Originally published in Show Me Alaska
There is no such thing as a typical day aboard the Glacier Discovery train. For the summers of 2012 and 2013, I was a tour guide on the Alaska Railroad: I helped people on and off the train, cleaned up after passengers and provided onboard narration explaining the significance of the areas we passed through.
The Glacier Discovery train carries people from all walks of life: young tourists going to adventure around Prince William Sound, an elderly couple from Nebraska who sold their farm to see the 49th state via cruise ship from Whittier, locals on a day trip to see Spencer Glacier with some out-of-town family, handsome river raft guides gearing up for the day’s tour and U.S. Forest Service rangers more than willing to share their knowledge of the area.
Every day is different, but the highlight is always Spencer Glacier.
Only accessible by train, Spencer Glacier is a recreation spot like no other. Tours booked in advance — like rafting, canoeing and kayaking — can get you up close and personal with the glacier. A complimentary ranger-led nature walk is an option for the more inquisitive explorer. The walk is easy; the entire 1.3 miles from the train to the glacier lookout is a flat and well maintained thoroughfare.
The glacier can be enjoyed in a day trip, or just from the train, but the best way to take in Spencer Glacier is to stay overnight. Immerse yourself in the remote area and feel a sense of solitude as the train pulls away back to Anchorage, not to return until the next day. Listen as the glacier shifts and slides against the mountains, its echoes reverberating through the Placer River Valley. If you’re lucky, like I was, you can even catch the glacier calving.
Fall asleep to the sound of a calving glacier and distant freight trains chugging their way through the Kenai Mountains. Stay overnight in the group campsite or the new Spencer Bench Cabin. Approximately 1.2 miles from the train, the group campsite offers well water, restrooms, bear boxes, picnic benches and a fire pit.
The Spencer Bench Cabin, which opened in the summer of 2015, sits at an elevation of nearly 2,000 feet. The hike extends less than 5.5 miles from the trailhead, with the last three miles being rigorous switchbacks. The group campsite and the cabin can bereserved for a fee through the Alaska Railroad. For free camping, continue hiking along the Spencer Glacier trail to find multiple dispersed sites.
Rounding the tracks heading south towards Grandview, I’d bring passengers back in time to 1905 with the story of Edward Spencer. According to a story published by the Seward Gateway on Nov. 3, 1906, Spencer, a timekeeper for the Alaska Central Railroad, was traveling by foot from camp 52 to camp 55 in the area where Spencer Glacier is today. Despite warnings of darkness and treacherous conditions from members of the camp, Spencer proceeded on. The ill-fated timekeeper was found frozen to death nearly a year later, his body face-first in the snow, 2,000 feet from the winter trail on a slope above the glacier.
Spencer Glacier is the first of five whistle stops created in collaboration with the Forest Service and the Alaska Railroad. The whistle stops will be checkpoints along the Glacier Discovery trail, a trail system that will connect Alaskans to the Kenai Mountain backcountry, a place not accessible by road.
Spencer Glacier was completed as the first whistle stop in 2007, and since its creation the stop has received over 10,000 visitors, according to the USFS. The other four whistle stops are still under construction or in the planning phase.
With breathtaking views, opportunities for adventure and the clickety-clack of the standard-gauge rails below you, the Glacier Discovery train will awake the romantic inside you. Follow your inner explorer to Spencer Glacier whistle stop, and take advantage of the beauty in Alaska’s own backyard.