Only 680,000 people live in Alaska, yet if superimposed on a map of the continental United States, the state would stretch from the west to the east coast. When visiting, consider a flexible, independent tour that combines rail and road travel to the best of the south central and interior regions. Start in Anchorage; hop a train south to Seward for a visit to Kenai Fjords National Park, then travel north to Denali National Park and on to Fairbanks and Chena Hot Springs. You’ll sample everything Alaska has to offer: glacier hikes, 20-plus hours of summer daylight, miles of wildflowers in bloom, and rivers bigger and more prevalent than highways. This year, the 49th state celebrates its 50th birthday, so now is an ideal time to plan a trip.
Anchorage could easily be overshadowed by the beauty of its backdrop―six mountain ranges and sweeping views of Cook Inlet. But in addition to its scenery, this diverse city boasts an abundance of excellent restaurants showcasing fresh seafood and seasonal vegetables from the nearby Mat-Su Valley, where in summer, days of nearly 24 hours of light produce a giant and tasty harvest.
Where to stay: The Copper Whale Inn bed-and-breakfast sits close to the Coastal Trail and enjoys stunning panoramas of the Alaska Range.
Eat smart: The menu changes daily at Sacks Café; look for locally sourced standouts, like Halibut Cove oysters served raw on the half shell.
Be fit: Cycle the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, which offers views of Cook Inlet. Downtown Bicycle Rental provides everything you need for your outing.
Live well: The second floor Alaska Gallery of the Anchorage Museum chronicles the state’s history, from the first native inhabitants through statehood.
Many consider the Coastal Classic run from Anchorage to Seward the most beautiful stretch of the Alaska Railroad.
Seward, a busy harbor town 126 miles south of Anchorage and the southern terminus of the railroad, sits at the head of Resurrection Bay, an excellent fishing spot for halibut and silver salmon off the Gulf of Alaska. The city also serves as the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park, an Ice Age relic where glaciers meet the ocean.
Where to stay: You’ll find the Seward Windsong Lodge two miles from the railway depot (the lodge offers a free shuttle). Its tranquil setting offers refuge from the bustle of town.
Eat smart: For lunch, try a local favorite, the Smoke Shack (907-224-7427), a barbecue joint housed in an old railway car near the depot. You won’t go wrong with the moist and flavorful pulled pork sandwich doused in jalapeño-orange sauce.
Be fit: Hike Exit Glacier, a rare opportunity to see a glacier without helicoptering in. Ranger-led walks are available daily, starting from the Exit Glacier Nature Center (907-224-2132).
Live well: Sailing from Seward’s Small Boat Harbor, a full-day Kenai Fjords Tour cruises throughout the park, offering great whale watching and an up-close look at the calving Holgate Glacier.