Alaska Railroad’s Hurricane and Glacier Discovery Trains:

Ride the rails and hit the trails

By Erin Kirkland

Author Margaret Lee Runbeck once said, “Happiness is not a station you arrive at, but a manner of traveling.”

Alaska Railroad
- If you go

Information and Reservations:,

Concessionaires -
Glacier Discovery:
Chugach Adventures,;
Ascending Path:;
Alaska Rivers Company:

Talkeetna information -
Hurricane Turn:

Tips: Bring snacks, beverages and amusements for kids during slow periods of train or motorcoach travel. We play cards, read books or engage in a game of “I Spy” as we chug along the tracks. The Hurricane Turn train has no dining service, so a full lunch is also necessary in a picnic basket or backpack. The Glacier Discovery train has dining and beverage service, but is a cashless system, so bring a credit card.

Dress children for Alaska’s variable summer weather and, if rafting, hiking or kayaking near Spencer Glacier, for cold wind coming from the lake and glacier. Don’t forget a camera, either.

We follow this mantra in Alaska, a journey-is-the-destination lifestyle where getting somewhere often involves interesting twists and turns, and it never ends the same way twice. That’s also how I see the Alaska Railroad’s two unique summer routes that deliver passengers and gear to remote destinations of their own making. The Hurricane Turn travels north, the Glacier Discovery south, but both offer easy transportation to an Alaska tourists crave and many residents forget is so accessible.

Along these sidebar stretches of the railroad’s 470-mile line between Seward and Fairbanks, wildness and civilization meet at an intersection designed to allow for abundant recreation. For visitors, especially those with children, the Alaska Railroad’s summer trains also provide a shorter, easier glimpse into the often-elusive backcountry.

“Families don’t always think of travel time as ‘quality time.’ But that’s different onboard the Alaska Railroad – it’s a great way for families to enjoy time together. And every kid knows trains are cool,” says Dale Wade, vice president of marketing for the Alaska Railroad. “Many locals don’t realize the wilderness access that our trains open up. It can be difficult to get out into Alaska’s backcountry with kids, but it’s easy to step off one of our trains to explore remote Spencer Glacier and gather mini icebergs, or enjoy camping or fishing off the road system north of Talkeetna.”

So how does a family, kids in tow, make plans for riding the rails of Alaska’s backcountry? It’s easier than you might think.

South to Spencer

The Glacier Discovery departs Anchorage daily from late May to early September, chugging through Anchorage before winding along Turnagain Arm and the Seward Highway. Fun for kids who know Anchorage by its familiar streets, traveling through town on a train is an opportunity to spot landmarks like Westchester Lagoon, Spenard and Cook Inlet from an entirely different perspective. Stopping first in Girdwood, then Portage and Whittier, the trip is a relaxing way to travel from Anchorage before veering southeast toward the Spencer Whistlestop.

“You’re in this beautiful area off the road system,” says Jen Funk Weber, a railroad passenger from Glacier View. “Taking the train was way less exhausting than trying to access backcountry by hiking.” And, she adds, “It’s just fun to ride the train.”

The 20-minute ride from Portage delivers passengers to a picnic area, restrooms, and a series of gravel trails leading along the Placer River to nearby Spencer Lake, both fed from the towering Spencer Glacier.
Chugach Adventures and Alaska Rivers Company operate rafting and canoe trips down the river and around the lake, and Ascending Path guide service takes groups of climbers (age 14+) to the glacier’s flanks for up-close experiences on the bluish ice. Those wanting a more sedate day can choose a guided hike with a Chugach Forest Service ranger, who boards the train in Portage then explores the 1.3-mile fully accessible trail, sharing the area’s history, flora and fauna.

Two hours later, the train picks up adventurers and returns them to Portage, Whittier or Anchorage. Passengers wishing to stay on the train will arrive in Anchorage at 9:15 pm, but the railroad encourages a motorcoach ride back to town from Portage, saving two extra hours on board with tired children.

My own son, a skeptic of adventures involving risk, has been floating down the Placer River ever since the Glacier Discovery route began. Even as a 4-year-old, he was thrilled with the gentle rapids of the river and awestruck by Spencer Lake’s bobbing bergy bits that float among the boats, sometimes ending up along the shoreline.

Some people purchase tickets for next-day or later return trips, utilizing a campground about a mile from the stop or a public use cabin located five miles up a steep trail known as Spencer Bench. Reservations for both can be made via the Alaska Railroad website.

Riding the Summer Hurricane

The Hurricane route north from Talkeetna is less traveled than the Glacier Discovery train, but its purpose is nonetheless valuable as a lifeline for homesteaders and cabin owners needing transportation from their residences into town. Day trip passengers along for the ride receive the benefit of real-time initiation of life off the grid.

The only flagstop train service left in the United States, the Hurricane Turn route departs Talkeetna Thursday through Monday between May and September, and transports an eclectic mix of humanity, gear and the occasional dog into this section of Alaska wilderness. Some are hikers or fishermen looking for a day-long getaway, others are campers who board with coolers, tents, fishing poles and gaggles of kids. But a good number are year-round residents who thrive on life away from hustle and bustle until it’s time to wave down the train for groceries, mail and the latest news.

The train’s crewmembers create the personality of this route, weaving stories that come to life as wheels click-clack beside braided riverbeds, Denali in view. It’s not at all uncommon to see moose or bears poke their heads out of the underbrush in time for the train to pass by.

The route travels through sparsely populated settlements of Chase, Curry and Sherman before heading deeper into the forest, where a high point, literally and figuratively, is a stop over at Hurricane Gulch, straddling the bridge long enough for passengers to peer over the edge and gaze toward the Alaska Range and Talkeetna Mountains on either side. The train returns to Talkeetna around 7 pm, just in time for dinner in Talkeetna and a good night’s sleep at one of the village’s many options for family accommodations.

No matter the route or your chosen activity, a day aboard the Alaska Railroad is a day well spent connecting with your kids and to the special state in which we live. From gazing at mountains to rafting down a river, you can’t go wrong no matter the track you choose.