Trains, Planes, Boats and Cars to Alaska 2005
- Submitted by: Donald A. Hazle, United States
- Submission Date: 11th Nov 2005
Don and Sharon Hazle
Port Matilda Pa.
I had always thought that I would like to take a vacation that involved some extended time on the rails. Previously, time had limited my wife and I to tourist trains and a few overnight trips on Amtrak from Altoona to New York or Pittsburgh. In 2002 we were able to take one great ride on the Zephyr from Denver over the Rockies to California. In 2003 my Sharon, son Kevin and I had taken the spectacular train trip to the Copper Canyon in Mexico.
With my upcoming retirement and the kids still at home to watch the house it seemed like the right time to plan that extended retirement trip. Our goal was to combine as much train travel as possible in Canada and the US with a trip up Alaskas inside passage, ride on the Alaska railroad and cruise back to Vancouver. Glacier Bay, The Yukon and White Pass Railroad. A glacier helicopter tour and a float plane trip were also on my wish list. Cost was going to be a factor. From very early on it was obvious that using the North American Rail Pass in the off season was going to save us a pile of money. At present that pass is $543 per person which gets you almost unlimited rail travel in coach class for 30 days in the US and Canada. In our case when I priced the total rail cost, using the standard coach fares, it was near $1500 per person not including accommodations on the train. So my advice is to do this trip while you can. Not only may the rail pass disappear, but if our government has its way, so will the long distance trains in the US. I intended to depart and return to home by train. However, this pass limited my vacation to 30 days and required that we complete travel before June 1. Since we planned to visit Alaska I scheduled that trip as late as possible (April 26 to May 25) in that time window to take advantage of warming temperatures.
Sunday April 24, 2005
I had wanted the first part of my rail trip to be from Altoona to Toronto a 6 hour drive from my house. However, I soon discovered that it would take and extra 2 days to complete that segment by rail via New York and Montreal. Therefore we decided that we would have my daughter drive us to Toronto 2 days before the departure of the Canadian. We stayed at the Victoria Hotel which has nice yet inexpensive accommodations when compared to the bigger hotels downtown.
Monday April 25, 2005
We took the hop-on-hop-off bus tour of Toronto for $28 each which covers several miles. This is an excellent way to see as much of Toronto as possible in one day. Make sure that you get off at Casa Loma which is the former home of the person that owned the first electrical power system in Toronto. It is very worth seeing for the small admission that goes to the Lions Club. I wanted to go up the CN Tower and eat a meal in the revolving restaurant. At first it looked expensive and we had decided not to get the meal. Then our bus driver explained that the meal cost included the elevator ride. The meal was much better than we ever expected and the view was great. Out side the wind was howling at a steady 50mph. I could not resist going outside to see what it was like. If you have the nerve, stand on glass floor that allows you to look straight down. Though I knew an elephant could stand on that floor without it breaking, I was still uneasy.
Tuesday April 26
We head for the Toronto Station and our train The Canadian http://www.viarail.ca/. In our early planning stages my wife and I were just going to sleep on the train in the coach seats from Toronto to Jasper. When making my reservations I found the rooms on the Canadian are very expensive and frequently sold out. However, the cost of a section on the Canadian with fold down seats that make into upper and lower berths was a very reasonable $190 per person for 2.5 days and 2 nights. This put us in the Silver and Blue class with all meals included and gave us access to the dome car at the rear of the train. It also gave us access to the Blue and Gold lounge at the Toronto Station where we were provided with couches, comfortable chairs and free refreshments. Note that if you eat all meals and have dessert in addition to gaining weight you will spend about $50 per person per day. This in effect lowered the actual cost of the beds for the 2 nights to around $40 per person. Since I am 62 and 240 pounds the bonus for me was when our car steward told me that the section beds are the largest on the train.
Meals on the Canadian are a real treat. I love to eat and I never was dissatisfied with a single meal. The staff seemed very willing to fill special requests. You will also find out that train travelers are very friendly and easy to engage in an interesting conversion. The trip from Toronto to Jasper was beautiful and relaxing. It was off season and there were almost always seats available in the dome car. There is something special about sitting in the front seat of the dome watching the scenery come at you from the front. Refreshments and light snacks were available in the observation car most of the day. Others seemed to like sitting in the rear seats with a 270º view of what we had just passed. Surprisingly many passengers remain in their sections or rooms with only a one side view. In northern Ontario a heavy wet snow had made a fairyland-like landscape. The sun came out and combined with crystal blue lakes surrounded by the snow covered landscape.
