Editor’s note: This article was written before the COVID-19 pandemic, and some information might be out of date. With the situation continuing to evolve, we strongly encourage you to check ahead to determine the status of any business, park or activity you are interested in. To find the most up-to-date information about current health and travel mandates, check with the state of Alaska online and adn.com.
At 586,412 square miles, Alaska is by far the biggest state in the union. But only four states have fewer road miles.
It makes sense that perhaps the best way to see Alaska — especially for visitors with limited time — is by air on one of the charters that specialize in flights into the rugged and spectacular Alaska Range. You’ll enter the wilderness cathedral of mountains surrounding 20,310-foot Denali, the tallest peak in North America, and perhaps land on one of the mountain’s glaciers.
Prices for flightseeing to Denali vary widely, from about $250 to $500 depending on the length of the trip, the departure point and whether the tour includes a landing. That might seem steep, but on a bluebird day, few trips deliver such gawk-worthy moments as you soar past sheer granite faces and above glaciers.
“Flightseeing is getting more and more popular in Alaska,” said Tony Bannock of Regal Air, based in Anchorage. “It’s the way of the world. When we started (in 1982) everybody wanted to hunt and fish. Now, it’s ecotourism.”
He’s not alone in that view. Sarah Leonard, president of the Alaska Travel Industry Association, noted that about 15% of visitors book flightseeing trips. In 2017, according to The McDowell Group’s Economic Impact of the Alaska Visitor Industry, all visitor tours (including flightseeing) accounted for $394 million in visitor spending.
“Talkeetna has become a destination,” said Suzanne Rust, co-owner of Rust’s Flying Service, which purchased Talkeetna’s K2 Aviation in 1996. “People are discovering it’s a cool little village. At the same time, they can fly up and see all the granite walls and rivers of ice (in the Alaska Range).
“It’s growing every year.”
On clear days perfect for flying, Rust noted, K2 may make more than four dozen Denali flights.
And while Denali may be Alaska’s best-known flightseeing tour, visitors’ aerial options don’t end there. Dozens of Alaska business licenses describe their operation as “scenic and sightseeing transportation,” according to a state database.
Here are a few options:
Bear with us
Rust’s and Regal are among the Anchorage flight services that cross Cook Inlet to Chinitna Bay in Lake Clark National Park and the Brooks River in Katmai National Park in search of brown bears feeding on salmon. Bear-viewing trips are available out of Homer and Kodiak, too.
Even though Denali remains Regal’s most requested flightseeing tour, “bear viewing gets more and more popular every year,” Bannock said. “If there was any way you could get a bear eating a salmon on Denali, that would be perfect.”
Typically, Regal pilots make early-season scouting flights. Usually, the grizzlies are up and about by May 10, and the season runs into September. The company provides a preflight safety briefing in Anchorage. “At Brooks, the brown bears will walk beneath the boardwalk (spanning the river). But we never approach closer than 50 feet.”
Knik River Lodge glacier tours start less than 60 miles from Anchorage, leaving from Knik River Lodge at the end of Knik River Road in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. The lodge’s front lawn doubles as a helipad for helicopters that take groups of two or three people to the Knik Glacier, a five-minute flight away. Perhaps the most popular trip is dog sledding on the glacier after a landing. En route, you’ll see the Knik Glacier in all its glory as well as Lake George and a couple of the feeder glaciers.
Less than an hour south of Anchorage is the ski and recreation community of Girdwood. Alpine Air, operating since 1991, will fly you above the Mount Alyeska tram to land on glaciers or to Prince William Sound in search of calving glacial ice. In peak season, helicopters depart regularly from the Girdwood Airport. You can take a 30-minute flight, but the 60-minute tour with a landing on Colony Glacier ($399 per person) is even more fun. A walk on the glacier — and a sip from a glacial stream — will help you cool off in summer months. Another option is an Alpine Air flight out of Seward to inspect the magnificent tidewater glaciers of Kenai Fjords National Park.
Big park, big peaks
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is the nation’s largest national park, featuring 14 of the 20 tallest peaks in North America. You can take a regularly scheduled flight from Chitina to McCarthy on the edge of the park to avoid driving the gravel-surfaced McCarthy Road, which is slow going (allow up to three hours) but scenic; flying in from Chitina is typically even more spectacular. A Wrangell Mountain Air flight may take you into the mountains and through the Fourth of July Pass if weather permits. You’ll see rock glaciers and maybe some critters. On the other side of the pass is giant Root Glacier. You’ll fly right past the old copper mine structures in neighboring Kennecott before landing in McCarthy. Flights range from 50 minutes ($250) to two hours ($395).
