After a couple of days in Anchorage, it was time to head north through The Last Frontier. By far the easiest way to reach Fairbanks is by air, with a flight time of just 65 minutes. The trip by road isn’t bad, either, with the trip via the scenic Parks Highway taking 6-7 hours. But we had a real adventure planned – a journey aboard the rails. The Alaska Railroad Denali Star “Gold Star” Class offers the fanciest digs between Anchorage and Fairbanks. Though it’s by far the longest at 12 hours, the train definitely provides the most relaxed way to enjoy the scenic trip.
This post is part of a larger trip report series about my trip to Alaska in August. Click here for the introductory post.
What Is “Gold Star” Class?
The Alaska Railroad offers two classes of service aboard its passenger trains, “Adventure Class” and “Gold Star Class”. Adventure Class is the equivalent of Economy Class. These cars include confirmed 2×2 seating and food/beverage for purchase. Gold Star Class, meanwhile, is roughly equal to domestic First Class. In addition to slightly roomier seats, Gold Star class includes the following:
- Glass-domed car with private viewing deck
- Meals, soft drinks, and 2 cocktails per person included
- Tour guide with narration throughout the trip
Note that Alaska Railroad offers this class on only two routes: the Denali Star from Anchorage to Fairbanks, and the Coastal Classic from Anchorage to Seward.
Alaska Railroad Denali Star Gold Star Class – Review
Date of Travel: Saturday, August 1, 2020
Normally, the Denali Star operates daily from mid-May to mid-September. During 2020, however, service commenced only on July 1, and reduced to twice weekly starting August 2. Trains depart from Anchorage at 8:20 am, with a scheduled arrival in Fairbanks at 8:00 pm. Fares are fixed at $251 each way for Adventure Class, and $459 for Gold Star Class. Below is a map of the route, courtesy of Alaska Railroad:
For those visiting Alaska by cruise ship in the future, many lines offer a land-based add-on from Seward to Fairbanks via the Coastal Classic and Denali Star.
One word of warning: during summer 2020 and 2021, the Denali Star offers “flagstop service” between Talkeetna and Hurricane Gulch. Basically, residents and others in the remote backcountry can “flag down” the train at various points. This can significantly delay the train into Denali and Fairbanks northbound, and from Talkeetna south the other direction. Our train arrived into Fairbanks about half an hour late.
Check-In and Boarding
Unlike air travel, checking in for the train is super easy. Check-in at the Anchorage depot begins one hour prior to departure. There’s no security check, though, and you can check in as late as 15 minutes before departure. We ended up checking in about 20 minutes prior, and with trains running at only 50% capacity, we were the only ones in line. Within a few minutes, we made our way onboard to our seats on the 6th row of the upper deck.
Baggage check occurs at the tent next door; passengers may check two pieces per person without charge.
Gold Star Class offers 2×2 seating over (I think) about 20 rows. The glass-domed car offers expansive views all around, and a very airy feeling.
The seats themselves are simple, with only a recline function. Alaska Railroad doesn’t specify seat pitch, but it felt about equivalent to domestic First.
The one downside to the glass dome? There are no overhead shelves, so all bag storage is at your seat. Of course, with half the seats empty, finding space to keep bags wasn’t an issue. The row behind us remained empty, so we kept most of our stuff there.
As for seat comfort, legroom was generous, but the seats themselves became uncomfortable after a while. Thigh support in particular is rather poor. Of course, with the incredible scenery, you’re probably not going to stay in your seat for very long at a time. But still, on a 12-hour trip, it’s definitely noticeable.
There is one significant amenity lacking on the trains, however – power ports. There are no power or USB ports anywhere on the train. 12 hours is a long time without juice, so if you plan extended screen time, bring a portable charger. In any event, cell service goes out entirely for extended periods between Talkeetna and Denali.
As mentioned, at the back of the seating area is an open-air viewing platform. Windows all around make this an ideal area for picture taking. However, it also makes the platform quite popular during nice weather.
My son certainly enjoyed spending time out here, especially early on.
