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For the best views in Alaska, you need to "get high"

Scott McMurren
Homer Spit as seen from a helicopter
Scott McMurren
A helicopter tour group on the Mendenhall Glacier
Scott McMurren
Mt. Augustine as seen from Hawaii-bound jet
Scott McMurren
Sharing the airspace over Kodiak with a biplane
Scott McMurren
The view from a small plane as it takes a hard bank with the window open over the Harding Icefield
Scott McMurren

Getting around Alaska can be a daunting process. We live in  a big state, and the roads stop short of some of the best destinations. Mind you, road trips are great. But if you want the best views, you need to “get high," up in the air. Grab your camera and buckle your seatbelt.

My ears still are ringing a little bit from a trip yesterday up to Denali from Talkeetna. One of my favorite air tours is up to the shadow of the Great One, with a landing on the Ruth Glacier. Both K2 Aviation and Talkeetna Air Taxi offer the trip in their turbine-powered DHC-3 Otters. These are big planes designed for hauling heavy loads for climbers up to Kahiltna Glacier. The flight up the Great Gorge of the Ruth Glacier helps you realize why Brad Washburn, one of Denali’s early explorers and mapmakers, described the mountain as “my cathedral.”

A new option from K2 and Alaska Alpine Adventures offers travelers the chance to fly into the park and hike around for a couple of hours. Instead of flying on a ski plane, you fly up in a float plane and land at a small lake near the Ruth Glacier. From there, guides accompany you along a trail to get some incredible views -- and there’s nobody else around. 

The more adventurous hikers can pack their tents and sleeping bags and arrange for a drop-off. Or, Alaska Alpine Adventures offers some “base camp” packages, where they set up the tents and prepare the meals. You bring your own hiking boots and rain gear.

We used Wrangell Mountain Air out of McCarthy for an overnight trip up to Iceberg Lake with St. Elias Alpine Guides. Our goal was to do some ice climbing at a nearby glacier, and St. Elias Alpine Guides has all the crampons, ice axes and ropes necessary for this adventure. Hey, if I can go ice climbing, anyone can do it. Wrangell Mountain Air also offers spectacular flightseeing tours from McCarthy, as well as great views from their regularly-scheduled flights from Chitina to McCarthy. You’ll see the huge Wrangell Mountains, eight of the peaks are more than 13,000 feet tall, annd several glaciers as you fly through the mountain passes and many of the old mining outposts from what once was the world’s largest copper mine. 

I love helicopters -- and everything they stand for. Close to Anchorage, you can lift off from Knik River Lodge and land on Knik Glacier. Up at Denali Park, you can fly with Era Helicopters for some more air-assisted hiking. Where you land and what you see depends somewhat on the weather and the season. This is the time of year for berries (and bears) as well as spectacular fall colors. 

Era Helicopters and TEMSCO Helicopters offers some great air tours in Juneau. TEMSCO flies from the Juneau Airport up to Mendenhall Glacier. No crampons are necessary to get out and explore on the ice, although TEMSCO provides some glacier boots for better traction. You can, on request, set up some ice-climbing itineraries if you wish.

Era flies from a base closer to downtown Juneau, flying south past the city to Taku Glacier. You’ll get the chance to see the oh-so-deep-blue face of the glacier before heading up high on the ice field for a glacier landing. Everything about helicopters fascinates me, from hovering over a sheer cliff to flying up a narrow valley ... never mind landing on a postage stamp-sized flat spot on top of a mountain.

In Ketchikan, fly one of the venerable DHC-2 Beavers from the dock up to Misty Fjords National Monument. You need the speed and range of the “fixed wing” aircraft to see the 3,000-foot sheer cliffs inside the monument. We flew with Taquan Air and saw plenty of mountain goats, some high-mountain lakes and some spectacular views.

I’ve seen some incredible views high in the air just traveling on scheduled flights. For example, the flight between Anchorage and Fairbanks often yields great views of Denali. The trip to King Salmon from Anchorage goes over some beautiful mountains on the Alaska Peninsula. I’ve flown north from Fairbanks with Warbelow’s Air Ventures across the mighty Yukon River and through Gates of the Arctic National Park up to Anaktuvuk Pass. 

Just make sure you have your camera ready, then get up in the air for some great Alaska adventures.