Experiencing a Flightseeing Tour of the Alaska Range and Denali with Talkeetna Air Taxi

One of the highlights of my trip to Alaska was experiencing a flightseeing trip to see the Alaska mountain range and Mount Denali with Talkeetna Air Taxi.

Talkeetna Air Taxi offers three types of flightseeing tours: Southside Explorer, Mountain Voyager, and Grand Denali; each of these options may be upgraded with a glacier landing. The day I decided to go on the flightseeing tour, I was informed by a customer agent that numerous clouds around Denali (the mountain) meant that Grand Denali was not offered that morning or afternoon. I opted to take the Mountain Voyager tour with the glacier landing. However, I was informed that the feasibility of a glacier landing would be at the discretion of the pilot once we got closer to the Alaska Range.

An overview of the Mountain Voyager trip with Talkeetna Air Taxi. Source: Talkeetna Air Taxi.

Talkeetna Air Taxi has a fleet of 10 aircraft: DeHavilland Turbine Otter (5), DeHavilland Beaver (3), Cessna 185 (1), and Robinson R44 Raven II Helicopter (2). That morning, the travel group with which I would go flightseeing would board the DeHavilland Otter plane, as pictured below:

A DeHavilland Otter, the plane on which the flightseeing tour would occur.

The rest of this post is divided into photos from the various stages of the flightseeing tour: Talkeetna surroundings, glacier fly-by, and the Alaska range of Denali National Park (including a photo of Denali).

Talkeetna Valley and Surroundings

As we departed from Talkeetna Airport, the pilot flew fairly low so that the passengers aboard were treated to some great views of Talkeetna and its surroundings. 

Shortly after take-off from the Talkeetna Airport (TKA). Note the airport in the upper right of the frame.

The instrumentation aboard the DeHavilland Otter. 

Three rivers, the Talkeetna, Chulitna, and Susitna converge at Talkeetna to become the "Big Susitna River." The name "Talkeetna" loosely translated, means "River of Plenty", or more literally, "Place where food is stored near the river", meaning a place where a food cache was located. The word "Susitna" in Den'aina Indian language means "Sand Island River". Chulitna means "Strait Hand River" though some locals translate it with "Tongue River". The Den'aina Indians were an Athabascan subgroup who inhabited the Upper Cook Inlet drainage. For some local residents Talkeetna simply means: "Where three rivers meet". As we flew over the Talkeetna valley, the rivers came into prominent view.

One of the rivers we flew over, on the way toward the Alaska Range. Talkeetna (the town) lies at the confluence of the Susitna, Chulitna, and Talkeetna Rivers.

River and valley views.

As we flew deeper into the valley on our way toward Denali National Park, the low-lying cloud formation would be foreshadowing of what was to come near the mountains...

 The valley and clouds.

The valley and clouds.

Flying over the valley.

Glacial stream in the highlands.

Glacial rivers from the nearby Alaska Range are the source for this silt-rich lake. Also posted on Instagram.

Glacier Views from Above

After about thirty minutes after take-off from Talkeetna Airport, we were flying above glaciers. The Mountain Voyager flightseeing tour flies over the following glaciers: Kahiltna, Ruth, Tokositna, Eldridge, Kanakula, Buckskin, and Coffee.

A selection of photos from the glaciers is below.

A very long glacier.

Detail of a glacier. Note the numerous crevasses.

 Glacier and moraine. 

Glacier and moraine. 

Detail from a glacier and a moraine. 

A zoom-in of the photo above, showing some detail of the ice and glacial moraine.

Another perspective of flying over a glacier. 

Views of the Alaska Range and Denali at Denali National Park

About ten minutes after flying over the glaciers and increasing our altitude above the cloud layer, and we were flying amongst the majestic peaks of the Alaska Range. Around this time in the flight, the pilot informed our group (via headphones that we wore during the duration of the flight) that a glacier landing would not be possible that day because the low-lying clouds in the surrounding glaciers (such as the Kahiltna Glacier and the Ruth Glacier) made it too dangerous. 

As we flew over the mountains, our pilot identified various mountain peaks that were visible: Mount Hunter, Mount Foraker, Mount Denali, among others. I have to do additional research to identify the peaks visible below by name; if you recognize the mountain peaks below and/or are an expert at mountain identification, please leave a comment on this post or send me an email so I can update this post with the mountain names of the mountains visible in the photos below.

Clear views of the mountains of the Alaska Range.

Flying over the Alaska Range. Also posted this image on Instagram.

Fresh mountain views.

The pilot of the plane made a few turns around the mountains, allowing captures such as this:

Views of the Alaska Range and the wing of the Otter.

One of my favorite images from the flightseeing trip is the one below, where you can see the mountains, clouds, the wing, and the sun rays.

Sun rays high above.

A mountain and clouds.