Alaska Railroad Denali Star Gold Star Class Dining
As mentioned earlier, Gold Star class passengers receive complimentary meals on the Anchorage-Fairbanks route. Thanks to the all-day itinerary, we received breakfast, lunch, and dinner on our trip. Normally, passengers may dine at their leisure during set windows. However, due to the pandemic, the railroad limits dining room use to 4 tables at a time. Your waiter brings the group down, and allows everyone to finish before bringing down the next group. With the limited number of passengers, the system worked fairly well.
The dining room itself is downstairs in the Gold Star Class car; all tables provide seating for four. As you can see, customers were seated only at alternating tables to maintain distance.
I apologize, as I thought I took more pictures of the food, but I only managed to find two. Alaska Railroad offers cuisine with a decidedly Alaskan flair; choices include items like reindeer sausage and buffalo chili. Over the course of the day, I went with the Country Starter, reindeer penne Bolognese, buffalo chili, and pot roast. Pictured below are the chili and the pot roast.
I didn’t expect much, but came away pleasantly surprised with the meal service. My favorite meal was (unfortunately not pictured) the penne; the pasta came out perfectly cooked, and the reindeer meat was flavorful but not too gamey. I did give a demerit to the pot roast; while the dish had good flavors, the chef unfortunately hammered the beef, leaving it tough and dry.
Should you need a beverage between meals, the Gold Star Class car includes a bar at the back of the seating area.
As a reminder, Gold Star Class passengers receive two complimentary adult beverages. My personal favorite: the “Brown Bear”, a hot chocolate spiked with Bailey’s.
All dining room and bar personnel were friendly, helpful, and prompt. Meals took little time to arrive after ordering, which is especially important given the staggered meal times. In addition, if you order a drink from the bar right before meal time, the staff are proactive about offering to bring your drink to your dining table.
Of course, the real reason for taking this trip is to enjoy the incredible scenery while someone else drives. Though we left Anchorage on a rainy morning, skies began clearing within an hour. As we crossed the Knik and Matanuska Rivers into the Mat-Su Valley, the view of the Chugach Mountains in the distance was simply breathtaking.
The area just past the river crossing also provides the first best opportunity to photograph the train with the landscape.
About 20 minutes later, we pulled into our first stop, Wasilla. It’s the town best known as the home of former Alaska governor and VP candidate, Sarah Palin.
For the next hour or so, the railroad heads north through the Mat-Su Valley to Talkeetna. Paralleling the Parks Highway, it’s a little tough capturing unobstructed photos in this stretch. However, you can still catch occasional glimpses of the mountains and Susitna River.
That brings you to the next stop on the line, the town of Talkeetna. (If you watched the show Northern Exposure, you may remember the name. It was one of the towns occasionally mentioned.) Like many frontier towns, Talkeetna got its start courtesy of the railroad; Alaska Railroad placed a district headquarters here in 1916. Today, the town of 900 serves as a hub for outdoor sports and recreation in the surrounding wilderness. The historic downtown is also a popular day trip for visitors from Anchorage; many ride the train here to spend the afternoon, before returning to Anchorage in the evening.
Beyond Talkeetna is the most scenic part of the journey. And where you’ll appreciate the access to the viewing platform. The railroad peels away from the Parks Highway, and travels through the rugged wilderness to the foothills of the Alaska Range. As you leave town, you first enjoy the summer wildflowers at the north end of the Mat-Su Valley.
Soon after, the tracks hug the banks of the Susitna River for some time as the climb begins. The river runs pretty high in July and August, enhancing the scenic view of the Alaska Range.
After an hour or so along the river, you start enjoying some spectacular views of the Alaska Range. You do have to be quick with the shutter, easier said than done on a moving train. But patience is rewarded with shots of some truly unforgettable scenery.
Be ready to shoot in a clearing, and you can also get a close-up of the glaciers high up in the mountains.
In addition, from here on north for an hour or so is your best chance to catch a glimpse of Denali. North America’s highest peak at more than 20,000 feet, a view of the summit is elusive. Even on a clear day, the mountain makes its own weather, often obscuring the top in clouds. I did manage a sort-of capture a little later, which I’ll show in a couple of minutes.
About 2-2 1/2 hours from Talkeetna, you arrive at the most photographed section of the journey, Hurricane Gulch. The gulch is a large gorge over a tributary of the Susitna River; the bridge crossing provides a view of the creek emptying into the river. If you crave a shot of the train, this is where you want to get it. Due to the curvy nature of the tracks in the area, the train slows down considerably, making it easier to photograph. The narrator gives you fair warning of the approach, providing enough time to head to the viewing platform.
