A wide range of trips throughout Southcentral Alaska.
Anchorage: 45°/61°/Partly sunny
Fairbanks: 46°/69°/Mostly cloudy
Flightseeing trips open up Alaska's roadless wilderness
Covering the Last Frontier's vast landscape may mean rising above its logistical challenges. Paved and unpaved roads crisscross less than 25 percent of the state, and driving can suck hours and days from a time-conscious traveler's itinerary.
Numerous Alaska pilots, like John Ellison of Ellison Air Inc., offer air services to passengers who are short on time and looking for big adventure. Soaring over the crystal beauty of Prince William Sound, the rugged charm of the Chugach Mountains or the sprawling splendor of the Susitna River gives visitors a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take in the majesty of Alaska's untapped wilderness.
Ellison said it can be difficult for visitors to grasp the magnitude of Alaska's more than 600,000 square miles of scenery.
"Flying is really the only way they can really see how vast the state is," he said. "You can really get a flavor for how spectacular it is."
Popular tours include glacial excursions, bear-viewing trips and flights to Mount McKinley, according to Ellison. Still, Alaska's notoriously fickle weather can ground or alter a traveler's plans.
"Some people have their hearts set on a trip to McKinley," Ellison said. "But it's only visible 20 percent of the time."
He suggests working with flight operators to plan a trip that will be safe and still offer a real Alaska experience. Time- and budget-conscious travelers can enjoy short flights around the Anchorage area to get a taste for air travel.
Ellison said short trips often end up leading to longer adventures.
"People have to do it once and then they'll be happy to do it again," he said.
While some services can be chartered year-round, others operate only in the summer months, from about May to September.
Many companies base flightseeing and air taxi service in Anchorage. Most can be found at Merrill Field, east of downtown, or Lake Hood Seaplane Base, near the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.
Lake Hood Seaplane Base is known as one of the busiest hubs for floatplanes in the world. The distinct aircraft can take off and land on water, thanks to pontoons affixed to their undersides.
An abundance of flightseeing operations can also be found several hours north of Anchorage in Talkeetna.
Longtime pilot and retired flightseeing tour guide Jim Okonek said the town's proximity to Mount McKinley, the continent's tallest peak, makes it a great spot for tour headquarters.
Okonek said when he founded K-2 Aviation in 1981 it was only the third air taxi service in Talkeetna. He said at the time pilots were using the town as a starting point for backcountry hunters and fishers, not sightseers.
"There were no moose in the area and the fishing wasn't very good," Okonek said. "For people in the area having McKinley there was like having Times Square in your backyard. It was pretty to look at but it wasn't too impressive."
He said he's seen flightseeing take off in popularity during the past 20 years. Okonek said the beauty of the land and the novelty of the experience attracts many first-time passengers.
"Flightseeing is not a common thing everywhere," he said. "It's amazing how many of the people I fly have never been in a little airplane."
Okonek said passengers were sometimes wary of the experience but usually got on board because loved ones were interested in the adventure. He said he's lucky he's long appeared wise beyond his years.
"I was blessed with white hair early on, about 50," he said. "I think the hair gave them confidence in me."
Services from companies in the Talkeetna area focus on McKinley flights and glacial landings.
Tina Pijuan, Talkeetna Aero Services and Fly Denali customer service manager, said flying to the top of the 20,320-foot summit provides a unique experience.
"For a short period of your flight you'll be wearing an oxygen mask," she said.
She said in addition to the breathtaking views she enjoys the McKinley route for the people-watching.
"I love the (Mount McKinley) summit flight. I like to go up in June so I can see the climbers since I'm too chicken to climb myself." Pijuan said.
Visitors can expect to pay for flights on a per-person basis with rates decreasing as passenger loads increase. Rates start around $175 per person with a relatively full manifest and climb from there. Visitors can typically tailor trips to cater to their travel style and budget.
Freelance writer Tiffany Clements lives in Anchorage.
What locals say
"My favorite route is to McKinley. But I'm pleased to take off and show the rest of the state to people. There's an awful lot of other things to see."
-- Jim Okonek, former owner of Talkeetna-based K2 Aviation
A flightseeing trip is the best way to see the largest percentage of Alaska. Just about any trip will give you a different perspective, but consider these:
The high one: That is one of the names given to Mount McKinley. What better way to see it than eye to eye? Toss in a landing on one of the mountain's glaciers for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Close to town: For some, a 30-minute trip over the Chugach Mountains just outside Anchorage will stun the senses.
This thing floats, right? While other places have floatplanes, nowhere is a plane that takes off and lands on the water more a part of life than Alaska. You're here; why not experience it?