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Scott McMurren: For the best views in Alaska, take flight

  • Author: Scott McMurren
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published June 19, 2015

Alaska has a disproportionate number of "Sky People." We see them everywhere: "rotorheads," "AvGeeks," "wing nuts." These are folks who spend most of their time on the ground working to get back up in the air. Many of these folks are pilots. Some have their own aircraft. Most of them (like me) just like the view -- and are most appreciative of the miracle of air travel.

It's no surprise, then, that there are many opportunities around the state to get a whiff of that rare air while flying over some incredible scenery. Here are some of the favorites:

1. Knik River Lodge glacier tours: It's less than 60 miles from Anchorage to the Knik River Lodge -- at the end of Knik River Road. Peter Schadee has a collection of cabins that overlook the Knik River valley. The front lawn is the helipad for a couple of helicopters from Tanalian Aviation. The Robinson R-44 helicopters take groups of two or three people up to the Knik Glacier, which is less than five minutes away by air. The most popular trips are for dog sledding on the glacier. But it's great just to fly over the face of the glacier, up the icefall and over the mountains. You'll see the Knik Glacier in all its glory, as well as Lake George and a couple of the feeder glaciers. Be sure and book one of the flights that include landing on the glacier.

2. Alpine Air in Girdwood: If you're headed toward Alyeska and the tram doesn't take you high enough into the mountains, hitch a ride with Alpine Air. These folks also fly the Robinson R-44 helicopters, departing six times each day from the Girdwood Airport. You can take a 30-minute flight ($270 per person with a two-person minimum), but I think the 60-minute tour with the glacier landing is more fun. Plus, a walk on the glacier -- and a sip from a glacial stream -- will help you cool off during our heat wave. The 60-minute tour costs $385 per person (two-person minimum).

3. Denali flightseeing: The quickest way to reach Denali is to take a flight from Anchorage with Rust's Flying Service right up to the mountain. But it's spendy. Depending on the wildfire-related traffic restrictions on the Parks Highway, you'll save money by driving up to Talkeetna and flying with K2 Aviation (Rust's sister company in Talkeetna) or Talkeetna Air Taxi. Both companies offer a selection of tours that include great views of the Ruth Glacier, the Wickersham Wall, the climbers' base camp at Kantishna Glacier and the Denali summit (weather permitting). If you are looking for the "Christmas card shot," book a tour that includes a glacier landing. The pilots' favorite glacier is the 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.

Another option for hikers is to fly in to Backside Lake with K2 Aviation on a floatplane. You'll check in at the Talkeetna Airport, but meet your plane at a nearby lake. Depending on the weather, your trip to the lake will include some breathtaking flightseeing on your way to the lake, where you'll hike in the shadow of Denali. Guides from Alaska Alpine Adventures will meet the plane and take you on your hike.

Since you're in Talkeetna, you can plan on staying for dinner at Mountain High Pizza Pie. Or, just grab a tall, cool one at Denali Brewing Company.

4. Flightseeing from the Denali National Park and Preserve entrance: If you're going to Denali National Park and want a great helicopter trip, consider a heli-hiking trip with Era Helicopters. You'll fly on an A-Star helicopter that can accommodate four travelers and a guide, plus the pilot. You'll fly east from the helipad on the Nenana River and over a couple of ridges to a high spot. From there, your naturalist guide will take you on a beautiful hike through the high meadows. You'll likely see wildlife, some great cloud formations (you may be hiking through them!) and some beautiful tundra and alpine flowers.

One of my favorite flightseeing trips of Denali is available when you go all the way back into the park to Kantishna. It's a long ride on the campers' shuttle. Or, take the private bus from Kantishna Roadhouse or from the Denali Backcountry Lodge. This is a great road trip, of course. It's expensive, but you might consider staying the night and enjoying a nice dinner. Go for a hike in the morning and then fly with Kantishna Air Taxi back to the park entrance. You can probably throw a rock from the Kantishna Airport and hit the north-facing Wickersham Wall on Denali. You're that close. So when you take off, have your camera ready. The flight back to the park entrance parallels the road. It's spectacular.

5. Flying over the Columbia Glacier: The best way to see Columbia Glacier by air is to book a flight with Ravn Alaska to Valdez. Try and get a window seat on the left side of the Dash-8. If the weather's good, you'll get some stunning views of both College Fjord and Columbia Glacier. Depending on the time of day, you can look down and see the giant rooster tail that the Klondike Express kicks up on its high-speed journey up College Fjord on the 26 Glaciers tour. Then, when you land in Valdez, you can circle back with Stan Stephens Cruises for a view from the water of Columbia Glacier.