- Wednesday April 27, 2005
Going west to Winnipeg and Edmonton the scenery changes to endless prairies and farms where from the dome care you could see the towns coming 15 miles away. We were running on time and therefore the train made several stops where the passengers are allowed from10 minutes for a stretch up to a full hour to walk to the nearby towns. By this time I was starting to understand how truly relaxing a train trip can be. For 40 years I had been the driver and therefore missed some of the beauty that passed along the road. This was very different.
Thursday April 28, 2005
By the time we got to the Canadian Rockies the skies were clear and the dome car was full of passengers looking at the mountains and spotting wildlife. Passengers were all cooperating by taking turns going to the front window of the dome car to take photographs. The Canadian Rockies seemed to grow from the flat lands as we approached. On some of the mountains we spotted herds of mountain goats. Even the travelers that normally seemed to be reading were up and taking photographs. In Jasper we departed the train with most of the other passengers continuing on to Vancouver. The Skeena did not leave until the next day. Therefore, we had chosen to spend the night in Jasper rent a car and drive around the park. The weather was beautiful and during the last week in April there are no crowds. Frequently we found that we were the only people at the major attractions. Our host at the motel said that it is her favorite time of year given that the ski crowd is gone and the summer tourist season does not start until the middle of May. We took the tram to the top of the mountain above Jasper just in time to watch the Canadian snake up the valley towards Vancouver. At times were found ourselves driving though herds of elk that seemed almost oblivious to our presence. We hiked along the side of several thundering waterfalls and crystal clear mountain lakes.
Friday April 29, 2005
The follow day we boarded the Skeena which is Via Rails train that runs three times a week from Jasper to Prince Rupert. The train is scheduled to run during daylight hours and consists of one passenger car and a dome observation car. There were only 19 of us on the first leg of the trip from Jasper to Prince George. Therefore everyone could potentially have a seat in the passenger dome. Light meals were served in the downstairs lounge. The train is so short that from the dome you can always see the front and watch the wild life cross the tracks in front of the train. Since there are few roads and grade crossings, every time you heard the engineer sound the horn, you would likely see a moose or bear at the edge of the tracks. Our conductor was always present to describe what we were seeing. This is part of the same route that the Rocky Mountaineer follows during some of its excursion. The ride on the Skeena with the same scenery was costing me about $100 per day in including my B&B compared to the Rocky Mountaineer at around $900 per day. But I will have to give the Rocky Mountaineer the edge in service and meals. If I had the money I would ride it in a New York minute. At Mount Robson the train slowed while the conductor opened the top part of the split doors for photographs. After May 15th there are 2 classes of service on the Skeena. So after that date if you want a seat in dome car, you will pay more. That is another reason to travel early. At Price George everyone gets off the train and spends the night at the accommodation of their choice. We stayed at a bed and breakfast for around $60US. There were also several inexpensive motels with waking distance. Note that it is your responsibility to book the room.
Saturday April 30, 2005
Then next morning we boarded the Skeena for the second half of the trip to Prince Rupert. Now there were only 14 of us on the trip. The scenery was just as good on this second half of the trip as the first. There were more small towns and ranches to see. During the last part of the trip the train runs along the Skeena River which is very wide fast flowing. Some of the rapids were generating waves that had to be 7 feet high. We had a local crab fisherman on board that who told of having friends that lost their lives in the river. During crab season he told of fishing in the open ocean on a 36ft boat just like we had watched on the Discovery Channels Deadliest Catch. After a delay caused by freight train that had one of its couplers break we arrived in Prince Rupert shortly after dark. The train station in Prince Rupert is out by the Alaska Ferry terminal the therefore it was necessary to take a cab to downtown. We stayed at the Pillsbury Guest House http://www.princerupertlibrary.ca/pillsbury/ which was build by the railroad and is the oldest house in town. It and sits on hill overlooking the harbor were we could watch the freighters come in from Japan to load logs. The locals tell us that the decision has been made to make Prince Rupert the 4th deep water port on the west coast of North America because Seattle, LA and San Diego have all run out of capacity. How that will change the railroad and town is a big consideration. My recommendation is to see the town before this all takes place. It will never be the same.
