Travel

Catch the Northern Lights on This Gorgeous Alaskan Train Journey

Seeing the northern lights is one thing. Seeing them aboard this train is a quite another.

Alaska Railroad
Alaska Railroad
Alaska Railroad

Alaskan winters are something most Americans might find interest in, but may never appreciate in full for a variety of reasons: the potential for frozen digits, bear encounters, et cetera. That said, lower 48ers might be much more convinced to enjoy long nights in the Land of the Midnight Sun if they could do so from a warm and comfortable train.

The Aurora Winter Train runs mid-September to mid-May, so the term “winter” is being applied generously here. (As a heads up, March is usually the last full month to catch the northern lights in Alaska, so plan accordingly!) The railroad offers packages that allow you to fly one direction and take the train back.

An adult one-way ticket will run you between $67 and $223, depending on where you’re getting on and off. Prices for children and seniors are about half the price for adults, and tickets drop a couple of bucks during the train’s shoulder seasons (September-November and April-May). It’s a 12-hour journey between the route’s endpoints, Anchorage and Fairbanks, with five other stops in between, should you care to jump off.

From a cozy locomotive complete with big windows and comfy seats, you can get views of bald eagles, moose, and Denali National Park, plus enjoy solid dining options and explore train cars at will during the journey. And most importantly, you can do it all without risk of frostbite. Here’s where you’ll stop on this train ride through the Last Frontier.

Rocky Grimes/Shutterstock
Rocky Grimes/Shutterstock
Rocky Grimes/Shutterstock

Anchorage

Anchorage serves as the hub for Alaska Railroad service, and is informally the hub for out-of-staters who want to explore the Last Frontier, too. Along with being the access point to Denali-the largest national park in the US-the city is a particularly popular destination in early March when the Last Great Race on Earth comes to town.

DCCrane/Shutterstock
DCCrane/Shutterstock
DCCrane/Shutterstock

Wasilla

Wasilla is still within the broader Anchorage metropolitan area, but you won’t get confused and think you’re still in the big city. Not typically considered a tourist destination and known predominantly for being the political birthplace of Sarah Palin, Wasilla is the headquarters for the Iditarod dog sled races and a base for exploring the sublime Hatcher Pass.

Andrew Peacock/Getty Images
Andrew Peacock/Getty Images
Andrew Peacock/Getty Images

Talkeetna

Year-round, Talkeetna is one of the most popular stop-offs along the route. The small town offers every outdoor activity conceivable, alongside a historic downtown and a lot of opportunities to shop from local vendors. The Aurora Winter Train sells roundtrip packages that include the Talkeetna Getaway ($265): two days and one night between Anchorage and Talkeetna with plenty of time to hop off for activities like snowshoeing and cozying up by a fire.

FloridaStock/Shutterstock
FloridaStock/Shutterstock
FloridaStock/Shutterstock

Hurricane

North of Talkeetna, the Hurricane Flagstop Area is pure backcountry. This stop is only accessible by train (Alaska Railroad’s Hurricane Turn Train is the only transportation serving this area most of the time), and the train won’t stop unless someone who needs to get on or off waves a flag. If you’re bold enough, the views of Denali and the Indian River Valley are matchless; alternatively, you can just stay aboard and watch them go by from your window.

Martina Birnbaum/Shutterstock
Martina Birnbaum/Shutterstock
Martina Birnbaum/Shutterstock

Healy

Healy is another quiet one, but you should definitely not overlook it if you’re interested in visiting Denali National Park-it’s the closest community to the entrance, sitting just 11 miles or so to the north. For that reason, tourism is pretty big in this small town; you’ll find opportunities for flightseeing tours, backcountry hiking, and, for Into the Wild fans, the chance to see the bus that was once the home (and final resting place) of Chris McCandless.

Sandee Rice / Design Pics/Getty Images
Sandee Rice / Design Pics/Getty Images
Sandee Rice / Design Pics/Getty Images

Nenana

Nenana is possibly the lowest-profile stop on this route as far as being considered a tourist destination goes. Still, the former railroad construction camp features a number of attractions including the Alaska Railroad Museum and kennels and training grounds for Iditarod mushers. If you’re there on the summer Denali Star Train, you can take advantage of the seasonally-open heritage center.

Troutnut
Troutnut
Troutnut

Fairbanks

The final stop on the route (assuming you’re been going north) is Fairbanks. You can choose from a number of potential excursions to add on to your ticket here, same as Anchorage. Definitely don’t miss your chance to bathe in the natural thermal waters of Chena Hot Springs-you might even be able to catch the northern lights while you’re in there. In the summer, you can also take day trips that include river rafting, flightseeing, and Iditarod champion Jeff King’s beloved Husky Homestead Tour.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.

Kastalia Medrano is a New York-based journalist and avid traveler. Follow her @kastaliamedrano.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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