Denali National Park sprawls over millions of acres of inaccessible wilderness, but a flightseeing tour lets you ogle all its glory.
Talkeetna, Alaska is the gateway to Denali—here, you’re even closer to the great mountain than you are at the entrance gate to Denali National Park and Preserve. On a clear day, you can catch a dazzling glimpse of Denali’s peak just 58 miles away, but the best views in Talkeetna are indisputably from the air. In a few hours, a flightseeing tour will whisk you over the tangle of taiga and tundra for awe-inspiring views of the chiseled granite valleys, soaring mountain cliffs, and blue-glowing glaciers of the Alaska Range.
The frontier atmosphere of Talkeetna will have you feeling like a true explorer while you visit the Talkeetna Historical Society Museum and the charming restaurants, brew pubs, and shops lining Main Street. You’ll get a sense of what this pioneer town was like a century ago when miners and trappers resupplied at Nagley’s General Store. You might even meet a Denali climber.
Talkeetna is home to several air charter companies who ferry intrepid climbers from town to Denali Basecamp on the Kahiltna Glacier, from which mountaineers begin their trek up North America’s tallest peak to 20,310 feet. Climbing Denali takes about three weeks and requires an appetite for risk, serious physical fitness, and mountaineering skills ranging from glacier crossing to expedition camping to crevasse rescue. For the rest of us, there’s flightseeing.
When the planes aren’t busy taxiing climbers to and from Denali Basecamp, they’re zipping folks over the Alaska Range on flightseeing tours—the highlight of an Alaskan trip for many visitors. On flightseeing tours, like this one with Talkeetna Air Taxi, everybody gets a window seat and a headset, through which the captain narrates the incredible sights of the Alaska Range.
Denali National Park and Preserve sprawls over six million acres. A single road cuts into the park—the 92-mile-long Denali Park Road, most of which is open only to buses in order to keep traffic in check. A few formal hiking trails lead through the taiga, but backcountry hiking is the only way to explore beyond the visitor centers. Flightseeing is the best and quickest way to get a feel for the remote wilderness areas of the park. The aerial views, like this shot of Pika Glacier in the area known as Little Switzerland, will mesmerize you.
The Alaska Range mountain chain snakes 600 miles from the Alaska Peninsula in the west all the way to the Canadian border in the east. It reaches its most dazzling heights within Denali National Park and Preserve. A collection of monumental peaks join Denali to crown the still rising chain.
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Extreme elevations and a high latitude (63 degrees north) create an eternal winter. Even in August, thick snow slumps down rugged peaks like cake icing. Most visitors head to Denali National Park and Preserve in summer, from mid-May to mid-September, but flightseeing is possible year-round.
From the air, it’s hard to appreciate the scale of the enormous glaciers that cover a million acres of Denali National Park and Preserve. The fissures in this glacier, spiraling down the mountainside, are big enough to swallow an entire expedition team. Glacier crossing in the Alaska Range can be treacherous business.
A handful of air charter companies have concessions to land their aircraft on glaciers within Denali National Park and Preserve and offer a glacier landing as an add-on to a flightseeing tour. It’s well worth the extra cost to get a close-up view of a glacier and a better appreciation of the epic scale of the mountains. The planes feature specialized skis to put you down safely on the snow, like here at Don Sheldon Amphitheater on Ruth Glacier.
Not only does a glacier landing let you dig your boots into the snow, breathe rarified air, chuck a snowball or two, and take a picture that says “Hell, I was there,” but you might also run into an expedition team practicing mountaineering skills ahead of a Denali summit attempt.
Even with a glacier landing, the flightseeing experience goes by in a flash. All too soon, the plane heads back over vast taiga forests towards Talkeetna, but the immensity and stunning beauty of the Denali wilderness is guaranteed to beckon you back.