10/8/13

Slow Scenic Ride to Seward


On a train, it's always about the journey, not the destination. We're talking here of IMAX-worthy scenery. Lots of it. One where speed is almost irrelevant, one where time hardly matters. In the past, I've been on the PeruRail from Aguas Calientes to Cuzco, and the Golden Pass from Lucerne to Geneva: two train rides I vividly remember for the amount of time I looked outside my window.

Since I'm in Alaska again, I was keen on taking a rail journey this time. Alaska's early years since becoming an American acquisition from Tsarist Russia developed in part due to railroad business. A line was built from coastal Seward all the way to the northern interior in Fairbanks 470 miles away. Ninety years since operations began in 1923, the Alaska Railroad continues offering both passenger and freight services today.

Anchorage Depot
Collecting tickets at the Anchorage Depot

Summer is when most trains operate with one running only during winter. After finding out that the Coastal Classic route between Anchorage and Seward is considered one of North America's most scenic, I knew right away I had to be on this train. There are two classes of service: "Adventure Class" ($79) and "GoldStar Service" ($129). I booked the cheapest. As it turns out, this was to be the season's last run of the Coastal Classic before returning late May next year.

An hour before departure, I walked the short distance from the hotel to the Anchorage train station to check-in and collect my boarding pass. The process was orderly for everyone and after waiting in the lobby, announcements were made for boarding. I got to my assigned window seat just as the train was ready to depart promptly at 6:45 AM. The train wasn't full and I even had no seatmate.

Adventure Class
Wilderness Café
Wilderness Café
The Coastal Classic at Turnagain Arm

The Coastal Classic runs 114 miles from Anchorage to Seward, taking a leisurely 4-hour scenic chug (as opposed to driving a car which takes 2 hours and a half taking a divergent route about a third of the way). The sun hasn't risen yet as the train pulls away from the station, blasting its horns loudly enough for everyone in the neighborhood to hear. The train runs briefly alongside the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail before turning inland and into a residential neighborhood still asleep.

Having not eaten breakfast yet, I venture into the train's Wilderness Cafe. There's a proper dining room on the lower deck of  the train's "GoldStar Service" dome car but there's some waiting involved for those of us in "Adventure Class". I bought a cup of yogurt parfait and just sat in the cafe while waiting for my turn, enjoying the view as the train begins hugging on a branch of the Cook Inlet known as the Turnagain Arm.

Turnagain Arm
Turnagain Arm
Dining Car
Brekkie: scrambled eggs, potatoes, cheese and reindeer sausage

Just as the views kept getting better, an onboard tour guide's voice crackles on the PA, alerting passengers of photo ops along the way. While the train navigated empty coves and rocky shores and the nearby peaks turned golden with the rising sun, I made a dash for the open vestibule between cars where I took photos very easily. The autumnal air was chilly of course and that's where wearing in layers come in handy.

As an attendant finally escorts me to the dining car, the train slowly stops to allow passengers a better view of bald eagles perched on a nearby tree. At that point I wasn't running back to the vestibule with my camera so I sat contentedly while a very attentive waiter took my order for brekkie. I had the tasty "Sunrise Skillet" with reindeer sausage ($14) which fueled me for the rest of the morning.

Spencer Glacier
One of the tunnels
Bartlett Glacier
Trail Glacier

After a brief stop in the ski-resort town of Girdwood where a few more passengers boarded, the train ambled on, swaying gently sideways as it began moving up the valley hemmed in by the Kenai mountains, diverging away from the main road. Many "Adventure Class" passengers like me were hardly on their seats at this time - many were on vestibules or at the Vista Dome car or at the very end of the last car.

Mountains march on as the train gradually climbed, eventually giving us a view of Spencer Glacier, the first of three on this route. We soon followed the course of Placer River Gorge, entering a series of tunnels much to the delight of young passengers. Even just as exciting for those who want to see a sweeping view of the moving train were the S-curves shortly after. Bartlett Glacier appeared so close here - unsurprisingly, its terminus is only 800 feet away from the tracks. After going through another mountain pass, we emerged into this beautiful valley surrounded by alpine meadows and a view of the Trail Glacier.

Vista Dome car for Adventure Class passengers
Upper Trail Lake
Crossing a truss bridge
On arrival at Seward Depot

Along the shores of Upper Trail Lake, the train trundled on, giving us a spectacular vista of surrounding sawtooth peaks reflected on the calm waters of the lake. "Ohhs" and "ahhs" were loudly heard, a collective voice of enchantment at something not so often seen. We pass by Moose Pass, a small community by the lakeshore where the road to Seward rejoins alongside the train tracks. A foggy view of Lower Trail Lake and Kenai Lake was another visual treat before the train crosses a truss bridge.

The train diverges away yet again from the road, groans as it climbs to Divide then goes down the mountainside lush with Sitka spruce. Past this mountain pass, the train reunites with the highway again and we soon hear an announcement about Seward just being close by. It's almost 11 AM and the train finally slows down as it pulls into Seward Depot.

13 comments:

  1. Wow, that was a very scenic ride! I have been on trains so many times here in Germany, but scenery isn't the strong suit of these rides, instead, it's speed. I think the only scenic train ride I took was from Ollantaytambo to Aguascalientes in Peru. And yes, I have the Trans-Siberian on my bucket list, but I have no idea yet when that's gonna happen.

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    1. Ah! the Trans-Siberian train is on my wish list too - that requires some more savings!
      On the domestic front, I'm tempted to try the Amtrak from New York to LA but even their "roomettes" cost a lot. Can't imagine being on a regular coach seat for more than 3 days, yikes!

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  2. What a spectacular ride! The Upper Trail Lake is breathtaking. I love scenic train rides and I will keep this one in mind.

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    1. Thankfully the Coastal Classic slows down whenever the onboard tour guide points a highlight in this route - the tranquil Upper Trail Lake early in the morning is such a delight to gaze at!

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  3. nonpareil! i wanna do this someday. apart from the stunning views, there is something very romantic about train rides.

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    1. you gotta do this! Some people who go on an Alaska cruise embarking/disembarking in Seward take this train actually.

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  4. Amazing views. I love train travel.

    I host a weekly link party called "Oh, the PLACES I've been!" and would love to have you join. The link goes up Thursdays at 7 pm EST. Hope to see you there!

    - The Tablescaper

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    1. Thanks for dropping by Tablescaper! Alaska always is amazing.

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  5. Not a bad price for a scenic train ride!

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    1. Yes, that's true. Thank heavens the weather cooperated!

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  6. Your photos are so vivid! How's the reindeer sausage? I agree with Photo Cache, there's something romantic about train rides (that's me associating it with Before Sunrise movie).

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    1. thanks Witsandnuts! The reindeer sausage tasted good, not gamey at all - same as the reindeer burger I had back in Anchorage. Would love to do another train ride, something like cross-country.

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  7. I'm lost for superlatives, Dennis!

    Beautiful blog post as usual! Inspiring to work hard and travel more!

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