Business
Life in Alaska

The Alaska Railroad: Northern Route

Written by
Frank Keller

[The following is a continuation of Frank Keller’s article and photo gallery of the Alaska Railroad’s southern routes in the September/October 2018 issue of LFM.]

As mentioned in the first segment of this photo gallery in the previous issue the Alaska Railroad’s northern route also has two daily departures from Anchorage during the summer season. The first is the Denali Star traveling the entire route to Fairbanks. The second is the Healy Express, which only travels north as far as Healy. It should be noted that the Healy Express is operated with Alaska Railroad crews but it is a Holland America Princess (HAP) train and as such needs to be booked through HAP as opposed to the Alaska Railroad. With that being said they travel the same line so the information will be the same for both.

The Hurricane Turn sits atop its namesake bridge above Hurricane Gulch. Hurricane Creek is 296' below the train.

A photo of your train at the Anchorage depot will certainly be a memorable one as in the distance will be Mount Susitna, also known as Sleeping Lady. Within a few miles of departing the historic depot on 1st Street in downtown Anchorage the rails enter Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson (JBER). Unless you have military access, the train offers a unique view of something most folks can’t see. The railroad travels right along the flight line and it is often possible to see numerous military aircraft in and around the tarmac. Past the flight line you will enter a more rugged section of JBER, an area where wildlife abounds. Keep your eyes open and your camera ready as it is in this area that I saw my first and only wolf.

Once off the base the railroad skirts the Knik Arm of Cook Inlet for a few miles near Birchwood before turning inland around Eklutna. As you near Wasilla there are some amazing views of the Chugach and Talkeetna Mountains including Pioneer Peak and Twin Peaks around Palmer. Although ultimately you are traveling north the railroad needs to first head northeast before turning west to negotiate Knik Arm. You’ll get another chance through Wasilla and on to Houston to photograph Mount Susitna much as you did in Anchorage. North of Houston and on a clear day is when you will get your first opportunity to see the highest peak in North America, Denali. At 20,320 feet it isn’t likely that you will mistake it for something else. Hopefully you will be one of the 30% that actually get to see Denali in all her glory.

The railroad will make a passenger stop at the Talkeetna depot. For a number of travelers Talkeetna will be their destination as it allows them some time, about 6 hours, to look around and experience the eclectic town. There are plenty of quaint shops and restaurants, not to mention zip lining and jet boat excursions to keep people busy until the southbound Denali Star arrives to whisk them back to Anchorage. As you continue north you will cross the Talkeetna River on a large bridge and parallel the Susitna River as you enter a very remote part of Alaska. You will not see another road for some 60 miles.

Don’t let the remoteness fool you, however, as the next 60 miles are filled with cabins of those folks that use this area as a way to get away from hectic city life. This region was made famous by the reality show Railroad Alaska, which featured this area pretty extensively. There are a number of spectacular views along this section and many chances for seeing wildlife. I have photographed moose and bear frequently in this stretch. There are also a number of places where Denali will make herself known. The railroad conductor and onboard staff do an excellent job of pointing out all of the sights along the way. Just south of Hurricane you will cross the Parks Highway and from here to Denali Park the road and tracks travel in the same general direction.

Just north of Hurricane you will notice the train will slow down appreciably. This decrease in speed is due to Hurricane Gulch. The railroad crosses the gulch on a 901 foot cantilever bridge 300 feet above Hurricane Creek, an engineering marvel. They slow down to allow everyone a chance to admire the beauty of the surroundings. The railroad climbs to the summit of Broad Pass and the scenery from here to Cantwell is spectacular with nearly every twist and turn of the rail offering incredible views of the Alaska Range. There always seems to be a river nearby, first the Chulitna and then the Nenana, which you will follow most of the way to Fairbanks. Once north of Cantwell the railroad, river, and highway all share the pass through the mountains and things tighten up noticeably.

