railroad)
The booking process for Alaska Railroad. (Screenshot from Alaska Railroad)

I spent a total of $1,004 for my father and me in “Adventure” class. I used my Chase Sapphire Preferred Card for 3 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar on travel. I earned a total of 3,012 points, which TPG values around $60.

If you’re thinking of booking a trip to Alaska this summer, you should book as soon as possible. Alaska has been a very popular destination during COVID-19. Flights, hotels and car rentals are selling out fast or, in some cases, already sold out.

Several dates I searched for the Alaska Railroad were sold out when I booked. June and July have limited availability and the Alaska Railroad Denali line season is short. The first run is May 11 and the last train runs on Sep. 17.

Alaska Railroad itinerary
(Screenshot from Alaska Railroad)

You can also choose GoldStar service, which gives you access to the upper-level open-air viewing platforms and includes free sit-down meal service in a special car with glass-domed ceilings. GoldStar service is a whopping $810-$918 per person. Adventure class was a more reasonable $410-$518 a person round-trip.

The Denali Star

Alaska Railroad route map
Alaska Railroad route map. (Screenshot from Alaska Railroad)

The Denali Star is Alaska Railroad’s flagship route from Anchorage up past Denali National Park and then to Fairbanks. The train stops in Wasilla, Talkeetna and Denali before arriving in Fairbanks. You might also stop for locals along the way, as the train is an important route for folks who live in otherwise-isolated parts of Alaska.

You can customize your own trip to spend time in one or two of the stops along the way. A lot of people get off in Denali, for example, for a few days of exploration or other adventures in one of the nation’s largest national parks.

It’s a 356-mile route that takes 12 hours if you go straight through, which is what my father and I did.

Boarding in Anchorage

(Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

The Alaska Railroad station itself is lovely. It dates to the 1940s and though it looked art deco to me, it’s actually considered art moderne style. The Alaska Depot (as it’s also known) was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.

There’s also a neat park across the street along with a historic locomotive.

Historic locomotive in Anchorage with Hilton hotel in the background. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

There’s a small cafe and a gift shop (and bathrooms, though there was a line at times).

(Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

The boarding process in Anchorage was a bit of a madhouse. You can’t board until the engineers give the go-ahead, so the crowds really pile up inside the station. My father was in a wheelchair and no one bothered making room for him. However, when they finally let people out of the station, the agents let us go ahead of the bulk of the crowd.

When I was there, masks were required in stations and onboard the trains, but that’s no longer the case. “Alaska Railroad passengers and employees are no longer required to wear masks while on board trains or in depots,” the website says continuing, “As a preventive measure against COVID-19, anyone needing or choosing to wear a mask is encouraged to do so.”

Anchorage to Fairbanks

(Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

The ride from Anchorage to Fairbanks takes you through a fascinating part of Alaska with (brief) stops in Wasilla (one-time home of Sarah Palin), Talkeetna and Denali, among a few others.

The cars are roomy and the seats are super comfy, but the views are really the highlight – they include views of Denali, formerly known as Mount McKinley, North America’s tallest mountain.

Denali as seen from the Alaska Railroad. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

The Adventure-class train cars feature comfortable seats that recline slightly in rows of two.

(Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

You’re assigned seats, but you aren’t confined to one car. You’re free to move about most of the train, though it’s not easy to access the fancier GoldStar cars.

Passengers enjoy views through giant picture windows.

(Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

You can spend as much time as you like in the domed viewing cars, but note you’ll need to ascend a steep set of narrow stairs.

(Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

The chairs in the domed car are even comfier. It was fun spending time upstairs in these big, well-padded seats. There is a suggested limit of 20 minutes for access to the “vista dome,” but it wasn’t strictly enforced and it rarely got too crowded up there. The views of Denali are especially fun to see from this car.

(Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

There’s also a cafe car with all kinds of deli-style food for purchase. It’s called the Wilderness Cafe. Frankly, the food was not very good and was pretty overpriced, though the microwaved pizza was surprisingly good. The views from the dining car more than made up for the run-of-the-mill food selections. Also, the service from the lone bartender/waiter was fantastic.

You can also see the GoldStar cabin and even dine in the fancy dining car if you pay extra for the meals.

(Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

I loved seeing the tiny little train stations and depots along the line. They included Wasilla (population 9,034), which is about as close to a “big city” as you’ll find outside of Fairbanks and Anchorage.

(Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

The scenery is spectacular all along the journey – from the rail yards outside Anchorage …

(Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

… to the views of the trees and tundra in Alaska’s interior.

(Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

We also savored spectacular views of Denali.

(Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

I highly recommend spending some extra time at the Talkeetna stop. Located at the intersection of three rivers, it’s well worth spending a day there. This is the town where most of the small planes take off to get up close to Denali. I spent some time here on another trip, and my brother even fished there. It’s worth a stopover if your itinerary allows.

Talkeetna, Alaska. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

Cute little places along the way included the Nenana Depot, located along the Nenana River and not too far from Fairbanks.

(Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

One of the most important stops is the Denali Park Depot where many passengers get off and others get on.

(Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)
Denali stop on the Alaska Railroad. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

It’s literally a few hundred feet from the main Denali Visitor Center (which I hit on a different trip).

Denali Visitor Center, 2021. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

There’s always something new to see on the Alaska Railroad. Some of the coolest stuff you’ll see is abandoned Alaska Railroad equipment at various spots along the route. You may even get to do a flag stop (also known as a whistle stop) where you’ll pick up a rural commuter or two or just some boxes for transport. It’s all part of the charm of being out in the middle of nowhere.

(Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

That really is the best part of the journey — it’s the most amazing way to see the big, beautiful state of Alaska.

(Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

You’ll pull into Fairbanks around 8 p.m.

(Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

It was a bit of a chaotic end to an otherwise fabulous journey, as everyone piled into the smaller Fairbanks Depot.

(Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

We had trouble getting ahold of the Hyatt Place where we were staying the night. Also, cabs and ride-hailing services are in short supply, so plan ahead. Customer service at the Hyatt was erratic, so it’s not a property I recommend for your overnight in Fairbanks.

Hyatt Place in Fairbanks, Alaska. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

Bottom line

Alaska is a wonderland. I’ve been four times in the past year alone, and there’s always more to explore. From Glacier Bay National Park to Denali National Park, there’s never enough time in the 49th state.

The best part of this trip for me, however, was seeing the excitement and wonder on my father’s face. It’s a trip I will never forget because of my dad’s grin for most of the journey.

(Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

Featured photo of an Alaska Railroad engine in Anchorage, Alaska, in 2021 by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy.

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