I happened to really enjoy the railroad ride, no, you get a drink and some snacks, thats it, you can go have lunch back onboard or in town if you like after. Once you get up there, they switch the engine around and you go back down, but they don't let you off the train at all, its kind of a long ride, but the scenery is well worth it, plus a nice narriated ride up.
You sit in vintage-style railcars, behind early generation diesels. On occassion, steam might be used.
The mountain scenery is breath-taking. The last point on the tour enters Canada briefly.
For best results, I highly recommend booking this and any alaskan tour through your ships tour desk or NCL. Why do I say this, Alaskan ports of call are relatively short stops. If a tour is delayed the ship will wait for you. If you are out on your own, you run the risk of being left behind.
For more information look up the Whitepass Railroad website.
The White Pass Railroad was our second-best tour of our 2002 Alaskan cruise. It is a narrated tour with lots of history and tidbits. The reason you can't get off the train is that the train takes you into Canada, and you haven't been cleared to set foot in this foreign country. It is also a good idea to book this ahead through the ship in case it is sold out. Before ours began we had the option of a refund because it was so foggy. We declined, went anyway, and it was worth it. When you are done, be aware that some of the best shopping on your cruise will be here. Prices were best if all our stops on Carnival Spirit.
We booked a car (Avis) in advance & picked it up a couple of blocks from the dock. We drove well past the turnaround point of the railroad, all the way to Emerald Lake in the Yukon. On cruisecritic.com I'd found a milepost by milepost description. The drive was wonderful & we could get out & take pics at our leasure (took 7 hours roundtrip including lunch but could easily be done in 5 or less). LOVED it. There is only one road so you can't get lost - would highly recommend it. W/ gas the total was about $90.00.
As a supplement to what others who recommend the White Pass railway tour, my only advice is to take the afternoon tour since the odds are the fog/clouds will have burnt off by then. On our trip it proved worthwhile because the morning tour operated in a thick cloud cover. What is especially unique about the train excursion is that you ride the rails only feet from where the men made treck in '98. The foot path of those thousands of poor souls is clearly visible from your confortable seat in a heated rail car. You have the option of riding the train both ways or bus up and rail back, or vice versa.