This past Friday was my birthday. I am one year older; I don’t know if I’m one year wiser though! At any rate, for my birthday my husband bought me a train ride to see several glaciers. It’s called the Glacier Discovery Train Tour with the Alaska Railroad. It was a lot of fun, so I thought I would share my thoughts and our experiences here. Just a note however, I am sharing a few pictures, but I took most of the pictures on my nice camera. They are great pictures, but for some reason I cannot get my camera to connect to any of my devices all of a sudden. It has been a bit frustrating, so I am continuing with my post hoping one of my children can get things to connect. So far it hasn’t worked but I am holding out lots of hope!
The train departed Anchorage at 9:45 am. We were told we needed to be at the station by 8:45, so we left home about 7:00 so we had about 15 minutes to stop somewhere and get snacks for the ride. We arrived a little bit early and got checked in. I of course had to stop at the gift shop. Because it was the last 2 days of the season all their products were on sale! My husband wasn’t interested, but I got a T-shirt to commemorate our adventure. Once we were boarded, we had a long ride with lots of stops before we got to the glaciers. One thing I love about the train however is the ability, even encouragement, to get up and walk around, explore the different cars, grab a snack at the snack bar, and visit with your fellow passengers.
The train was very full which surprised me a little bit being the second to last day of the season, but the seats are comfortable, so it wasn’t a problem. Once we got out of Anchorage, we started along the Turnagain Arm. I have never seen Beluga Whales going down through there, but Saturday there was a small pod. I then realized why I hadn’t ever seen any, because they look a lot like the waves as they never really crest very far above the surface, just far enough to breath. On the way down we made a number of stops. First Girdwood and then Portage (The train stops at Portage a lot; this was stop #1). At both of these stops we picked up more passengers. Then it was on to Whittier. I have been to Whittier when the Ferry was there loading passenger and cars, and it’s a pretty big boat. But I have never been there when a cruise ship was in the harbor. Wow those are big ships! Most of the passengers got off in Whittier, almost all of them getting on the cruise ship. That gave us quite a bit more room as well as the ability to move to the top of the dining car where it was easier to see the scenery.
From Whittier we went back to Portage (Stop #2), and much to my surprise we picked up even more passengers. These were specifically going to the glaciers. I didn’t know you could board there but found out that it’s quite a bit cheaper than starting in Anchorage. Maybe we’ll have to do that with the kids next year. At the second Portage stop we also picked up Park Rangers that would guide our trip through the glaciers. Then we were off.
There are several glaciers up through the pass. I cannot remember all the names, I cannot remember if the first glacier we came to was called Skookum Glacier, or if that was the area we were in, but that was first. Then we got to Spencer Glacier. This is a stop on its own and many passengers unloaded here. It is about a 1-1/2 mile walk from the train stop to the lake where you can see ice bergs floating and the leading edge of the glacier on the other end of the lake. You can also see this glacier quite well from the train as well as the ice bergs as you travel farther south and into a series of tunnels. Spencer Glacier also offers kayaking, rafting, and there are a couple of cabins that you can rent if you want to stay overnight.
Continuing on we came to Grandview. This is where the train stops and turns around. My husband isn’t a really big fan of hiking, so we opted to stay on the train at Spencer Glacier and go on to Grandview. There is a glacier called Trails End just before and somewhat visible from this stop, but there is also some hiking options and great picture opportunities. We hiked to a waterfall, this was only about 1/2 a mile from the train, so we decided that was a great way to stretch the legs before we headed back. The waterfall wasn’t what I would call impressive, but the forest hike getting there was very pretty. There were also several informational signs at this stop that had historical pictures and information on them. It was pretty interesting. Once we were all loaded back on the train we headed back, stopping at Spencer Glacier to pick up those we had dropped off about 3 hours earlier.
From Spencer glacier we headed back to Portage. At this Portage stop (Stop #3) there were a couple of options – stay on the train and do the same stops in reverse order that we had done coming down, including going back to Whittier. This puts you back in Anchorage about 9:30 pm. The other option, and the one we chose, was to get off the train and onto a bus that went directly back to Anchorage to the Train Depot without any stops. It took about 45 minutes, and we were back at the depot by 6:15 in the evening. I really enjoy riding the train, but both me and my husband were ready to get off at that point and grateful for the quicker ride back to Anchorage. My husband also had a great visit with the bus driver. The bus driver had previously driven bus in Denali National Park for 25 years. My husband had done several road construction jobs in the park, so they were able to visit about the area for part of the ride.
This was such a fun birthday present and would make a great summer adventure with family and friends coming up to visit. I think living in Alaska that I would probably skip the train ride from Anchorage to Whittier and get on at Portage when it came back out of Whittier, just doing the Glacier tour. I think that you can see the Turnagain arm well from either the train or your car, and it takes the train quite a bit longer to get down there than it does to drive, as long as there’s not something like construction inhibiting traffic. There are a number of other things to see in that area that would be fun to add on to the trip as well, one of our favorites being the Wildlife Center across the highway. Driving your own car down would give you plenty of time to visit this and other scenic sights before getting on the train. I would highly recommend this train ride though; whichever leg you choose to start on. I would recommend bringing a warm jacket for weather if you plan on getting off the train, as well as snacks. They do have some on the train and their prices weren’t outrageous, but it’s nice to have ones you know you like. The restrooms were well maintained and well cleaned, every car having 2 somewhere in the car (I find that important!). They also had a junior ranger program for the glacier portion of the train ride. One note however is not to go too early in the season. I probably wouldn’t go before July just so the snow is melted enough to actually be able to see the glaciers. We rode the train to Seward one year at the end of May and there was still quite a bit of snow in the pass and not as much to see.