A wide range of trips throughout Southcentral Alaska.
Anchorage: 45°/61°/Partly sunny
Fairbanks: 46°/69°/Mostly cloudy
On a quick air-taxi ride from Homer to Soldotna, I saw more of the southern Kenai Peninsula than most visitors do in two or three days. From the air, Kachemak Bay and areas beyond opened up before our eyes - Cook Inlet and Augustine Volcano to the west, mountains to the south and east, and beautiful views as far as we could see.
If visitors stick to the road - and even the water - they're not really seeing Alaska. It's like eating a pizza with just the crust and the sauce; a flightseeing trip adds the cheese, onions and pepperoni to an Alaska vacation.
"You really get a view of Alaska - Alaska that's off the road system," said Claire McCann, owner of Smokey Bay Air in Homer (www.smokeybayair.com). "Most of Alaska is without roads. Unless visitors get up in the air, they're not seeing the true spirit of the state.
"It's a whole different perspective looking at things from up in the air. You can get up close and personal to a glacier instead of seeing it from 50 or 10 miles away. You can fly right up a glacier and look right down into a crevasse. It's quite an adventure."
It's an adventure many Alaskans take for granted. Of Alaska's 640,000 residents, about 11,000 are pilots. There are hundreds of private and public airports spread across the state.
And visitors can find air-taxi and flightseeing services in just about any community with an airport. Most flightseeing companies offer a variety of tours, which frequently include bear viewing trips and flights to see Mount McKinley. Most also will work out special itineraries for clients.
"People really want to see Denali," said Deborah Hansen, sales and marketing director for Rust's Flying Service in Anchorage and K2 Aviation in Talkeetna, which are sister companies. "We fly a lot of people up from Anchorage because you can see Denali in just one day. It's a very interesting tour and people get a personalized tour based on what questions they ask. The pilots are very knowledgeable and they want to share that."
When it comes to seeing Mount McKinley, do some research to choose your flightseeing operator and itinerary. Even Rust's and K2 have different offerings, and they have the same owner.
Rust's is based at Anchorage's Lake Hood, the largest floatplane base in the world. So visitors from Anchorage take off in a floatplane and land on an isolated lake near Mount McKinley. On the three-hour trip, the plane flies past the Alaska Range foothills, over the Ruth Glacier and the Great Gorge, and past the south face of McKinley. The trip is $295 per person.
Because K2 is in Talkeetna, about 60 miles from McKinley, the flying time is reduced. And the company specializes in taking visitors to the mountain, with four trips:
- The McKinley Experience, a flight to within six miles of Mount McKinley that includes views of the Sheldon Amphitheater, Ruth Glacier and Great Gorge. $180.
- The McKinley Flyer, includes the previous highlights and adds more flight time, a trip over the 45-mile long Kahiltna Glacier. Look for mountain climbers on their way to the top. $215.
- The Denali Grand Tour, a trip all the way around the mountain, including a view of the 14,000-foot Wickersham Wall. $255.
- The McKinley Climber / Summit Tour, a trip to about 20,000 feet encircling the mountain. $275.
A glacier landing can be added to the first three trips for $75. Other companies operating from Talkeetna offer similar routes. Ask around to find the one that works best.
"As you add money, you add time to the trip," Hansen said. "The basic route hits all the highlights, but if you want to see more, you just go on a longer flight. And I love the Summit Tour; it's the closest I'm ever going to get to the summit. You're actually able to see the trail that the climbers use."
It doesn't take loads of time or cash to enjoy flightseeing. Smokey Bay Air offers 30-minute flightseeing trips for $65, but also has one- and two-hour trips. The half-day Volcano Tour is $350 and takes visitors past Augustine, Redoubt and Iliamna volcanoes and Mount Douglas.
"We really specialize in walk-up passengers, people who come to Alaska and don't have a preset agenda," McCann said. "One of the great things about being flexible is that you can pick the day based on the weather.
"If it's just one person and they want to get up in the air, we can put them on one of our regular runs. We go to different villages, and they can really get a unique Alaska experience."
Hansen said while most visitors are interested in a trip to Denali, some of her favorite Anchorage-based trips are quite a bit simpler and easier on the budget.
The 30-minute Chugach Explorer is $95 and starts at Lake Hood before heading over the Chugach Mountains, which border Anchorage to the east. It's possible to see wildlife on this trip, she said.
The Knik Glacier and Wildlife Tour is 1.5 hours and $205. The flight passes the Knik and Colony glaciers.
Another option is the 2.5-hour Prince William Sound Glacier Tour ($255). The tour passes the Chugach Range's rugged peaks before dropping into Prince William Sound to fly past fjords and tidewater glaciers. Extend the trip to three hours ($285) and see Columbia Glacier, Southcentral Alaska's largest tidewater glacier.
Special sections editor Steve Edwards can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4316. Visit his Alaska travel blog at www.alaska.com/alaskology.
IF YOU GO
Here is a sampling of the air taxi and flightseeing companies based in Southcentral Alaska. There are dozens spread across the region; ask questions before deciding which to use:
- DENALI AIR: Located just outside Denali National Park with a shuttle service to and from area hotels. Offers daily flights around Mount McKinley. (683-2261, www.denaliair.com)
- ELLISON AIR: Anchorage-based. Offers preset tours or custom trips. (243-1959, www.ellisonair.com)
- k2 aviation: This Talkeetna-based company offers daily tours of Mount McKinley as well as custom flights and climbing support (1-800-764-2291, 733-2291, www.flyk2.com)
- kachemak air service: Located in Homer and offering scenic glacier flights on the Kenai Peninsula and across Kachemak Bay. (235-8924, www.alaskaseaplanes.com)
- RUST'S FLYING SERVICE: Located at Lake Hood, the world's largest seaplane base. Offers a full menu of trips, including bear viewing, fly-out fishing, glacier tours and flights to Mount McKinley. (1-800-544-2299, 243-1595, www.flyrusts.com)
- TALKEETNA AERO SERVICES: Based in Talkeetna and Denali National Park. Offers flightseeing trips of Mount McKinley and surrounding glaciers plus. Also offers day trips to Denali National Park from Anchorage and Talkeetna. (1-888-733-2899, 733-2899, www.talkeetnaaero.com)
- TALKEETNA AIR TAXI: Based in Talkeetna. Offers flightseeing trips of Mount McKinley, glacier landings and climbing support. (1-800-533-2219, 733-2218, www.talkeetnaair.com)
- take flight alaska: Offers trips to Mount McKinley but specializes in custom packages and tours from Anchorage. (274-9943, www.take flightalaska.com)
- SMOKEY BAY AIR: The Homer-based air-taxi and flightseeing company offers preset tours, including bear viewing and volcano tours, or custom trips. (1-888-482-1511, www.smokeybayair.com)