The Glacier Discovery Train is a scenic ride offering the very best views in Alaska, including mountains, wildlife, glaciers, waterfalls, and historical sights. The train chugs along at a slow and leisurely pace with chances to hop on, hop off, and customize your trip with an excursion. Glacier Discovery focuses on providing guests with an intimate introduction to Alaska’s unique nature and landscapes. With guided commentary covering ecology and history, it is not uncommon for the conductor to stop the train for wildlife sightings and ample photos of cascading waterfalls. Whether you’re interested in getting off the beaten track, looking to add an epic adventure, explore quiet nature, or get some frame-worthy photographs, then this tour is for you.
A day riding the Alaska Railroad’s Glacier Discovery train is fully customizable. With stops in Girdwood, Seward, Portage, and Spencer Glacier, you can create a trip starting in Anchorage, stopping at Portage to visit the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, and finishing with glacier views. Or you could head to Whitter for a glacier and wildlife cruise. You could then end with a night in Girdwood at one of Alaska’s most luxurious hotels before heading back to Anchorage the next day. For the adventurous type, you can hop off and for an overnight camp (camping equipment required as well as reserving a spot) or book a rafting excursion before catching the train back to Anchorage.
The train makes frequent stops, and you can hop on or hop off, including places like the Spencer Whistle Stop. However, the train only runs once a day RT, and you must let the conductor or train staff know what your planned schedule is. The route can be somewhat complicated, but the Alaska Railroad staff are accommodating and will prompt you when it is time to hop off and when the train will return to pick you back up. For this reason, I recommend making sure your battery is fully charged or wearing a watch to make sure you know what time it is to catch the train.
Train Route and Dates
The train only runs from Anchorage to the Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop from early May to the beginning of June (May 29 – June 4, 2021). Starting June 4th, you can ride the entire route from Anchorage to Grandview until it closes for the end of the season, beginning of September (Sept 6, 2021). So, keep that in mind when thinking about how you want to customize your day. Worry not for the spring and early summer travelers, the route from Anchorage to Spencer Glacier hits all the fantastic highlights, and you won’t miss a thing.
No matter how you customize your day, you’re likely to start your day from Anchorage. The train departs from the Anchorage train station at 9:45 am. The train runs along the coast of the Turnagain Arm. Where to sit? You can move around the train, so it doesn’t matter.. but..
On your left side, you have mountains with chances to see Dall Sheep defying gravity and clinging to the rocks.
Dall Sheep males have massive rounded curled horns, and females have smaller curved horns. The horns grow rather quickly in the summer, and they stop growing in the winter. You can tell their age by looking at the growth rings on the horn, and females up to 19 years old have been spotted. Look for bits of white along the mountain.
On the right, you have sweeping views of the inlet with water and mountain views. If you’re fortunate, you’ll spot a beluga whale.
This particular pod of Belugas is endangered, and there are only about 250-300 left. They are a genetically distinct pod separated from other pods in Norway, N. Alaska, and Canada for generations. The pod is threatened by global warming, noise and toxic pollution, and killer whale predation. Look for white melon heads. You’ll likely think the waves are belugas, but it is probably just a wave as they are tough to spot.
You’ll learn all about Alaska’s unique geology of the region, including the deadly glacial silt and bore tide, so I’ll save more juicy details for the commentators on the train. Your first stop will be a quick one in Girdwood.
BOOK ALL OPTIONS THROUGH THE ALASKA RAILROAD, except anything you do in Girdwood, such as staying at the hotel. You do not need to purchase separate tickets or book excursions on your own. *Prices are for people 12 and up. Children receive a different price.
Option 1: Overnight in Girdwood.
You can choose option 1 and stay the day and night in Girdwood and continue your journey the next day. Basically, you can catch the Glacier Discovery train to Girdwood, hop off, stay the night, and then board the train the following morning on its first stop in Girdwood. You can also choose to stay in Girdwood on the way back if you want, staying in Girdwood after your train ride and then catch it back into Anchorage the following evening. Of course, you can ride the train RT from Anchorage if you don’t want option 1. Either way, you still need to pay full price for RT tickets. You just need to book a return trip the following day if you overnight.
I have a complete guide to Girdwood coming soon, but I highly recommend staying in Girdwood for at least a night on the way there or back. The Hotel Alyeska is one of Alaska’s best hotels, with a spa, pool, fine dining, hiking, mountain biking, great local pubs, and restaurants. This is my favorite town in Alaska. I was a big snowboarder and basically lived here in winter. You can ride the tram to the top of the mountains for great views of 7 glaciers, fancy cocktails, or just a brisk hike. I love Girdwood so much I got married here (wedding image above).
Option 2: Visit the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center
After the train leaves Girdwood, it continues to a stop called Portage – named after Portage glacier. Here you can get off and choose to visit the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center is an animal rehabilitation and research center. They save certain animals and release them into the wild if they are able. Some animals like Chena, the lynx that was abused and kept in a chicken coop her whole life, were brought to the center and live a pampered life as close to the wild as they can get. The center has also successfully reintroduced an extinct group of wood bison back to the wilds of Alaska. It’s a large area with lots of room for the animals, and you can spend time walking around and viewing the brown and black bears that live there full time, along with lynx, and other animals such fox, muskox, moose, and eagle.
