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McKinley Explorer: A Fantastic Train Journey In Alaska

The Orient Express, Rocky Mountaineer, and Glacier Express are all bucket-list classic train trips around the globe. Alaska’s version, the McKinley Explorer is just as picturesque.

The McKinley Explorer train offers scenic views beyond imagination. The journey is enhanced with bar service, a restaurant serving delectable breakfast and lunch menus, and insightful tour commentary.

Along with gorgeous views, passengers could see some of Alaska’s big five: moose, bears, Dall sheep, caribou, and wolves.

Riding the McKinley Explorer to Denali National Park

This specialty train service offers upper-level luxury seating and stunning views through its dome windows. It travels between Anchorage, Talkeetna, and Denali National Park.

Owned by parent company Carnival Cruises, Holland America guests primarily use McKinley Explorer for their cruise and land tours. Princess Cruises has similar rail cars with their own royal blue and white logo and runs under the name Princess Rail. 

I took the all-day journey from Anchorage to Denali and share my thoughts on the service, amenities, and travel experience.

History Of The McKinley Explorer

Alaska first introduced rail service between Anchorage, Denali, and Fairbanks in the early 1920s. The Alaska Railroad operates year-round and offers the Aurora Winter Train in the off-season.

Holland America Line developed and launched the McKinley Explorer train service in 1996. It was designed to provide passengers a comfortable and scenic way to travel through Alaska’s wilderness.

In 2004 and 2006, the train service expanded its fleet by adding ten new train cars to meet the needs of its passengers. These new train cars featured enhanced amenities, including oversized windows, improved seating, and better climate control.

These carriages are wheelchair accessible and have an internal lift system for those who can’t tackle the steep spiral stairs.

Accessible lift on the train
Accessible lift on the train

Each two-story dome car can carry up to 88 passengers, and the upper viewing area offers 360-degree views of Alaska’s stunning landscapes. The cars are even wheelchair accessible.

The McKinley Explorer is separate from the Denali Star, which runs on a different rail line. The 234-mile trip between Anchorage and Denali takes eight hours.

With breakfast and lunch service, I enjoyed the scenic views of Alaska’s wilderness and wildlife while savoring delicious food. The train also has guides who narrate the route, mentioning points of interest and signaling wildlife sightings.

Routes And Destinations

Unlike the Alaska Railroad, which has routes from Whittier and Seward to Denali and Fairbanks, the McKinley Explorer offers a shorter journey. It runs from Anchorage to Denali and vice versa, providing a later departure time than the Alaska Railroad.

McKinley Explorer train docked in Denali
McKinley Explorer train

The Anchorage to Denali and Denali to Anchorage trains leave at 9:15 am daily and arrive at their destination at 5 pm after a brief stop in Talkeetna.

Travelers not on a Holland America cruise and land tour can purchase independent tickets, subject to availability. There are options to board in Anchorage, Talkeetna, and Denali.

My Experience Aboard The McKinley Explorer

Holland America bused us to the train station from the Westmark Anchorage Hotel to board the McKinley Explorer. We embarked on this adventure early in the season, the first week of June, and our train car was almost full.

Upon arrival, we presented our picture ID and the tickets, conveniently included in our hotel welcome package. All guests are assigned seats, so don’t worry about which side or where it is because all spots have great views.

Rows number seats and seats A to D, with A and B being on the left or Denali side when traveling south to north.

McKinley Explorer upper domed car
McKinley Explorer upper domed car

After going upstairs, I noticed the McKinley Explorer’s stand-out feature, its glass dome design. The domed windows running the length of the carriage allowed for unobstructed views of the stunning Alaskan scenery.

The seating area, reminiscent of an airplane, was designed with comfort in mind. The seats facing forward were plush with lots of legroom, perfect for the eight-hour journey. Each seat was equipped with a tray and a fold-down footrest.

The lower level of the car had a dining area, where we savored lunch with a view, two restrooms, and an outdoor area to enjoy the unobstructed views. The train, including the outdoor areas, is non-smoking.

The dining area can seat 30, so on most runs, the train can accommodate most guests who want to dine in two seatings. Since we were a party of two, we shared the table with two strangers.

McKinley Explorer dining area
McKinley Explorer dining area

I got up a lot during the journey to hang out on the deck, where I was constantly in awe of the views. Be sure to have layers because it’s windy and cold outside.

With the door constantly opened and closed, it created a draft upstairs. Our seats 18A and 18B were by the staircase, so we felt the cold. Everyone behind us complained of the cold too, and we ended up wearing jackets for the duration of the train ride.

As the train travels between areas, it passes the Denali Star and her sister train. At the mid-point, the trains stop and do a “meet.” It allows staff to switch trains and get supplies if one train runs low on an item.

Highlights Of The Ride

The train ride had many highlights, including spectacular views on both sides.

One of my favorite spots was crossing Hurricane Gulch, a breathtaking 918-foot-long bridge that spans a deep canyon. Our train stopped on the bridge so we could capture photos.

Hurricane Gulch
Hurricane Gulch

Another picturesque area is the beautiful Matanuska Valley, known for its stunning views of glaciers and mountains. The Nancy Lake region was scenic, with numerous bodies of water visible from the train.

Once our train reached Denali, Holland America transferred us to our McKinley Chalet Resort hotel, a short distance away.

From there, we enjoyed complimentary shuttles to the Denali National Park Visitor Center and the 6-hour Tundra Wilderness Tour.

Breakfast And Lunch

Train wait staff provided delicious breakfast and lunch options during the eight-hour journey. The train operates on a cashless system, so a credit card is required to purchase beverages, food, and souvenirs.