Sunday May 1, 2005
It was a short walk to town and the historic area of Cow Bay. There you will find flower gardens and quaint shops and places to eat. We hiked the trail from Cow Bay to the Seaplane base which runs along the bay on an abandoned railroad. It was during this hike that we discovered just how many eagles there are in this part of Canada. That day and next morning before we departed with had seen around 50 with 14 in one tree near a fishery. My wife got a good laugh as I attempted to photography and eagle about 100 yards away. She just pointed to the one sitting on a pole 30 feet over my head. Being that this was a weekend and early in the tourist season, the museum was closed which turned out to be our only penalty for going in early season during the entire trip.
Monday May 2, 2005
On Monday morning we boarded the Alaska Ferry to Petersburg. The ferry sails some of the same route and the cruise ships. Most of the people traveling with us were locals and were more that willing to tell us what we were seeing. Even the passengers from the lower 48 were interesting. We met Yuka, a young Japanese girl that had decided to travel in Canada and Alaska. We had seen her on the Skeena but not introduced ourselves. We offered to treat her to a meal on the Ferry and she accepted our invitation. She said that she wanted to learn how to speak better English and figured out that a trip where she had to commutate would help her in that process. She told us that the lady who was our conductor on the Skeena had also taken her out to eat in Prince Rupert. That was another plus for the staff at ViaRail. Six months after the trip we are still exchanging photographs of the trip via email. I kept thinking that I was seeing the same scenery and this was costing me very little in comparison to the cruise ship that I had booked for a later part of the trip. Since we would not arrive until 2am in the morning I added a cabin with 2 beds (but no toilet) for the low price of $28. The purser even came to our cabin door and knocked to make sure were awake so that we would not miss or stop. Note that if you are on an over night trip some of the ferries dont have rooms or beds. But most do have heated areas with padded lounge chairs. Just before we got to Petersburg we passed through the Wrangell Narrows. The narrows were lined on each side with strobe lights and the crew constantly moved flood lights along the edge of the water. At times we may have been less than 100 feet from the rocks. According to my maps the channel is less than 400 feet wide at some points. Though it was dark the weather was clear. I just kept thinking that many times in this passage you could not even see the rock due to fog.
Tuesday May 3, 2005
We arrived in Petersburg and promptly went to the Nordic House B&B. The house is right on the water and the tide comes up under the building. Take a look at their web site http://www.nordichouse.net/index.htm. It is everything that it says it is. The next morning we were off walking the Streets of Petersburg. Petersburg has a small shallow harbor and therefore the big cruise lines dont stop there. For that reason Petersburg is a true gem of a community that shows almost no signs associated with the crowds of tourist. We hiked to the site of prehistoric fishing traps and petroglyphs which were carved into the rocks by the early Indians. So just how small is this town? My wife and I ate lunch at one restaurant and dinner at a different restaurant. We were surprised that we had the same waitress at dinner that had waited on us at lunch. We were even recognized by some of the locals that had lunch at the first location. I dont think there was a single other place that we visited during the trip that made us feel so at home. Of all the places we visited no other gave us such an impression that we were seeing the true Alaska.
Wednesday May 4 ,2005
The next morning we were off again on the ferry this time to Sitka http://www.sitka.org/index.html which is the Old Russian capital of Alaska. This time the ferry follows a route were there are few cruise ships through more open water. Closer to Sitka the route follows a narrow twisting channel surrounded by towering mountains. There was a short stop at the Indian village of Kake where as the ferry pulled away from the dock some college age kid arrived too late and could only watch the ferry sail away. The crew told me that once they drop the lines and back away they are not allowed to come back. Unfortunately I think the next ferry was not due there for 2 or 3 days. I can still picture him there sitting holding his head in his hands. So the rule is, dont miss your ferry. This ferry did not have rooms and we ended up sleeping in chairs. Some of the young people on the ferry were well prepared with sleeping bags and slept outside on deck chairs. We had several interesting conversations with very interesting people including Marilyn Jordan George who had homesteaded for several years in Alaska. She was on her way from Petersburg to Sitka to attend her grandsons graduation. She had written a book about her life called Following the Alaskan Dream. After listing to her very interesting stories for over an hour we decided to purchase a copy of her book.