The Denali Park Depot is immediately following the crossing of Riley Creek on Riley Creek Trestle. If you happen to be riding and photographing in the fall, the colors here are tremendous. The Denali Park Depot is located in Denali National Park & Preserve and this is where many of your traveling companions will exit the train and spend a few days exploring the park. Upon leaving the station you will cross the Park entrance road and shortly thereafter you can look down and see the appropriately named Horseshoe Lake. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if you saw a moose swimming in the water. Farther below is the Nenana River and in another couple of miles the train will enter the treacherous, yet equally beautiful, Nenana River Gorge. This is a short but incredibly scenic section of the railroad. Once through the gorge you will pass through the railroad town of Healy. There isn’t much left of this once bustling town, at least along the rail, as much of the town has relocated along the Parks Highway. From Healy to Fairbanks is 110 rail miles and once north of Healy the valley widens up quite a bit. As you continue north you will pass the Usibelli Coal tipple where Alaska Railroad coal trains are loaded for local and export delivery. From there you’ll cross the Nenana River on a large truss bridge at Ferry. By this time the scenery has changed dramatically with less mountains and a more wide open feel. Arrival in Nenana is via a large horseshoe and another large bridge, this time across the Tanana River. It is at the north end of this bridge that the golden spike was driven home by President Harding in 1923 signifying the completion of the Alaska Railroad.

From Nenana to Fairbanks is about 50 miles and for the most part is away from the road system. And while not as scenic as the southern part of the railroad there are still plenty of open vistas and gently rolling hills that make great subjects for photographers. The railroad travels along the bottom of a valley which it climbs out of as it nears Fairbanks. The last 20 miles or so the rails regain civilization making photos possible from the road and the train. Arrival into Fairbanks is at 8:15 PM capping off a great day of photography.

Riding the train is one of the easiest options for photography as you can take photos from the train anytime you see something worthy. When driving I like to find a photogenic spot and wait for the train. As the schedules are published this is fairly easy to accomplish. When I travel anywhere via car from my home in Anchorage I usually make time for some train shots along the way. Whether I ride the train or take shots from the highway it seems I never end up disappointed. I hope the end result will be the same for you.

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The Alaska Railroad: Northern Route

Business
Life in Alaska

Author

Frank Keller

[The following is a continuation of Frank Keller’s article and photo gallery of the Alaska Railroad’s southern routes in the September/October 2018 issue of LFM.]

As mentioned in the first segment of this photo gallery in the previous issue the Alaska Railroad’s northern route also has two daily departures from Anchorage during the summer season. The first is the Denali Star traveling the entire route to Fairbanks. The second is the Healy Express, which only travels north as far as Healy. It should be noted that the Healy Express is operated with Alaska Railroad crews but it is a Holland America Princess (HAP) train and as such needs to be booked through HAP as opposed to the Alaska Railroad. With that being said they travel the same line so the information will be the same for both.

The Hurricane Turn sits atop its namesake bridge above Hurricane Gulch. Hurricane Creek is 296' below the train.

A photo of your train at the Anchorage depot will certainly be a memorable one as in the distance will be Mount Susitna, also known as Sleeping Lady. Within a few miles of departing the historic depot on 1st Street in downtown Anchorage the rails enter Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson (JBER). Unless you have military access, the train offers a unique view of something most folks can’t see. The railroad travels right along the flight line and it is often possible to see numerous military aircraft in and around the tarmac. Past the flight line you will enter a more rugged section of JBER, an area where wildlife abounds. Keep your eyes open and your camera ready as it is in this area that I saw my first and only wolf.

Once off the base the railroad skirts the Knik Arm of Cook Inlet for a few miles near Birchwood before turning inland around Eklutna. As you near Wasilla there are some amazing views of the Chugach and Talkeetna Mountains including Pioneer Peak and Twin Peaks around Palmer. Although ultimately you are traveling north the railroad needs to first head northeast before turning west to negotiate Knik Arm. You’ll get another chance through Wasilla and on to Houston to photograph Mount Susitna much as you did in Anchorage. North of Houston and on a clear day is when you will get your first opportunity to see the highest peak in North America, Denali. At 20,320 feet it isn’t likely that you will mistake it for something else. Hopefully you will be one of the 30% that actually get to see Denali in all her glory.