Clear views on the other side of the Alaska mountain range.

Do you notice where a likely avalanche occurred?

Mountain details.

Note the clouds layer on the far right of the frame.

Finally, Denali itself! It was actually hard to be certain I captured a photo of Denali and was only able to verify after I came back from the flight and had the chance to review and post-process the images. Denali was shrouded in numerous clouds but at least the peak was visible! 

View of Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley). The peak of Denali is 20,310 feet (6,190 m) above sea level.

View of Denali from a slightly different vantage point.

The flightseeing experience was absolutely breathtaking, if the photos are any indication. Some of the sensual experiences are hard to put into words—how cool the interior of the cabin became as we flew above the clouds in the Alaska Range—or the hesitation and trepidation one felt as we flew from a dense cloud layer and surfaced at around 11,000 to 12,000 feet! Even though we didn't get to experience the glacier landing on this flightseeing journey, it was something that we were prepared for (the Talkeetna Air Taxi customer representatives were very forthcoming about the conditions for a glacier landing being weather-dependent; we were refunded the glacier landing portion of our trip as soon as we landed back at Talkeetna Airport). In my opinion, we were lucky that we got to fly at all, as the previous two or three days the conditions were so poor that majority of the flights were cancelled. Such is the fate of so many activities in Alaska!

Overall, I highly recommend booking a flightseeing tour with Talkeetna Air Taxi if you travel to Alaska and find yourself in Talkeetna. If you have a flexible schedule, the representatives at Talkeetna Air Taxi will work with you and advise you of best flying times and opportunities for a glacier landing; there are no hard selling tactics at the company as customer satisfaction is second only to passenger safety at the company (you are welcome to re-book or cancel your flight without any cancellation/re-booking fees). The five star reviews on TripAdvisor (at the end of August 2018, the average rating is 4.929 out of 5) for Talkeetna Air Taxi overwhelmingly speak of this customer-friendly company and the experience you can expect going on a flightseeing tour with Talkeetna Air Taxi.

If You Go

Talkeetna Air Taxi is located at 14212 E 2nd St, Talkeetna, AK 99676. GPS coordinates for the main office are 62.32150ºN  150.09802ºW.

Flightseeing tours are offered year-round, except that the Grand Denali tour is not offered in the winter season.

Phone: (907) 733-2218
Toll Free: (800) 533-2219
http://www.talkeetnaair.com
info@talkeetnaair.com 

Visiting the Sled Dog Kennels of Denali National Park

One of the highlights in Denali National Park was visiting the dog kennels and observing a sled dog demonstration. Denali National Park is the only national park in the United States that has a working sled dog kennel; approximately twenty-five dogs perform essential duties in a vast expanse of designated Wilderness area of the park during the winter season. 

Each year, an average of 3,000 patrol miles are logged throughout the park's interior, all on the back of sleds pulled by the Alaskan huskies which live year-round at the kennels of Denali National Park. During the summer, attendance at the daily sled demonstrations totals over 50,000 annually. The highlight for visitors comes when five dogs are hitched to a wheeled sled and a naturalist takes the dogs for short runs on a gravel track around the kennels. Photos from my visit are below.

History of the Sled Dogs at Denali National Park

Denali National Park has had sled dogs since 1922. The first Superintendent of Denali National Park, Harry Karstens, purchased the first seven sled dogs for use patrolling the newly established park boundaries. The park has maintained working dog teams ever since. Their job has evolved over the years and they are no longer patrolling for poachers, but they are still performing essential work. Because over 2 million acres of Denali National Park and Preserve is designated by the federal government as wilderness (the highest level of protection for public lands in the United States), no mechanical or motorized machines (such as snowmobiles) are permitted. This is where the sled dogs play an integral part in in providing transport for many projects in Denali during the winter months. For instance, scientists use the sled dogs in Denali to haul research and monitoring equipment in the Wilderness.

Characteristics of the Denali Sled Dog (Alaskan Huskies) 

The Alaskan Husky is not recognized as a standardized dog breed by any major kennel club; instead, the Alaskan Husky breed is defined only by its purpose, which is that of a highly efficient sled dog. There is no breed standard appearance required of Alaskan Huskies: they come in all different shapes, sizes, and colors (as you can see in the photos below). However, there are some consistent physical traits that all Alaskan Huskies share (and that they share with other northern pulling breeds like Siberian Huskies and Malamutes). These common traits include long legs for breaking trail through deep snow, tough feet, a good, thick fur coat and a nice, bushy tail to keep them warm in Alaskan winters. In addition to the physical traits, they also need to have certain mental and personality traits that make a great sled dog including a love of running and pulling, and a strong connection to people, yet the independent confidence to make decisions while leading a team on the trail. Denali National Park has a video series on how the Alaskan husky puppies are raised and trained to become sled dogs.