6. Flights from Homer: Standing at the end of the Homer Spit at Land's End, you can look across Kachemak Bay and see some spectacular mountains and glaciers. You can turn the wow meter up to 10 when you take a flight across the bay for an up-close view. We flew with Bigfoot Aviation and opted for the "pilot's choice." My favorite moment was when we were flying over some particularly gnarly crevasses and the pilot did a tight turn. The window was open and we could look straight down and see the water in between the sheets of ice. It was spectacular. Our pilot also knew where to find bears and sheep -- although it's very tough to get a good photo.

Several other tours are available from Homer, including bear-viewing tours to Katmai National Park and Preserve across Cook Inlet.

7. Flying in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve: There are a couple of ways to see the nation's largest national park. You can take the regularly scheduled flight from Chitina to McCarthy. This is the flight you take to avoid driving the McCarthy Road from Chitina. That's good if you have a motor home or a rental car. Depending on the weather, your flight, operated by Wrangell Mountain Air, might take you up into the mountains and through the Fourth of July Pass. You'll see rock glaciers — and maybe a couple of critters. On the other side of the pass is the giant Root Glacier. You'll fly right past the old mine structures before landing in McCarthy.

The other option is to drive the road and park on the other side of the McCarthy footbridge. Then make your way over to the airport and fly from there. Since you're just a mile from the glacier, you'll be over the ice in no time! The huge Wrangell Mountains and the three glaciers that feed into the Root Glacier make this trip one of my favorites.

8. Landing on the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau: You're likely to get an up-close view of Mendenhall Glacier when you fly in on Alaska Airlines. But to land on the glacier, fly with TEMSCO Helicopters in their A-Star 350s. When you check in for your safety briefing, you'll get a pair of glacier boots that fit over your street shoes. You'll leave from the airport and climb up over the top of the nearby Fred Meyer store. It's a breathtaking ascent. Once you're over the top of the mountain, you'll follow the valley to the glacier, where you land. From there, a guide will show off the nearby glacial "mulans" and offer you a chance to sip that glorious glacier water!

9. Land on the Taku Glacier south of Juneau: Era Helicopters flies from a base on Douglas Island south from Juneau to the Taku Glacier. When you take off, you'll get a nice view of downtown Juneau, including the Mount Roberts Tramway, which leaves right from the cruise dock. From there, you'll continue down Gastineau Channel to the Taku River. Then your pilot will take a left turn and head up the river valley to the face of the Taku Glacier. You'll get a great view of the deep-blue ice that is exposed, in sharp contrast to the muddy Taku River. Typically, your pilot will make a sweep in each direction, so everyone gets a chance at some great pictures. From there, it's up and over the face, across the rugged, crevasse-filled ice wall. You'll land on the icefield — well away from any crevasses. Depending on the weather, you'll take a different route back to the base across some beautiful, remote mountain meadows.

10. Flying in Misty Fjords National Monument from Ketchikan: I think the Misty Fjords air tour is one of the signature trips in Ketchikan. Taquan Air is one of several flightseeing companies in Ketchikan (including Southeast Aviation, Promech Air, Island Wings and SeaWind Aviation). Taquan operates a fleet of DeHavilland Beavers (DHC-2) on floats. From the Tongass Narrows, which flows between Ketchikan and the airport, you take off and fly north over Clover Pass. Then the pilot takes a right turn and heads over the mountains to the spectacular Misty Fjords National Monument. From the air you get some great views of the granite cliffs that rise almost 3,000 feet up from the water's edge. Watch for wildlife, waterfalls and a couple of high alpine lakes. Included on your tour is a remote landing on a lake or fjord. Everyone gets a chance to step out of the plane and onto the float for some great pictures.

11. The window seat: I cannot count the number of aha! moments I've had looking out the window of an airplane in Alaska. Whether it's a giant glacier, a smoking volcano, a setting sun or the northern lights -- it's enough to take your breath away. In fact, it's enough to turn you into one of the "sky people." Welcome to the club. We're glad you could join us.

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based marketing consultant, serving clients in the transportation, hospitality, media and specialty-destination sectors, among others. Contact him by email at zoom907@me.com. You can follow him on Twitter (@alaskatravelGRM) and alaskatravelgram.com. For more information, visit alaskatravelgram.com/about.

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