The railroad will make a passenger stop at the Talkeetna depot. For a number of travelers Talkeetna will be their destination as it allows them some time, about 6 hours, to look around and experience the eclectic town. There are plenty of quaint shops and restaurants, not to mention zip lining and jet boat excursions to keep people busy until the southbound Denali Star arrives to whisk them back to Anchorage. As you continue north you will cross the Talkeetna River on a large bridge and parallel the Susitna River as you enter a very remote part of Alaska. You will not see another road for some 60 miles.

Don’t let the remoteness fool you, however, as the next 60 miles are filled with cabins of those folks that use this area as a way to get away from hectic city life. This region was made famous by the reality show Railroad Alaska, which featured this area pretty extensively. There are a number of spectacular views along this section and many chances for seeing wildlife. I have photographed moose and bear frequently in this stretch. There are also a number of places where Denali will make herself known. The railroad conductor and onboard staff do an excellent job of pointing out all of the sights along the way. Just south of Hurricane you will cross the Parks Highway and from here to Denali Park the road and tracks travel in the same general direction.

Just north of Hurricane you will notice the train will slow down appreciably. This decrease in speed is due to Hurricane Gulch. The railroad crosses the gulch on a 901 foot cantilever bridge 300 feet above Hurricane Creek, an engineering marvel. They slow down to allow everyone a chance to admire the beauty of the surroundings. The railroad climbs to the summit of Broad Pass and the scenery from here to Cantwell is spectacular with nearly every twist and turn of the rail offering incredible views of the Alaska Range. There always seems to be a river nearby, first the Chulitna and then the Nenana, which you will follow most of the way to Fairbanks. Once north of Cantwell the railroad, river, and highway all share the pass through the mountains and things tighten up noticeably.

The Denali Park Depot is immediately following the crossing of Riley Creek on Riley Creek Trestle. If you happen to be riding and photographing in the fall, the colors here are tremendous. The Denali Park Depot is located in Denali National Park & Preserve and this is where many of your traveling companions will exit the train and spend a few days exploring the park. Upon leaving the station you will cross the Park entrance road and shortly thereafter you can look down and see the appropriately named Horseshoe Lake. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if you saw a moose swimming in the water. Farther below is the Nenana River and in another couple of miles the train will enter the treacherous, yet equally beautiful, Nenana River Gorge. This is a short but incredibly scenic section of the railroad. Once through the gorge you will pass through the railroad town of Healy. There isn’t much left of this once bustling town, at least along the rail, as much of the town has relocated along the Parks Highway. From Healy to Fairbanks is 110 rail miles and once north of Healy the valley widens up quite a bit. As you continue north you will pass the Usibelli Coal tipple where Alaska Railroad coal trains are loaded for local and export delivery. From there you’ll cross the Nenana River on a large truss bridge at Ferry. By this time the scenery has changed dramatically with less mountains and a more wide open feel. Arrival in Nenana is via a large horseshoe and another large bridge, this time across the Tanana River. It is at the north end of this bridge that the golden spike was driven home by President Harding in 1923 signifying the completion of the Alaska Railroad.

From Nenana to Fairbanks is about 50 miles and for the most part is away from the road system. And while not as scenic as the southern part of the railroad there are still plenty of open vistas and gently rolling hills that make great subjects for photographers. The railroad travels along the bottom of a valley which it climbs out of as it nears Fairbanks. The last 20 miles or so the rails regain civilization making photos possible from the road and the train. Arrival into Fairbanks is at 8:15 PM capping off a great day of photography.

Riding the train is one of the easiest options for photography as you can take photos from the train anytime you see something worthy. When driving I like to find a photogenic spot and wait for the train. As the schedules are published this is fairly easy to accomplish. When I travel anywhere via car from my home in Anchorage I usually make time for some train shots along the way. Whether I ride the train or take shots from the highway it seems I never end up disappointed. I hope the end result will be the same for you.

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