Thursday May 5, 2005
Our B&B in Sitka was Crescent Harbor Hideaway http://www.sitkabedandbreakfast.com/index.htm which sits right at the boat docks on the bay. The lady that owned the B&B was another person with interesting stories because she had homesteaded in Alaska. We watched sea lions play in the harbor and walked the streets with unique shops.
Friday May 6, 2005
Sitka is a beautiful town with a lot of historical and cultural sights. Our most interesting attraction was to the Sheldon Jackson Museum. This is a small museum with the most concentrated number of Indian artifacts that I have ever seen. The Sitka National Historical Park had an excellent display of totem poles and a working wood carver. I had no idea those poles were so big. Some looked to be 40 feet tall. A dormant volcanic mountain overlooks the city. My wife and I even climbed Mt. Verstovia (2650 ft) from sea level up to the 2400 ft level where snow blocked the trail. The trail was very steep and at times we had to pull ourselves up the slope using both arms and legs. In places there were ropes and cables. Both of us are 59, and 9 hours on the mountain made for a full day. We fell asleep that night before our head hit the pillow.
Saturday May 7, 2005
I had intended to stay away from commercial flights. However, since I wanted to ride the Alaska railway from Fairbanks to Anchorage, I had no choice but to fly. I also had to be in Fairbanks for Saturday night given that until the middle of May the train only runs north from Anchorage on Saturday and South from Fairbanks on Sunday morning. To maximize my flight time and see more from the fair I booked an Alaska Air flight that would land in Juneau and Anchorage on the way to Fairbanks. As luck would have it, that day in Alaska was crystal clear with unlimited visibility. My wife and I spent our most memorable commercial flight ever looking out at the snow covered costal mountains, glaciers lakes and rivers flowing into the sea. Even the locals on the flight said that the visibility was very unusual for Alaska.
Saturday May 7th, 2005
We arrived in Fairbanks around 10:30am. The Alaska railroad was having its annual Free Day where kids and parents were invited to take short rides. A Dixieland Band from the local military base was doing an excellent job of entertaining. Drinks and hotdogs were provided for free. The Denali Star cars were open for tours along with one of the railroads new SD70MACs. We stayed at the Minnie Street Bed and Breakfast which is only a 2 block walk from the center of town. Fairbanks has an interesting central park and a number of historical buildings. The Visitors Center in the center of town will loan you a self guided walking tour tape which describes the places of interest. At this time of year the river boat rides were not running.
Sunday May 8th 2005,
At 8:00am we boarded the Aurora train to Fairbanks which runs only weekends from mid September to mid May. During the summer schedule the Denali Star runs on a daily basis. When we boarded I noted that connected to our train were all the cars for the Denali Star that would make its first trip north the following week. Though the cars were not officially in service and the air-conditioning was not turned on, the crew allowed many of us to walk the 10 cars to the rear of the train and sit in the observation dome. Around Hurricane Gulch the terrain was spectacular with mountain goats watching us from the cliffs. Actually I didnt see them. But Sharon earned a reputation of having the best set of eyes on the trip. If she said she saw wildlife, everyone on the train looked. The Aurora is also a flag stop train which means that hikers and isolated homesteaders can flag down the train. It will then stop in the middle of nowhere to pick up or drop off passengers and supplies. Conductors said that they would frequently drop off 2000 pounds of supplies to some of the residents that lived more than 10 miles into the bush. When they asked how they were going to get it all up the trail they would just replied that 20 round trips during the summer would get er done. We even saw some of the residents loading their sled dogs. I dont think the Denali Star (summer tourist train) does flag stops because it includes many of the observation cars owned by the cruise lines. During the winter of 2004/2005 the Denali park area had several feet of snow while Anchorage and Fairbanks had a below average amount. As we passed the higher elevations near Denali Park many of the 30ft pine trees appeared to be only 10 feet tall. I should note that if you intend to visit Denali Park, May is still too early. Due to the snow pack, many of the bus routes that get you to the base of Mt. McKinley do not start until the middle of June. My wife and I were not concerned about this given that we had been in Alaska in 1990 and spent a day in the park with McKinley in clear full view. Yet we did see McKinley from the train for over a period of 10 to 20 minutes. As the train passed over Hurricane Gulch, came to a stop for photographs. This was a mixed blessing in that some of the passengers just wanted to get off the 296 ft high trestle. The dining car is very simple with a small but adequate selection for lunch and dinner. We understood that the Denali Star was scheduled to be upgraded with a new GoldStar Service with deluxe double deck observations cars from Colorado Railcar to be put in service later in 2005. We arrived in Anchorage that evening and I got a cab to the airport to pick up our rental car.
