Alaska isn't a place you can experience all at once. This might seem obvious, considering the overwhelming vastness of the place. But no one minds visiting a few times, because the sheer magnitude of the state continues to surprise and delight even travelers who have been there before.
And even though Alaska can't be swallowed in one gulp, you can get a solid feel for its primary attractions—mountains, glaciers and wildlife, as well as the unique charm and quirks of its people—in a short time. You can even do this in a single day if you take the train from Anchorage, ride the Alaska Railroad to Seward, take a daylong cruise into the Kenai Fjords, and ride the train back. During the summer, you'll have plenty of daylight for sightseeing and basking in the memories.
The train departs at the crack of dawn so you can fit everything in. If you're lucky, the weather will be crisp—probably in the 50s, so be sure to bring a waterproof jacket and dress in layers. Seats on the train are reserved, and there aren't any bad ones, so don't be daunted by crowds at the station.
Some cruise and tour companies have their own rail cars, and if you've booked through them, you'll receive their own brands of service and amenities. If you are traveling independently, you will travel in one of the compartments provided by the Alaska Railroad itself, and during the summer season your tour guides will be some of the state's young residents—high school students who know and love their home state and are eager to share it. They pass around photo albums of their own experiences of Alaska, and tell stories about its history and point out notable wildlife.
One of the first things you'll hear about is Turnagain Arm, a fantastically long inlet so named by Captain James Cook, who sailed down the body of water and had to "turn again" when he unexpectedly reached the end. Revel in the twin views of the water and surrounding Chugach Mountains, and hope that you'll catch a glimpse of the elusive beluga whales that live there. Other wildlife include eagles or Dall sheep bounding across the high rocks. You might want to try for a seat in one of the dome cars for better views.
Farther south, the terrain becomes bolder and more mountainous, and Spencer Glacier is one of the most spectacular frozen rivers you'll behold in the entire region. Enjoy the view, knowing that more are to come. When the train stops in Seward, you'll get out and into one of the waiting vans for day-cruise operations, which follow various routes in the Kenai Fjords. And although you were just in Anchorage a few hours ago, this feels a world away. Once you board your watercraft and head out, it will feel even farther. You may see some curious sea otters floating by on their backs, displaying an instantly recognizable nonchalance.
You also may see a humpback whale (though they're very shy), and if you're really lucky, a pod of orcas. Many tour guides are familiar with the patterns and habits of the individual animals, and have the best ideas as to where they might be. You'll also see more than your share of glaciers—as the boat pulls close, you can watch the ancient natural structures slowly crawl to the sea.
At some point, after experiencing the swirl of the many more glaciers, bird rookeries, sea lions and rock formations, you'll realize that you have, in an important sense, taken in Alaska. There are countless other adventures to be had, and probably you'll participate in some of them. But for sheer concentration of signature Alaska activities, the day you've just had will be hard to beat.