A few years ago, my wife and I and our son Dash (our second son had not yet joined us) got the chance to travel Alaska by train. Whitney and I had long been enamored of trains, but neither of us had indulged in the luxurious kind of rail travel—the leisurely viewing of spectacular vistas streaming by—since our respective Eurail-pass college-age trips. Happily, we happen to be amid a renaissance for old-fashioned train travel, with rails around the world being revived for family-friendly tourism. Even more happily, the rails we would be riding were those of the brand-new first-class GoldStar service of the century-old Alaska Railroad; it’s among the best ways to sample the stunning beauty of the state’s interior.
I’d always figured we’d make our first trip to Alaska on one of those ubiquitous cruises, but train travel was perfect for our circumstances, with Dash then precisely at the uncontainable age of two. Going by rail also allowed us the flexibility to get on and off the line for multiday stops as we pleased, thus letting us indulge in a thrilling helicopter tour over the scary-gorgeous peaks of Denali National Park midway through. (Our favorite stop, though, was the last and smallest: the little harbor town of Seward, where we managed to cram in a family dog-sled ride; a visit to the most comprehensive aquarium I’ve ever seen (and as far as Dash was concerned, the highlight of the whole trip), the Alaska SeaLife Center; and a breathtaking glacier cruise alongside a pod of orcas.
Still, our most vivid memories of the trip took place on the trains. At first, on boarding the Denali Star in Fairbanks, we did have to shed our anxiety—after all, we were still talking about multihour stretches with a toddler. But Dash took to the train immediately, imitating its whistle with his own voice as we departed and soon settling in comfortably. I started to relax—at least, until Whitney returned from the GoldStar open-air viewing deck, hair wild and eyes wide, telling me the experience bordered on the religious. Before disembarking at Denali, I checked it out for myself and saw exactly what she meant. (Remember those old York Peppermint Patties commercials? Felt kinda like that.)
The later train rides were similarly blissful; even the longest ride (from Denali to Anchorage—eight hours!) passed smoothly. Dash succumbed often to the soporific rhythm of the train wheels and napped, giving Whitney and me the chance to share an Alaskan microbrew and lose ourselves in the immense snowcapped mountains just outside our window. As we disembarked, a bit reluctantly, from our last ride, we felt more relaxed than when we’d boarded—not the typical feeling for parents at the end of a 470-mile journey with their kids!