Please sign in to post.

Alaska - Train trip to Denali

Hi, we are thinking about doing a cruise "Alaska and the Inside Passage" (Vancouver to Seward) next year. We would like to add 5 or 6 days after the cruise to travel via train to Denali, then to either Fairbanks or Anchorage to fly home.

Appreciate any info from those who have explored Alaska on their own. Interested in routes, what to see, hotels, and anything else we should consider. We’d prefer trains over renting a car.

I posted this on Cruise Critic but didn't get much help. Thought I'd fly it past the RS folks. Thank you!

Posted by
7847 posts

We drove from Seward to Denali, on to Fairbanks, then back to Anchorage.

Train should work very well for Denali. You don't drive into the park, you take a bus tour anyway. Allow a full day(two nights) in order to do the tour. In Fairbanks, having a car made sightseeing much easier. I am sure that there are day tours available as well. It might be a plan just to rent a car for your time in Fairbanks only.

Posted by
15118 posts

Hi Donna, I lived in Fairbanks years ago and have returned three times as a tourist in recent years. We are going again next summer, to Denali in June for the wildflowers and midnight sun. And the mosquitoes!

We have not done a cruise but I know from reading the Alaska forum on TripAdvisor that the Vancouver to Seward one-way cruises are favored. If you have questions about which cruise line, you might ask there or on Cruise Critic, as different cruises have different port stops.

Adding time on land as independent travelers ( rather than a cruise tour) is the right idea. However, I wonder if you would consider renting a car rather than taking the train to Denali. Driving in Alaska is VERY easy as the roads are quite wide and well-maintained. And there are so few of them it is impossible to get lost. Taking the train up to Denali is quite expensive, and will leave you with very limited lodging and sightseeing options once you get there. I will post one notable exception to this opinion below.

Lodging at Denali comes in several types: 1. the fancy and expensive cruise ship hotels near the park entrance, in the area known as Glitter Gulch; 2. smaller and generally family-owned lodges and cabin resorts spread up and down the highway, mostly south of the park entrance; 3. an assortment of inns, B and B's, hostels, and lodges in the town of Healy, 10 miles north of the park entrance; and 4. wilderness lodges deep within the park, reached by their own private buses.

If you arrive by train you are pretty much stuck with options 1 and 4 because of transport issues. Unless you are able to book one of the few rental cars available from one of the lodges in Healy. But you would be using it only to get back and forth between your Healy lodging and the park entrance, and maybe to drive the first 15 miles into the park. Private vehicles are not allowed beyond that point; you must use the park shuttles for sightseeing and hiking within the park. Or book one of the wilderness lodges, which will transport you over the park road on their own bus.

And this is where my "notable exception" to my opinion on train versus car comes in. The wilderness lodges have schedules geared to train passengers. They pick up passengers arriving on the southbound train from Fairbanks around noon, and take them to the lodge in a 6-7 hour drive. Passengers arriving from Anchorage get in around 4 pm, too late for the lodge shuttles, so must spend a night near the park entrance before catching the lodge bus the following day.

There are four wilderness lodges out past Wonder Lake and they are all similarly priced ( I.e. Expensive). Two are such a standout in terms of quality, views, and programs offered that I will only stay at and recommend those. They are owned and operated by the same family and run the same programs and have similar menus ( with excellent food), but differ in the accommodations themselves, and the views.

Camp Denali ( where we stay) is a cluster of log cabins up on the hill with great views of Denali when the mountain is out. The cabins have a cold water tap but no bathroom, just a private and very clean outhouse for each one. There is a central bathhouse with flush toilets and nice clean showers. And a main lodge with dining room and fireplace, together with a smaller lodge that functions as library and meeting room.

North Face Lodge is at the bottom of the hill with limited views but the same great food and programs (guided hiking, etc.). It is closer to Wonder Lake if you want to borrow one of their canoes to paddle on the lake. It is a more standard lodge and the rooms have ensuite bathrooms, so more suitable for anyone who does not like the idea of an outhouse and central shared shower facility.

The other two lodges are Kantishna Roadhouse and Denali Backcountry Lodge. The four lodges all have various minimum stay requirements. i am out of space but can describe these later.

