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Originally published March 15, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 30, 2009 at 1:34 PM

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Ride the Alaska Railroad for retro, relaxed view of 49th state's grandeur

The affordable Alaska Railroad winds from Seward to Fairbanks, via Anchorage and Denali National Park with views of bears and beauty.

The Los Angeles Times

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If You Go

Alaska by rail

Alaska Railroad: The Alaska Railroad offers many rail, hotel and sightseeing combos in the summer season, running from May to September, or you can arrange them separately. For a Seward to Fairbanks trip, via Anchorage, put together the "Coastal Classic" and "Denali Star" day-trip routes. Basic rail fare for the Seward-to-Anchorage leg of the trip starts at $75 one way, and Anchorage to Fairbanks starts at $167. 800-544-0552 or www.alaskarailroad.com.

Alaska tourist information: www.travelalaska.com/

Los Angeles Times and Seattle Times staff

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The Alaska Railroad slices up the middle of the state, into the heart of a place that is camera-ready and bountiful beyond belief.

The rail line begins in the little seaport of Seward, chug-a-lugs north to Anchorage, past Denali National Park and finally to Fairbanks, an almost 500-mile jaunt of day trips throughout Alaska's short, short summer.

Why the train? Because, unless you're a moose or have moose tendencies, parts of the 49th state are accessible only by rail.

Why the train? Well, does your rental car come with a bartender? Or a fresh-faced young tour guide? The train is also an affordable throwback — comfy, almost clubby, with way more wiggle room than a plane or car.

Why the train? Because your dog sled is in the shop. Honestly, quit asking so many questions and climb aboard.

Scenic Seward

This wet and snowy town was Russian soil until U.S. Secretary of State William Seward stole Alaska for a song in 1867. (Can you imagine the course of world events had he not?)

Today, Seward is a major cruise hub and the southernmost point of the state-owned rail line.

Tourists from the cruise ships hop aboard here, as do day-trippers down from Anchorage. And I hop aboard the eight-car Alaska Railroad train here, headed north.

Right out of the chute, this is just the sort of dramatic scenery I'd always envisioned: glaciers, waterfalls, gushing gorges and wildlife just everywhere.

"Black bear off to the right," one of the train guides says.

Seats are assigned, but you're free to roam the train to find a better spot or scout a better vantage point: window, dome car, the open vestibules between trains. Even in coach, the cars are roomy, bright, with an elegant retro feel.

The railroad is known for its easy pace, stopping for animal sightings or glacier views. Mileposts mark the way, and maps delivered by the teenage guides make it easy to plot your progress.

At Mile 50, we hit a series of S curves. At Mile 52, we pass Spencer Glacier, named for a railroad employee who fell into a crevasse and died in 1914.

"Black bears in the middle of the tracks, scurrying to the left," a guide announces over the public-address system.

Anchorage stop

Just to be clear, the Alaska Railroad does not overnight anywhere. It offers a series of day trips on various routes. So I hop off at Anchorage to spend a day or two knocking about this town of 300,000 fleece-lined souls.

Anchorage, with about half the state's population, is certainly its most urban city, but the downtown is steps away from salmon fishing and a sensational nature trail that wraps along Cook Inlet.

I spend a morning downtown, checking out the gift shops and restaurants along Fourth Avenue.

On to Denali

Back on the train, north we go like a lovesick salmon.

This next run, Anchorage to Denali National Park, is strikingly different from the Seward leg — flatter, with thick forests of birch and spruce. The state's quirky history is laid out here, and it's easy to get a sense of how settlers spread north in search of gold, solitude, coal and adventure.

Across an arm of the Cook Inlet is Mount Susitna, the "Sleeping Lady." The inlet itself is hemmed with mud flats — glacial silt. Think of this as wet concrete. Stay off the flats, the locals say. If you get stuck there, you'll drown in the raging tides.

"Moose off to the right," a tour guide reports. "Look for trumpet swans and beaver along here."

At Mile 227, we stop for a moment in Talkeetna, a town with one parking meter. In 1923, President Harding drove an honorary spike for the railroad here; he died a week later. Lore had it that his wife poisoned him during his stay, but doctors later said he died of a stroke or a heart attack.

After Talkeetna, I drop by the dining car for a serving of Kodiak Stew ($18), a hearty blend of reindeer, buffalo and beef served in a big bread bowl.

After an eight-hour ride on the train, we're nearing Denali National Park, nesting spot of Mount McKinley.

There's a variety of bus tours you can take in Denali (see www.reservedenali.com). The ultimate tour of the park — besides on foot — is to climb aboard one of the planes or small helicopters. A company called Era runs helicopter tours of the park from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.: www.flightseeingtours.com. Prices start at $335 person for the two — hour tour, more than the whole Seward-to-Fairbanks rail trip costs for a coach ticket. But the helicopter jaunts are an unforgettable way to appreciate the majesty of this land and its crown jewel, the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, North America's tallest anything.

Our summertime trip takes place after a hard rain, and the views are tremendous. We see several grizzlies, some caribou and a smattering of snow-white Dall sheep. From above, you get a real feel for the different elevations, where the tree-line ends and how trickles of glacial runoff turn into raging rivers.

And there, straight ahead, as perfect as a painting, is a crisp, clear view of Mount McKinley.

On to Fairbanks

Back on the train and headed toward Fairbanks, the scenery is lush. Mountains give way to meadows and thick rolling forest. Off to the right is the Nenana River, dashing alongside the train for the first hour or two out of Denali. About 300 yards away, a large moose plows through a lake.

For this final part of our journey, I have booked the GoldStar Service, the railroad's first-class section. It turns out to be mostly unnecessary because coach travel is almost as big and grand.

The big draw for GoldStar: Passengers are seated in the upper-level dome car, and the dining car and bars are closer. For my money, book in coach and save your money for a helicopter ride or a rafting trip in Denali.

End of the line

Fairbanks is the first disappointment of the trip. Little to do, and a significant part of the population appears to be descendants of Santa Claus, with billowy white beards worn as neckwear.

So, knowing what I know now, here's how I'd schedule my Alaska Railroad adventure:

• Fly into Fairbanks and catch the first train south.

• Stop for two days in Denali.

• Reboard for Anchorage, and stop there for a day or two.

• Finish up with the wondrous Anchorage-to-Seward run, saving the best scenery for last.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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