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While you’re visiting the center, the train continues to Whittier – it will pick you up on its return from Whitter. For those that want to go on a glacier and wildlife cruise in Whitter, you’ll stay on the train. You should 100% make this stop unless you’ve booked the glacier cruise for the day.
- Price: $220* includes tickets to the wildlife center and RT passage on the Glacier Discovery Train
- Time: 1.5 hours at the wildlife center
Option 3: Glacier and Wildlife Cruise in Prince William Sound
As the train departs Portage, it enters the longest rail tunnel in N. America and emerges into a charming fishing village with its own weather pattern.
Fun fact: Most of Whittier’s residents live in one building. My mom lived here when she was a little, and you might notice a derelict building in the distance. She lived there with her family along with all the other Whitter residents. It would snow so much during her childhood they had to use a tunnel system to get to school. Otherwise, everything they needed was in the building, including Dr., post office, and little market. Now, most residents live in the modern central building you see.
You’ll disembark the train and board a glacier and wildlife cruise with Phillips 26 Glacier cruises. The cruise explores fjords and bay for views of tidewater glaciers and wildlife. A hot meal is provided. The train will pick you up on its way home at the end of the day.
- Price: $284* – includes glacier and wildlife cruise and RT passage on the Glacier Discovery Train
- Time: 5-hour cruise
Option 4: Spencer Glacier Walk
The train leaves Whittier, returning to Portage to pick up the Wildlife Center passengers, and continues to Spencer Glacier, the next stop of the day. The train stops at Spencer Glacier, and you can disembark to enjoy a 3.3-mile walk out to the Glacier trail terminus. There are plenty of reasons to stop and take photos along the way. The trail is gravel, but it is primarily flat and well maintained. You’ll have about 2.5 hours here, so if you’re a fast walker, you can also head down the Glacier Discovery trail, which takes you to a lovely river over a rustic wooden bridge. There are restrooms and a sheltered area in case the weather turns. The train will pick you up on its way back, and you’ll need to make sure you are back at the stop on time.
- Price: $132* for RT tickets on Glaicer Discovery Train from Anchorage to Spencer. Exploring is free!
- Time: About 2.5 hours at Spencer Glacier/Lake
Sub-option 4a: Camp at Spencer Glacier in one of 3 campsites. Each campsite accommodates multiple tents ranging from 10 people – 20 people. You’ll need some friends, a couple of tents, and proper gear. Reservations are popular, so you’ll need to contact Alaska Railroad as soon as you know you want to do this and see what your options are. This is what I did for my bachelorette, and we had such a great time building a bonfire, drinking that bottle of whiskey, and maybe skinny dipping in the glacier lake, but shhh, that’s a secret and definitely not recommended.
Option 5: Float Rafting on Spencer Lake
If you’re looking to get up close and personal with the glacier, you can book an excursion through Alaska Railroad for a leisurely paddle around Spencer Lake. This is a relaxed excursion or float, and kids as old as 5 are welcome to join. You’ll float away from Spencer glacier down the Placer River with your guide. The train makes a special stop just to pick you up along the riverside. Life jackets and rain boots are included.
- Price: $258 Includes float trip and RT tickets on the Glacier Discovery Train
- Time: About 2 hours
Combo Options: Option 2 & 4 or Option 2 & 5
You can stack options, and you can combine the Wildlife Conservation Center with either of the Spencer Glacier options, including the walk or the float trip.
- Prices vary based on the combo.
Option 6: Stay on the Train
If you’re happy as a clam just kicking back and staying on the train from point A to B and back to A again, you are more than welcome. The ride from Spencer Glacier to Grandview is lovely. You’ll see two other glaciers, including Bartlett and Trail Glacier. The trail winds through the Grandview valley with stunning exclusive views on either side.
- Price: $148* RT from Anchorage to Grandview
Alaska Railroad and the Chugach Forest Whistle Stops
From Portage to Grandview, the train may make some unexpected stops and whistle stops. Locals use these whistle stops to access backcountry regions in the Chugach Forest for things like packrafting, hiking, skiing, or other activities. You can use the train as a whistle-stop and get on and off as you please as long as you have the right ticket, equipment and know the train schedule to make sure you’re not stuck out overnight when you don’t plan to do so. I only recommend this for more advanced outdoor people that have the proper equipment, and outdoor savvy. But, you’ll notice people coming and going along these stops with lots of outdoor gear.
After the train reaches the final destination in Grandview, it turns around, making all the same stops picking up rafters and those at Spencer Glacier. It stops through Whittier and again in Girdwood before returning to Anchorage as the sun begins to set.
Option 7: Take a motorcoach back to Girdwood or Anchorage.
You have the option to skip the trip back into Whitter and to Anchorage and ride a coach home. It saves you some time, but honestly, I love riding back toward Anchorage, as you can look out beyond the inlet to see distant mountains such as Denali on a clear day and some of our Aleutian volcanoes.