It’s a celebration of spring, snow, and Alaskan adventure. It’s an all-day party with family and friends, old and new. It’s a unique Alaska ride to a historic Alaska destination that offers an array of Alaska outdoor opportunities. The New York Times called the experience “Alaska’s biggest backcountry secret,” but for Alaskans who live for days packed with outdoor and indoor fun, the annual Alaska Ski Train is far from a secret.
Since 1972, the annual Ski Train has brought together hundreds of outdoor enthusiasts and party people of all ages to bask in what makes springtime in Alaska so much fun – warm sun, deep powder and happy Alaskans. And it’s about so much more than skiing.
Each year on a dark March morning, a line of Alaska Railroad cars departs Anchorage and travel for 3-4 hours to a snowy destination (in recent years, a northern ghost town called Curry), where it stops to allow passengers to get outside and play for the day, and then re-boards for a late afternoon return ride of revelry. The entire day is enveloped in Alaska landscapes (the Chugach Mountains, Talkeetna Mountains and the Alaska Range, including big-time sightings on the great one, Denali … not to mention occasional wildlife) and festive vibes – on the train it’s food and drink, music and conversation; off the train, it’s playing under warm spring sun and in untouched snow.
“It seemed that everything about the Ski Train, including its morning mimosas and independent backcountry access — even the polka dancing — had an air of rugged Alaskan self-reliance,” Bonnie Tsui wrote in the New York Times.
The “ski” in Ski Train is just a recommendation – many passengers bring their cross-country skis, but others use snowshoes, snowboards, sleds or simply shoes or winter boots to walk around nearby for some fresh air and return to the train for snacks or a power nap. Hardcore adventures disappear for hours, deep into the nearby forests and hills to maximize every minute; most recreationalists take their time, looking for a place to play and perfect picnic spot among the birch trees; parents pull youngsters in chariots or sleds all over the place; some people simply unfold a tarp, bring out the cooler and sit under the sun with a beer while everyone else gets sweaty.
“Ski Train is one of those unique Alaskan experience,” Ron Dalby explained in a recent “Indie Alaska” video shot over the course a Ski Train day. “Where else can you board a train in the biggest city in the state, ride it for a few hours and be out in the middle of nowhere with all kinds of people who are having fun – having fun on the train, having fun out in the snow?”
Dalby is part of the fun. He’s a clarinet player in Alaska Blaskapelle, the popular polka band that walks front to back on the train to play tunes for passengers on the trip to Curry. On the return trip to Anchorage, the band sets up in a “dance car” and plays to a packed and prancing crowd.
“The thumping oom-pah-pah of a lederhosen-clad band begins at daybreak in the Anchorage depot, as skiers sway with the rhythm of the train. At Curry, they party and ski, ski and party, celebrating winter as only Alaskans can in the long shadow of Denali,” wrote Tyler Cohen for Backcountry Magazine.
The event is so uniquely Alaskan, it has been featured in many forms of media, large and small, print and electronic, and it’s easy to understand the Outside curiosity. Boarding the Ski Train can transform a person instantly, separating them from the world’s worries. Their senses are quickly overtaken by the buzz of enthusiasm in the air, as well as the smell of what’s in those filled crockpots, the sound of the lively polka band, the occasional boomboxes, and happy voices in the close car quarters.
“Every year the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage (hosts) what some winter enthusiasts describe as the best day of winter,” an Alaska Ski Train rider, Jahlaskamahn, explained in a YouTube video diary of the day. “Ski Train is an event that truly encapsulates the giddy spirit of winter in Alaska.”
When the train starts moving, the energy grows and the sun starts warming the dome car windows. The views are spectacular as it winds through urban parts of Anchorage, Eagle River, and Wasilla, to remote lands within only an hour. Counting moose is part of the tradition. Anticipation builds when considering the experience of untouched terrain. The journey to this remote place is just as powerful as the destination.
Curry is an abandoned town, an old railroad whistle stop. Visiting in winter, you’d never know that its history is deeper than the snow. Once a ski resort, complete with the grand Curry Hotel, it offered perfect weekend getaways. For city folks back in 1947, Curry promised fishing excursions, hikes with views of Denali, and skiing with a ski tow, ironically. Curry really is the perfect place for a day of exploration.
The Alaska Ski Train began, and remains, as a partnership between the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage and the Alaska Railroad. The event seems to grow every year. Many riders are regulars who call it a “must do” event for Alaskans and a bucket list experience for Alaska visitors. Most call it a time capsule – it’s an old-school way of travel and an old-school way to party, and in many ways, the experience is the same today as it was 10 years ago.
For years, Alaska Ski Train seats sold out on the first day of sales. In recent years, the lack of snow around Southcentral Alaska affected early enthusiasm, but the train always ends up full or close to it. This year, there’s tons of snow and a just handful of remaining tickets for the March 24 ride. Learn more about the ski train and tickets at www.anchoragenordicski.com/events/ski-train.
Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage
203 W. 15th Avenue, Suite 204
Anchorage, AK 99501
Phone: (907) 276-7609