Monday May 9th to Friday May 13th.
For the next 5 days we used our rental car to drive and cover most major roads and towns in southern Alaska. I was surprised to learn that before May 15th there is a surplus of motel rooms. One Anchorage motel told me that they didnt have any more advertised $39 rooms and that I would have to take a room with two bedrooms and a kitchen. Therefore, I assumed that I was going to be in for a sticker shock. However, when the desk clerk said $45, the only thing I could do was quickly say OK. There are a few not-to-miss sights in Anchorage. Among them are The Anchorage Museum and the Indian Cultural center. To the south a boat tour through Kenai Fjords National Park at Seward is a must. During our tour I saw more seals and killer whales than I ever thought possible. Again my sharp-eyed wife earned congratulations from the captain when she spotted a black bear heading up the side of the mountain. Then add in a few glaciers flowing into bay, some sea lions and mountain goat for one great trip. Drive up to Exit Glacier at Seward and a short hike to the ice. There we saw a wolverine (which this time I saw first) at about 30 yards and a black bear much higher on the mountain. Drive out to Homer which is a town that you should see but I have a very difficult time describing.
Saturday May 14, 2005
We boarded the Glacier Discovery Train Saturday morning in Anchorage for a short trip to Whittier which is the start of our southbound Cruise on the Island Princess. Readers should note that at this half way point in the trip I have only spent around 1/3 ($3,300) of my total budget. I had decided to do a cruise given that I wanted to make Glacier Bay a part of my trip. Had I been willing to skip Glacier Bay, I would have used the Alaska Ferry for my return stopping in Skagway Juneau and Ketchikan on our way to Vancouver. We would have seen most of the same sights, done the same tours and saved around $1500. However, I decided on Glacier Bay because I didnt plan to travel this direction again. To get the best possible views, I booked a cabin with a 270 degree view from the balcony. In looking at photographs of the Island Princess I noted that there were 2 cabins that had a wraparound view from the rear corner of the ship. If you look at the deck plans for either the Island or Coral Princess you will see that rooms E736 or E737 have balconies that wrap around the back that give the normal 180 degree view plus another 90 degrees that covers the rear and what is passing on the other side of the ship. I also found a post from a person that had used those rooms that confirmed the view from those balconies. The post also noted that those balconies on the Emerald deck could not be viewed from above by other passengers, which is a problem on some other decks. Given that those were the only balconies of that type on the ship at any price I assume that they might be a premium room with a high cost. However, that was not the case as these were considered to be standard balcony room at $1195 per person. I chose to book 736 at that price early in order to make my other transportation plans. I knew that the price would drop around $200 to $300 per person close to sailing time. But I was not willing to risk my room availability or location. I would have been very difficult to change my schedule given that departure the Island Princess was the only cruise sailing south on my target dates. We spent most of our time either on the balcony or in the buffet where there were several tables with widows the overlooked the bow of the ship.
