Photo courtesy of Alaska Railroad

This Alaska Train Journey Is the Dream Winter Trip for Northern Lights Sightings

Alaska Train Travel
by Morgane Croissant Jun 6, 2024

Visiting Alaska in winter seems like a crazy idea. Extreme winter conditions in the northernmost state in the nation last around seven months, between October and April, and are not for the faint-hearted. However, there’s a way to travel around Alaska during that time and enjoy the frozen and snowy landscapes in extreme comfort and without having to wear heavy snow boots and a dozen woollen layers: the train. The Alaska Railroad’s Aurora Winter Train is your ticket to see the magic of Alaska in winter, including the northern lights, without getting frostbites.

The Alaska Railroad is owned by the state of Alaska and provides freight and passenger service through limited parts of the state. The Alaska Railroad runs five routes, only two of which operate in winter:

  • The Coastal Classic — operates from mid-May to mid-September
  • The Denali Star – operates from May to September
  • The Glacier Discovery – operates from May to mid-September
  • The Hurricane Turn — operates a winter route from October to May
  • The Aurora Winter — operates from mid-September until mid-May

Visitors to Alaska can travel the Hurricane Turn route only on the first Thursday of the month from October to May. The route takes passengers on a five-hour ride between Anchorage and Hurricane, with stops in Wasilla, Talkeetna, Chase, Curry, Sherman, Gold Creek, Twin Bridges, and Chulitna. While beautiful, the Hurricane Turn is less geared towards tourists than it is towards local residents in need of transportation. For example, there no food or beverage services onboard.

The Aurora Winter Train, however, is a completely different story. This route runs between Anchorage and Fairbanks, with 13 stops in between, in 11.5 hours. The Aurora Winter Train operates once in each direction every weekend from mid-September until mid-May, as well as twice mid-week in each direction on specific dates in February, March, and April. (See the full schedule)

Unlike the Hurricane Turn Train, the Aurora Winter Train is very much equipped to welcome out-of-state visitors with simple but comfortable seats, large windows, an open-seating dome car, and an onboard dining car from where they can purchase food and drinks.

Photo courtesy of Alaska Railroad
Photo courtesy of Alaska Railroad
Photo courtesy of Alaska Railroad

While the train itself is lovely, the real appeal is what’s going on out the window. On the way, you can spot Mount Denali, North America’s highest peak, as well as wildlife like caribous and moose, and the northern lights if a magnetic storm aligns with your trip.

The best way to see the northern lights on this trip, however, is to get off the train at one of the stops and stay overnight. The areas where the Aurora Winter Train stops at are not only close to the magnetic pole and therefore more likely to be blessed with the spectacle of the aurora borealis, but they are also so remote that there’s next to no light pollution to get in the way of the celestial show.

@sdtravels Alaska winter trip Part 3: Aurora Winter Train #alaska #alaskarailroad #fairbanks #anchorage #train #aurorawintertrain #travel #traveltiktok #bucketlist #fyp #caribou #reindeer ♬ original sound – darcy stokes

Riding the Aurora Winter Train both ways is a big commitment so the Alaska Railroad offers a variety of packages that allow you to take the train one way, fly back, and do something fun in between, like dog sledding, aurora chasing, and more.

While traveling to Alaska in the winter might once have been for eccentric and adventurous travelers only, it’s not the case any longer — the Aurora Winter Train is becoming more and more popular. “During the 2023-2024 winter season, the Alaska Railroad saw a nearly 13 percent increase from the previous season in ridership,” a recent press release explains. Even more surprising is the fact that “March 2024 saw more passengers than the entire 2011 winter season and seasons prior”. So, if you’re keen to travel by train around Alaska in winter, don’t wait until all the seats on the Aurora Winter Train are booked up. A one-way trip costs around $225 while a return trip will set you back less than $500.

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