What the ultimate American flag-stop train lacks in amenities, it makes up for in off-the-grid adventure.
Imagine that you have just finished a walk. in the wilds of Alaska. You’re sweaty, your back aches from carrying gear, and it’s been such a long day that even your canine companion has lost stamina in his footsteps. You don’t have a car and there’s no road in sight to call an Uber or hitchhike your way out of there. There is a train track, but unfortunately you are not near a train season. Fearing the worst, you suddenly see a train approaching. Desperate, as a last effort you stand by the railing, take out your handkerchief and salute. Miraculously, the train slows to a stop.
The scenario may seem absurd. Who calls a locomotive like a giant taxi? It turns out that quite a few people. What he didn’t know was that he had just flagged down the Hurricane Turn Train, the last real stopping train in the country. And when it stopped to let you climb aboard, that’s exactly what it was designed to do.
We’re probably not the first to tell you, but if there’s one thing you must do on your first trip to Alaska, it’s take a ride on the magnificent Alaska Railroad. If you can, opt for the glass-domed GoldStar service. With tracks stretching 470 miles on the main route from the port city of Seward to the inland ice castles of Fairbanks (though not as icy in June, when the city hosts its annual midnight baseball game), a journey The glass-roofed train is an intimate — and ultimate — way to get inside the dense and somewhat daunting State 49.
Inside the train, you’re immersed: the transparent roof invites blue skies in as you’re enveloped in rugged mountains and crisp landscapes teeming with moose and other wildlife that seem close enough to touch (warning: don’t touch). If it’s a clear day, you might even see the majestic snow-capped peak of Denali, which goes great with the onboard Bloody Mary.
Your visit would also be timely: This year, the Alaska Railroad celebrates its 100th birthday, with a slate of events including the epic 12-day “Centennial Special” voyage that hits top sights, through September. And the occasion is well deserved. President Harding drove the last Golden Spike into the railroad in 1923, marking its completion and the start of freight and passenger transportation that played a significant role in the development of the state’s fledgling wilderness areas. Before the arrival of the Alaska Highway in 1942, the railroad was the only way to access Alaska’s vast interior.
“We’ve always been a critical part of the infrastructure in a young state with few highways,” says Meghan Clemens, Alaska Railroad communications manager. “On the passenger side, our longevity stems from the fact that we are very well suited as a way to travel within Alaska. Our goal is for our passengers to consider their in-state travel time a trip highlight.”
The railway stops in all the places a novice would want it to. Take it to Anchorage for laid-back city living and a particularly intense Pride festival. Or Whittier to deep sea fish for some huge prehistoric looking bottom crawlers. Head to Girdwood to see glaciers or Fairbanks to see the Northern Lights, then stop in Denali for some backcountry excitement.
But if you really want a truly once-in-a-lifetime, uniquely Alaskan experience, flag down the Hurricane Turn Train.
In 1862, President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act., that allowed men, women, former slaves, and immigrants on the path to citizenship (not including Native Americans) to claim federal land for themselves, as long as they were over the age of 21, promised to live on the land for at least five consecutive years, in a real house, not a tent, and promised to farm at least one eighth of it. During this time, many prosperous settlers took advantage of the plan and seized their own little slice of America: 270 million acres, to be exact, spread across 30 states, a mad dash that, admittedly, irreparable. in its wake, it displaced generations of indigenous people. But one state came a little later than the rest: Alaska was not allowed to be occupied until 1898, when President McKinley extended the laws to the territory. From that day on, however, he was on.
For the rest of the country, the free-ownership craze officially ended a little over a century later with the passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976. But since Alaska’s statehood was in its infancy, he got a little leeway from a 10-year extension. When the last Alaska property was claimed in the 1980s, some 3,500 people had secured their own private wilderness.
But the land was just that: desert, and the settlers still needed a way out. Enter the Alaska Railroad. “Many Alaskans took advantage of this opportunity before a direct road connection was built between Anchorage and Fairbanks and instead relied on the Alaska Railroad to access their property,” says Clemens.
Eventually a highway was built, and except for a 58-mile stretch of track north of Talkeetna, much of it paralleled the railroad’s route. So, it’s in Talkeetna, a rustic old gold-mining town worth exploring in its own right (population 1,200; its mayor, a cat) that the Hurricane Turn Train really begins and ends its 6.5-hour loop. Still without a road, area settlers (inmates and local celebrities alike) continue to rely on this Alaskan rail loop for both themselves and supplies, which means everything from dog sledding to fuel and, of course, , toilet paper.
After leaving Talkeetna, the Hurricane Turn Train currently makes scheduled stops at Chase, Curry, Sherman, Gold Creek, Twin Bridges, Chulitna, and Hurricane itself. The complete cycle costs $117; prices for each leg start at $29. And if you find yourself along the tracks at any other point on the circuit, just stand on the side of the road and wave a flag if you have one, or just your hand if you don’t. As if by magic, the train will slow down to 30 MPH and pick you up, no need to plan ahead.
Beyond the settlers who live along the tracks, the Hurricane Turn is also popular with Alaskans from across the state, who ride it to access camping and fishing sites without the hassle of backpacking. with all his team. And while it remains by far Alaska’s least-known line, more and more tourists have begun to discover its charms, with passengers more than doubling in the last decade. It seems that people are itching to hop on the last true flag stop in the country and enjoy something enticing that they might not otherwise see. “On a clear day, passengers get great views of Denali and the Alaska Range rising above the Susitna River, which is always a highlight,” Clemens explains. “And the turning point for this route is the Hurricane Gulch Bridge, the longest and highest bridge in the Alaska rail system, which sits more than 296 feet above the river canyon below.”
The Hurricane Turn stands as the Alaska Railroad’s smallest train by passenger volume, and by far the most casual. “I heard stories from the driver conducting an informal survey of passengers [to see] if they wanted to park the train to watch a bear for a few minutes,” says Clemens. “And from visitors making new friends and helping locals unload their cabin supplies from the baggage car.”
Unlike GoldStar service, the Hurricane Turn Train is Adventure class only, which means it operates like a regular Amtrak, with standard bay windows and no meal service. And while those bar car Bloody Marys might sound appealing, the Hurricane Turn’s understated aesthetic actually does. better—what it lacks in amenities it can make up for in snack-focused creativity. Pack your favorite sandwich and pickles for an onboard picnic or, heck, class it up with some champagne and dessert, as probably happened at a wedding party Clemens heard about recently.
“A group of about 40 people pointed out the train in a particularly pretty area called Twin Bridges: It’s a narrow stretch of land completely curved by the Indian River and a steep canyon bottom, flanked by train trestles on either side,” she says. . “They brought out a wedding altar along with refreshments, and the bride and groom got married and had a reception with all of her family and friends in the Alaskan wilderness.”
Even if you’re not quite ready for a destination wedding on the rails, your next trip to Alaska might well include a short jaunt with man’s best friend. The Hurricane Turn Train is also pet-friendly, though you may want to cover Spot’s eyes if any bears show up.
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