Drivers park at the McCarthy footbridge, where you’ll make your way over to the airport and fly from there.
The 400-square-mile Columbia tidewater glacier has retreated nearly a dozen miles since 1982, but there’s still plenty of ice, and the warming climate has triggered a surge of calving, during which large pieces of ice break off and splash into Prince William Sound.
“The Columbia Glacier is calving about 2 cubic miles of icebergs into the ocean each year,” said William Colgan, a research associate at the University of Colorado’s Earth Science and Observation Center. “It is astounding to watch.”
A convenient way to see it is to book a flight to Valdez with Ravn Alaska. Try to get a window seat on the left side of the plane. When you land in Valdez, you can circle back by boat on a charter for a Columbia Glacier view from the water. Other Valdez flight services offer tours of Columbia and the Valdez Glacier as well.
Blue ice beauty
Commercial flights into the state capital of Juneau can offer great views of Mendenhall Glacier. But several companies offer helicopter tours, typically an hour or two. And if you want a double-shot of Alaskan on a single trip, book one that includes dog sledding on a glacier.
Most helicopter tours require that three seats be booked before the flight, potentially an issue if you’re traveling alone or as a couple.
According to Juneau Shore Tours, “undoubtedly the most sought-after Juneau flightseeing option, the Icefield Excursion, is our recommendation for those looking to see Alaska from a bird’s eye view but not necessarily interested in dogsledding.”
TEMSCO Helicopters offers an array of trips, too.
On most of the tours, you’ll get a nice view of downtown Juneau, including the popular Mount Roberts Tramway, which leaves from the cruise port. On most trips, you’ll see the exposed deep-blue ice that’s the face of Taku Glacier, a sharp contrast to the muddy Taku River.
Watch the weather
Those are some highlights for Alaska flightseers, but Denali trips remain at the top of many must-see lists. You can catch a flight right out of Anchorage, but that’s more expensive than driving north to Talkeetna and flying with K2 Aviation, Talkeetna Air Taxi or Sheldon Air Service. The companies offer a selection of tours that include views of the Ruth Glacier, the Wickersham Wall, the climbers’ base camp at Kantishna Glacier and the Denali summit (weather permitting).
Particularly memorable is a tour that includes a glacier landing. Most pilots favor Ruth Glacier, because it is so spectacular and the runway is well-marked. But the clouds move in and out quickly, so several other glaciers are available if the Ruth is socked in.
“Alaska Range weather certainly is the crux of our business, with every year unique,” said Paul Roderick, who’s owned Talkeetna Air Taxi since 1996. “Some seasons are dry and sunny with at least 20 good flying days per month. Others have the opposite effect, 20 wet days.”
Keep in mind that weather in Alaska mountains can change rapidly. In 2013, six tourists on a Mount McKinley flightseeing trip with Talkeetna Air got an extra dose of adventure when their pilot, concerned about a light snowfall, landed his Beaver on Ruth Glacier and decided to stay put because of deteriorating weather.
The passengers spent two nights huddled together in the aircraft with basic gear, such as sleeping bags, a stove and food. Then Park Service rangers hiked in more supplies to the stranded passengers, who flew out a day later. There were no injuries and all had a stirring tale to tell when they got home.
“The mountain is almost like a living, breathing organism,” said Roderick, who’s flown in the Alaska Range for 29 years. “Hopefully you don’t ever get too comfortable with it. It doesn’t matter how many years of flying you have, the conditions are always changing up there — the visibility, lighting, blowing snow, fog. It’s never the same."
While a little more spendy, helicopter flightseeing offer an alternative. Enclosed in Plexiglas with no wings to peer over, even trips as short as 30 minutes can provide exceptional views.
Wherever you want to see, there’s probably a flightseeing business nearby. Among the locales where tours are offered: Kenai, Soldotna, Tok, McCarthy, Homer, Girdwood, King Salmon, Talkeetna, Juneau, Ketchikan, Fairbanks, Skagway and Kantishna.