Sled Dog Demonstration

After a ranger-led twenty minute discussion of the sled dogs kept at Denali, visitors were treated to a demonstration of the dogs pulling a cart over a short track. The park ranger on the microphone explained that as the sled dogs are brought out, they are picked up by the collar and walk on their hind feet. This approach does not hurt the dogs and they are trained to walk this way since they are puppies. Walking the dogs to the sled in such a manner also protects them, as the ranger handling the dog will not accidentally step on the front feet of these working dogs.

Bringing out a sled dog for the demonstration.

Getting ready to be harnessed.

Walking toward the summer cart.

Getting in position.

These dogs were so excited for the run around the track!

"Can we go already?" 

And off they go!

All five dogs on the summer track at Denali National Park.

Around the bend they go.

The home stretch in front of dozens of park visitors.

The park rangers on the cart look pretty happy.

Post-run snuggles.

Portraits of the Denali Sled Dogs

After the run around the summer track, visitors are allowed to go interact with the Denali sled dogs. Some of the dogs are kept in their own kennels, while others are in an open environment where visitors can touch the dogs (the dogs are secured by a long leash). The primary instruction provided by the park rangers was not to try to pet or call out the dogs that were in their dog houses (they need their break from human interaction!). 

Those blue eyes.

Not quite napping.

Break time.

"Enter the Matrix." (Matrix is the name of the dog, not the doghouse).

S'More taking a break. S'More is one of the shier dogs in the Denali kennels.

Chillin'.

Opus.

Attentive.

Happy chewing on a bone.

The dogs appreciate shoulder and back rubs from visitors.

If You Go

The Denali sled dog kennels are located about 3 miles inside the park. The kennels are open year-round to visitors. In winter, the dogs and rangers are frequently in the park rather than at the kennels, so you may wish to inquire at the visitor center before coming to see if the dogs are around. 

Opening hours

Summer: May 15 to mid-September
9 am to 5 pm

Fall: September 19 to October 21
10 am to 4 pm

Winter: October 22 to February 15
Noon to 4 pm

Spring: February 16 to May 14
10 am to 4 pm

The dog kennel demonstrations (run from around June 1 through September 1) happen three times daily at 10AM, 2PM, and 4PM. You can take a free bus (Sled Dog Demonstration Shuttle) from the visitor center to the dog kennels about 40 minutes prior to the starting time of the demonstration. Alternatively, you can walk 1.5 miles from the Denali Visitor Center to the kennels. 

The sled dog demonstration is highly informative (and entertaining!) and should definitely be a stop on your itinerary to Denali National Park (whether you're visiting for half a day or longer).

More information is here.


The McCarthy Lodge Bistro: The Best Dinner I Had in Alaska

Having returned from an eighteen day trip to Alaska, I have been thinking about where to start with the blogging process. As I was looking through the images, I thought it would be great to start with a foodie blog post. Hands down, the best food I ate in Alaska was in a remote town of McCarthy at the McCarthy Lodge Bistro. The town of McCarthy is located deep inside Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve. The town has a population 28 in winter; the population is higher in the summer during the peak tourism season.

The McCarthy Lodge Bistro in McCarthy, Alaska offers a wonderful breakfast in the morning, but it's the seasonal dinner menu for which this restaurant is known (and should be praised for). When you arrive, you are greeted by friendly staff who bring around this blackboard with them displaying the items on the menu that particular evening. Our waitress explained each item on the menu with great care and our group had some tough decisions to make on what to order—everything sounded delicious!

The blackboard at McCarthy Lodge Bistro showing the dinner options.

I brought my camera with me and captured a few of the photos from the McCarthy Lodge Bistro. Every appetizer/main course was eloquently presented and showcased great Alaskan ingredients. 

Salad en croute. 

Miso sablefish. 

Amazake bison ribeye.

Blueberry cheesecake and ice cream.

On top of the incredible selections for both appetizers and main courses, the McCarthy Lodge Bistro boasts an impressive wine list and a great selection of signature cocktails. Our group of eight were all raving about this dinner and could not stop talking about how great the overall experience was. The impeccable service, the delicious meals and imaginative drinks, and the wonderful ambience were all memorable.

If I could make a recommendation, I would say that you should go out of your way to McCarthy, Alaska just so you can dine at the McCarthy Lodge Bistro. If you aren't staying in McCarthy but are backpacking or exploring Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve, the Bistro is a must-stop. For me, dinner at the McCarthy Lodge Bistro was by far the best meal I had during my entire trip in Alaska. The Bistro should be on the Michelin list of places to dine in the Last Frontier.


McCarthy Lodge Bistro
101 Kennicott Ave, McCarthy, Alaska
Wrangell-St Elias National Park and Preserve, AK 99588-8998
907-554-4402