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Airplane daytrip: Fairbanks to Denali National Park

Colleen Mondor
Fairbanks pilots interested in getting up close and personal with Denali National Park should consider a convenient day trip plan that could also include a few other unique features of the area. Susan E Adams photo

Fairbanks pilots interested in getting up close and personal with Denali National Park should consider a convenient day trip plan that could also include a few other unique features of the area.

Flying a Cessna 180 southwest about 70 miles, pilots can expect to take about 45 minutes to fly direct to the National Park Service’s McKinley National Park Airport. Located just next to the train station, the airport is an easy walk to the Visitor Center where exhibits can be toured free of charge and restrooms are available.

You can bring your own picnic lunch or purchase a box lunch at Morino’s and board the free Savage River Shuttle for a short 14-mile ride into the park and a picnic at the Mountain Vista Trailhead. If you prefer a longer, guided tour, the 2-1/2-hour Denali Natural History Tour departs daily. Be sure to make reservations and check the fees for the guided tours.

It’s not necessary to enter the park to enjoy the scenery however, and the resorts have courtesy buses moving from the visitor center hourly, which means it’s relatively easy to hop on and travel up the road and have a nice lunch at one of their restaurants. The Prospectors Pizzeria and Alehouse will pick you up in its courtesy van as well if you give them a call. The van also will bring you to the Denali Salmon Bake.

On your flight in and out of the park be sure to check out the Nenana River and look for river rafters. You can also fly over the open pit Usibelli Coal Mine in Healy, location of the Nenana Coal Field, "currently the only active coal producing field in the state of Alaska and has produced a record 50 million tons of coal," according to the website.

The nearby Suntrana mine, founded in 1922 by Fairbanksan Cap Lathrop and after his death in 1961 sold to Emil Usibelli, has been closed for decades, but the valley is spectacular and especially impressive from the air. Suntrana Valley is northeast of the park, along the right bank of the Healy River.

Finally, operated by Golden Valley Electric Association, the Eva Creek Wind Project is the largest wind farm in the state. Located fourteen miles from Healy, at the top of Ferry mining road, the twelve turbines are each 410 feet tall, with blades measuring 147 feet in length. Eva Creek has been in operation for a year and is projected to save consumers as much as $13.6 million over the next twenty years.

Contact Colleen Mondor at colleen(at)alaskadispatch.com