Day 2 was cruising College Fjord. Seals populated the small chunks of ice floating in the bay. Again Sharon got the crowd to the windows when she was the first to spot a pod of killer whales. On day 3 we entered Glacier Bay on an almost clear day. The glaciers were spectacular. The water was so clam that they showed almost perfect reflections of the mountains. But the treat of the day was just after we started our departure from the bay. The ship started doing an unexpected 180 degree turn. Soon it was announce by the park ranger that the Captain has spotted a very large brown bear with 2 cubs feeding at the waters edge. The boat was moved toward the bears and many of the passengers enjoy a 15 minute show until the bears decided to move back up the mountain. Day 4 was the Skagway and a trip on Yukon and White Pass Railroad http://www.whitepassrailroad.com/. It is difficult not to enjoy this trip unless you just cant stand heights. Our cruise director told me that the train is the most popular shore excursion on the entire cruise. Within an hour we had climbed from 60 degree weather into areas with 6 feet of snow. We seemed to be passing waterfalls every few hundred feet. The conductor said they change every 4th tie once a year which keeps the track in excellent condition. As a result the train ride is smooth running at a moderate speed. We did the National Park tour which gave us the basics of Skagways history. Day 5 was Juneau and the Pilots Choice helicopter trip from Temsco http://www.temscoair.com/. Three days before the helicopter ride I mentioned it to my wife. Her reply to me was YOU SCHEDULED A WHAT!!. Fortunately another woman on the cruise told her it was not that bad. In fact it was very smooth and Sharon had a great time. There were only three of us plus the pilot of the 6 passenger helicopter giving everyone a window seat. The pilot gave us one glacier landing and we walked around the glacier for almost 30 minutes. He then said that since the visibility was unlimited and there were no clouds that he had a special treat. For that he flew us to the very top of one of the highest ridges, landed and let us out to take photographs. It seem like we were on top of the world as he was able to point out mountains that were almost 70 miles in the distance. Day 6 was Ketchikan and a Float Plane trip into Misty Fjord with Michelle of Island Wings http://www.islandwings.com/info.html. Michelle does a water landing and lets her passenger get out on shore. The other vendors that schedule through the cruise line might do the landing but you normally dont get to go ashore. We flew by cliffs on a few hundred feet off our wing tip that had dozens of small water falls cascading over 1000 feet into the Fjord. Day 7 was at sea. The sea condition report on our room television said that seas were running at 20 feet. I had thought the bed seemed to be moving that night. This was the first time on the entire cruise that we could tell that the ship was moving over any rough conditions. During this day Princess made up for the lack of tours with enjoyable entertainment. The Princess Dancers and two of the singers were just excellent. Day 8 was our arrival in Vancouver.
Saturday May 21th
We disembarked the Island Princess and took one of the hop-on-hop-off trolley tours of Vancouver. The Oriental Gardens and the market were only two of the great features. That evening we boarded Amtraks Cascades train to Seattle. Departing Vancouver, the track was very rough with a side to side motion. At times that train ran very close along the edge of water as it proceeded south. A map on the TV monitors displayed our progress. We arrived in Seattle and took a cab to our hotel.
Sunday May 22nd
We had the most of the day free in Seattle. Therefore we road the full length of the water front trolley and spent several hours in the Market. At 4:00 pm we boarded Amtraks Empire Builder for our trip to Chicago. I had reserved a roomette which is Amtraks version of a bunk bed section but with a door and space for one person to stand. The privacy is better than on the Canadian but the beds are not as big. The observation cars are good but the seating tends to focus you to one side of the train. But even after 3 plus weeks of travel my wife and I were astounded by the beauty of Glacier National Park and the rest of the trip to Chicago. Due to the schedule, I had decided to take this train east bound which determined that pattern for much of our trip. Had we taken it west bound and the train been running late, we might have passed through Glacier Park after dark. We found that the service and the meals were very good. As on the Canadian, the meals were included with the room and I gained a few more pounds. We passed ranches with wide open spaces and with cotton ball clouds hanging in a deep blue sky. Horses and cattle and pronghorn antelope were frequent sights.
Tuesday May 24th
We arrive in Chicago and boarded Capitol Limited to Pittsburgh. We skipped the sleeping accommodations given that we were going to have to get off in Pittsburgh at 4am in the morning and catch the 7:30am Pennsylvanian to Altoona. As it turned out this was the only itinerary change during our entire trip. Just before we headed for Toronto we heard on the news that the Three Rivers was gone and the direct New York to Chicago run eliminated.
Wednesday May 25th
We board our train in Pittsburgh and head east toward Johnstown. We passed around the Horseshoe Curve which is much more impressive from track side than it is aboard the train. Soon we were pulling into Altoona after using exactly 30 days on our rail pass.
So what were my impressions after 12 days on trains? Overall very good. I never ran into a rude or lazy railroad employee. In fact it was just the opposite as most went out of their way to be courteous. The trains were for the most part were on time and we had no equipment breakdowns.
In the US we tend to beat up on the service provide by Amtrak. One problem is that the US government threatens our Amtrak employees with the loss of their jobs about once every other year. I am not sure how I would work under those conditions. But most do with dignity and grace. The Canadian Government also has to supplement the funding of their long distance trains. However, they look at as something that is for the greater public good.