And then enjoy one last shot of the train leaving the gorge.
It was just past Hurricane Gulch that I caught a glimpse of the elusive Denali. You can just see the ghostlike summit behind the second peak (right center), covered by a lenticular cloud. Not the money shot, but I’ll take what I can get.
A short while later, we made a brief stop to meet a southbound train for a crew change. Why? With daily service ending that day, the Anchorage crew would end up stranded in Fairbanks for a week and vice versa. I certainly enjoyed the unique opportunity to watch two Denali Star trains pass each other in opposite directions.
For the next couple of hours, the train approaches the Alaska Range from the south, moving through a low point between the eastern and western flanks through Broad Pass. Occasional clearings provide ample opportunity for picturesque mountain shots from the glaciated valley
As we approached our next stop, the Denali Train Depot, we passed a group of hotels to our right. The brown log building just to the right? That’s the Denali Grizzly Bear Resort, where we’d check in 5 days later.
For the next several miles, the tracks skirt the eastern boundary of Denali National Park. In addition to a sneak peak of the park, the route also provides fine views of the Nenana River.
The section between the Denali Train Depot and Healy features a particularly scenic section through the Nenana River gorge.
The terrain flattens out considerably north of Healy. This is a good area to spot wildlife, and in fact, we spotted a couple of moose in the distance. As you might imagine, the train spooks them, and I couldn’t get a good photo.
That brings the train to the last stop before Fairbanks, the town of Nenana. Like Talkeetna to the south, Nenana became a boomtown thanks to the railroad. In the early 1920s, a bridge across the Tanana River completed the Alaska Railroad between Anchorage and Fairbanks, bringing President Warren Harding to the town to drive in the ceremonial golden spike. The town’s population reportedly reached 5,000 residents around this time. But the boom ended quickly once construction finished, with only 291 people remaining by 1930.
Today, the city is best known for the quirky Nenana Ice Classic. It’s basically a betting pool whereby bettors predict, to the minute, when the ice will break up on the river. If you can get yourself to Alaska between February 1 and April 5, you too can pay $2.50 for a chance at the grand prize.
North of Nenana, the railroad passes through the boreal forest typical of interior Alaska above the river valley. The weather started turning foul as we left town, so I only managed one photo along the remaining route.
Disembarkation at Fairbanks
Our journey finally ended in Fairbanks at 8:50 pm, about 30 minutes behind schedule. We simply walked off, waved goodbye to the train, and headed inside to claim our luggage.
It took about 10 minutes to get our luggage, and then we headed to our taxi to get to our hotel. A word of caution about transportation from the depot: there is no taxi stand, and Lyfts and Ubers in Fairbanks can be hard to come by. A crewmember said waits of 30 minutes plus aren’t uncommon. I called ahead and requested a cab the day before, so we didn’t have to wait long. (Make sure to call and let them know if the train is late; they won’t wait for you.)
Alaska Railroad Denali Star Gold Star Class – Final Thoughts
As somewhat of a train junkie, I thoroughly enjoyed Alaska Railroad Denali Star Gold Star Class. The scenery alone makes this one of America’s epic train journeys. And, the food and beverage options pleasantly surprised me. The only problem: it’s a loooooong trip at more than 12 hours. That’s nearly double the driving time, and of course far more than flying Alaska Airlines from Anchorage to Fairbanks. It’s also worth mentioning (thanks to reader Kyle for bringing this up), the Alaska Railroad charges a significant premium over air travel. Summer one-way fares between Anchorage and Fairbanks currently run in the $75-150 range. You’re paying for the sightseeing and to mark off a “bucket list” item from life’s to-do list. I’m a sufficiently hardcore transportation geek that I found the premium worthwhile. You’ll have to decide whether it is for you.
So if you’ve decided you want to take the train, is the premium to Gold Star Class worth it? I have to say, probably not. The free meals are nice, and so is the dedicated viewing platform. As is the dedicated tour guide, who provided interesting and useful commentary along the route. But does that really justify an extra $200 per person? I can buy a lot of postcards and guide books for that price. So definitely take the train, but slum it in coach and save the cash. Maybe my opinion changes on a full train, though.