Staff asked if we wanted to dine and assigned dining times. The dining area can only accommodate 30 guests in batches, and we couldn’t choose a time. However, we could ask to wait for a later seating if we weren’t quite hungry.

The breakfast menu is simple but includes classics such as eggs, bacon, and pastries. You can also order the Reindeer Sausage Breakfast Burrito. The biggest hit were the cinnamn buns, which sold out quickly. Some guests requested them topped with bacon, something I’ve never seen before.

Delicious Moose Kiss drink
Delicious Moose Kiss drink

During the journey, we could purchase snacks and beverages, including bar drinks, in the upper viewing area. I recommend the Moose Kiss which is made from Carolans Irish Cream and whipped cream. There was also a selection of railway items for purchase.

For lunch, the dining room offered a variety of sandwiches, burgers, and salads. Alaskan inspirations included Salmon Chowder, Reindeer Chili, and Seafood Rolls, the latter of which combined cod, shrimp, and crab.

There aren’t many gluten-free options for those with food allergies. Since I have celiac disease, I went with the Classic Rail Breakfast with gluten-free toast. It was so filling that we skipped lunch.

Classic rail breakfast with gluten-free toast
Classic rail breakfast with gluten-free toast

Do note that sandwiches come with Alaskan chips fried in peanut oil—a surprising choice since peanuts can cause serious allergies for some.

Onboard Services And Amenities

The McKinley Explorer has attentive staff, and cars have guides who narrate the history and culture of Alaska. Narration isn’t continuous, so there’s lots of time for quiet moments or even a nap.

Take my advice and sleep early the night before. I didn’t want to nap on the train for fear of missing out on something incredible.

The trains don’t have Wi-Fi or charging stations. If you plan to take many videos or pictures, it’s advisable to take a portable charger.

Overall, we had a fantastic experience aboard the McKinley Explorer. From the jaw-dropping views to the delicious food and excellent service, it was a journey we’ll never forget and one we plan to repeat.

Lower area to the outer deck
Lower area to the outer deck

Planning Your Journey

There are a few things to consider if you want to experience the McKinley Explorer to ensure you have the best experience possible. Here are some tips to help you get started:

Booking Independently Or As A Package

Guests who book a cruise and land tour with Holland America will include time on the train, either north or south. The benefit of a package is that the cruise line handles all the steps, including luggage pickup and delivery and transportation to and from the train stations.

If seats are available outside of these bookings, independent guests may purchase them. This train is very popular, and spots can fill up quickly. 

Booking And Reservations

Independent guests can book directly through the Holland America Line website or a travel agent.

The cost of the McKinley Explorer train varies depending on the segment of track traveled. Here is the price for 2024; note that adults and children pay the same amount.

Journey Between:US Cost
Anchorage and Denali$306
Anchorage and Talkeetna$153
Denali and Talkeetna$153

When booking your trip, consider other Alaska train tours as well. Many other trains offer beautiful views of the Alaskan landscape, and you should consider combining different train tours to create your ideal itinerary.

Train journeys are a great way to see Alaska without renting a car. The Alaska Railroad travels further each way to Fairbanks inland and Whittier and Seward on the coast.

Further south, the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway offers a scenic journey from Skagway to the Yukon. There are options for one-way and roundtrip routes for those on an Alaska cruise.

Passing the sister train
Passing the sister train

Travel Tips And Recommendations

If you’re traveling independently, making reservations is essential to ensure availability. However, guests traveling on a cruise line tour, as we did, will have their reservations made for you.

Here are some tips to elevate your McKinley Explorer train experience.

What To Pack

With unpredictable weather conditions, it is advisable to bring a warm coat and layers. The outdoor platforms provide great photography spots, but I found them windy and cold. 

While I could take decent pictures in the domed car, I could capture shots of the train navigating curves on the outer viewing area.

Bring an iPad or noise-canceling headset. The journey is long, and an iPad or headset with music provides a change of pace.

Those with food allergies, like me, may want to pack snacks or foods to enjoy if the onboard menu doesn’t meet your dietary needs.

Managing Expectations

It’s important to realize that it may rain for part of the journey, and those postcard images we all want to capture may not happen. Don’t fret; with an eight-hour journey, there’s lots of time for the weather to change.

It rained for the first six hours of my journey, so having the outer platform allowed me to take pictures without raindrops on the windows. Even though we didn’t receive the clear weather we wanted, it didn’t detract from the experience.

Nancy Lake region
Nancy Lake region on a cloudy, wet day

While everyone wants to see the towering Denali, only 30% of travelers see its peak. Cloud cover often shields its snowy summit. We didn’t see Denali due to rain and clouds. Be patient; there’s always another day.

Alaska’s home to the Big Five, and there’s no better place to see them than in Denali National Park. While guests hope to see wildlife along the way, the chances may be slim.

Wildlife tends to stay clear of noisy railroad tracks; if spotted, they may be far away. To increase the chance of sightings, take the Wilderness Tundra Tour or travel in the off-season. During our trip, we saw lots of bald eagles and three moose.

Wrap It Up

As I was in Alaska on a cruise tour, I had big expectations for this train journey – and Holland America exceeded them! 

Overall, the McKinley Explorer is an incredible way to experience the beauty of Alaska. After our busy land tour, the trail provided a relaxing, comfortable way to travel.

Additionally, listen to the informative guides and stewards on board, who can provide valuable insights into the region’s culture and history.

Is the McKinley Explorer up there with the Rocky Mountaineer and other classic rail journeys worldwide? I think so but experience the trip and decide for yourself.

Riding on the McKinley Explorer, its classic rail breakfast and Hurricane Gulch