Our one-woman tour company, Corky Champagne, had been carting us around south central Alaska in a mini van. We left Anchorage headed to the well-known and popular Denali National Park & Preserve, a 6 million-acre protected plot of remote Alaskan wilderness. She suggested that we stop by a town called Talkeetna on our way to Denali. We were a little hesitant about the pit stop since the unnecessary delay meant it would be that much longer before our long-awaited and highly anticipated adventures with black bears and moose that awaited us at the park. But we agreed to the side trip after deciding that Corky, as the local resident, must be recommending the funny sounding town for a reason.
We left the main highway and took a 14 mile detour on a two-lane road that ended at a rustic, little outpost seemingly in the Alaskan boonies. Forty to fifty foot birch and spruce trees surrounded a small village center. The 600-mile Alaska Mountain Range with its most famous peak, Mount McKinley (locals refer to the peak as Mount Denali, the official Alaskan name) towered just beyond the forest. As we looked around at a handful of old log structures and worn, clapboard storefronts along the main road, the “downtown” felt like an abandoned frontier town. It had a wild, west pioneer feel. I quickly discovered from a brief stroll along Main Street that it stretched for an entire one-block and was the only paved road in town.
But to assume that this is all the l42-square foot Alaskan outpost has to offer and rush out of town would be a regrettable mistake. You will miss an opportunity to explore this authentic mining and railroad town listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And more importantly, you will miss out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for incredible outdoor adventures only possible in this stretch of Alaska.
Talkeetna is the unassuming epicenter for expeditions of all kinds associated with the mountains that reside in its backyard. The town sits at the base of Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in North America at 20,320 feet. Talkeetna is the headquarters for Mount McKinley mountain climbing expeditions. It is where hikers stage and begin their climb to the summit of Mount McKinley.
For those of us not inclined to trek to the highest peak in the North American continent, Talkeetna offers a less taxing alternative: flightseeing. Scenic flightseeing over the Alaskan Mountain Range and its proudest peak Mt McKinley is the most popular and remarkable Talkeetna excursion. I spent 12 days in Alaska exploring a number of towns and, by far, sightseeing from Talkeetna on a small airplane was by far the best way to see and appreciate the gorgeous natural beauty of Alaska. The roads in this remote area of Alaska are few and far between. As a result, you will find that an airplane provides the appropriate mode of transportation and vantage point to explore the rugged, expansive geography. And some flightseeing planes, like the one I was on, are outfitted with skis for landing on glaciers at the base of Mt. McKinley.
The airplanes are bare, small and cozy. The plane I traveled on tightly fit four passengers. At first I wanted to talk to fellow passengers to commiserate about our new found freedom of flight and the beauty of the wide open blue skies, puffy white clouds, and the dense wilderness. However, chatting was difficult due to the loud engine noise even with the headphones they provided. It was soon all a moot point. I quickly became engrossed in my surroundings and promptly forgot about the others and the plane. We began to fly low and close to immense, majestic granite peaks of the Alaskan Mountain Range and Mount McKinley itself. Some sheer, others jagged and some brown others almost blinding white. Rivers of seemingly endless roads of ice through the valleys cut through the mountain’s rock formations.
After meandering atop the mountain range for awhile, we began our descent for landing on a glacier near the base of Mt McKinley. While there a number of air charter operators in Talkeetna, my flight was with Talkeetna Air Taxi, which is one of only a few flightseeing companies with a permit to land on a glacier in Denali National Park. A flightseeing tour on Talkeetna Air also provides one of the closest take off points to Mount McKinley so it is a quick 15-minute flight to the mountain.
The approach to the gigantic piece of ice was a bit unnerving. I hoped we could stop before we ran off the edge or into the side of a mountain. The landing was smooth as the airplane skis touched down on the glacier. We taxied around and came to a slow, rolling stop. We carefully piled out of the plane. The crisp, cold air filled my lungs. My first impression was the staggering size of everything around me. From the air, the mountains and ice seemed enormous and endless. On the ground, with us and the plane to set the scale of our surroundings, the vast size of the Alaskan mountain range and its glaciers was even more astounding.
The towering peaks and long, thick sheets of ice dwarfed our small plane and the even smaller human beings beside it. Standing on the glacier near the base of Mount McKinley, I felt like I arrived at the heart of Mother Nature herself. It was then that I fully appreciated Alaska’s nickname, the Last Frontier.
Talkeetna is situated in a valley in the Alaskan back country where three glacial rivers meet: the Talkeetna, Susitna, and Chulitna Rivers. The old railroad and mining village has a population of about 1,000 residents. Locals say the outpost inspired the award-winning television show from the 1990s, Northern Exposure. A show set in a small, remote Alaskan village with quirky townsfolk.
Indeed, Talkeetna is a very off the beaten track outpost in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness and mountains. You will never just be passing through. In fact, you can only get there on purpose. If you are ever in Alaska or find yourself on your way to Denali National Park or Mount McKinley, do yourself a big favor and take the side trip to Talkeetna. The extra 14 miles will pay you back many times over.
Talkeetna is southeast of Denali Park and 115 miles north of Anchorage The drive lasts about a two-hour drive from Anchorage on Glen Highway and then to Parks Highway and Spur Rd (milepost 98.7). As an old railroad town, Talkeetna is also accessible via an 80 mile, three hour train ride from Anchorage (visit www.alaskarailroad.com or call 907-265-2494 for information and reservations). Talkeetna offers a number of different dining and accommodation options, which are listed on the town’s Chamber of Commerce website. http://www.talkeetnachamber.org/visit-talkeetna.html. Information on Talkeetna Air Taxi’s flightseeing tours including reservations can be found on their web site: http://www.talkeetnaair.com/