Posted by
7207 posts

We booked our post-Alaska cruise tour with Alaska Tours and Travel. I researched and believe the car rental option would not have been cheaper.

Renting a car at Seward (where we ported) was expensive due to only Hertz providing the service. It is cheaper if you rent at the Anchorage airport, but we still had to get to Anchorage. The package deal we purchased was a good one.

One thing, our package included a glass top train ride from Denali back to Anchorage, but it was cancelled due to a rockslide. Big problem was that we got no refund from Alaska Rail. The bus we took instead was way cheaper and we should have been refunded the difference in cost.

We didn't go with an expensive hotel in Denali. It was nice and worked out well for two nights.

Posted by
15118 posts

Seward is indeed an expensive place to rent a car, and I would not recommend that. But cruise ship passengers who want to rent a car for their land travels can take the Alaska railroad train from Seward to Anchorage and pick up the car there. The train ride is very scenic. There is also a bus option.

Posted by
2053 posts

Wow! Thanks to everyone for all the helpful information! I will do some additional research based on your suggestions. Sounds great! thank you!

Posted by
347 posts

Here's another vote for Alaska Tour and Travel. Friends used them last year to do just about what you are looking at without a car prior to meeting us in Juneau for our cruise. They were very happy with the package that was put together for them.

We rented a car in Anchorage and drove to Denali which allowed us to stay in Healy, park and ride the bus into the park. Driving was easy and afforded us the flexibility to do what we wanted.

On another note, we took a small ship (58 passenger) cruise from Juneau to Sitka. No glitz, but it was totally worth the expense and allowed us to get up close and personal with the wildlife and glaciers. We got to know all the crew and passengers during the trip, and they even allowed passengers up in the bridge while underway. Quite the experience, and due to the small size, we were able to go ashore where the big ships can't. Not luxurious, but a true Alaska experience.

Posted by
4535 posts

In a few weeks I will be able to report back on my experiences. We are taking the train from Fairbanks to Denali and staying inside the park. After, we take the train to Anchorage to fly home. In Fairbanks, we are renting a car for a couple days while there. Our whole trip idea came from another thread on this forum, so thanks to the RS posters with Alaska experience.

Posted by
15118 posts

I will also look forward to it! We are booked to return next June.

Posted by
130 posts

I can't comment on getting around Alaska on your own as I did my exploration as part of a cruise tour that included the glass domed train ride to Denali park (which was a highlight for my family) and other forms of transportation. However, I did want to give a suggestion regarding the tours at Denali park if you're thinking of doing one of those.

The cruise tour that we booked had us spending two nights at Denali (at the Denali Park Village, if you're wondering) and during our full day at the park we were scheduled to do the included Natural History Tour. During my pre-trip research I discovered that this tour was not a good fit for our family as it was too short and did not go to parts of the park we wanted to see. My first instinct was to book us on the longer and much higher rated Tundra Wilderness Tour, which would have cost us $154/person, but was much more in line with our interests.

However, through some helpful folks at Cruise Critic I learned about the Denali park shuttles and that was the option we chose to take. This shuttle took us to the Eielson Visitor Center, which was farther into the park then either tour goes and only cost us $40/person. (There is also a park entrance fee, but we have a national park pass so we didn't have to pay that.) I pre-booked online since our time there was limited and the busses do fill up and we had a great time. The drivers of these shuttles aren't tour guides, so they aren't required to "narrate" as they drive, but our driver was fabulous and shared many stories of his experiences there and he also pulled over for lots of great picture stops of Mt. Denali and many different animals. This was one of our favorite days in a two week trip, and we did it for relatively little money compared to the alternatives. Just wanted to toss this out there in case you're interested.

Posted by
347 posts

Another vote for the "green" bus shuttles that run into the park. I agree with Allie. We took the shuttle to the Eielson Visitor Center and also had a driver who was a wealth of information, narrated the entire way and pulled off for pictures.. Our B & B in Healy loaned us a cooler and we stopped at the Subway in Glittler Gulch to pick up lunch.

We couldn't have asked for a better day!