A wide range of trips throughout Southcentral Alaska.
Anchorage: 30°/39°/Mostly cloudy
Fairbanks: 2°/26°/Intermittent clouds
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 like thousands of visitors frequently do via cruise ship -- they're not really seeing Alaska.
If you want to see more of the largest state in the nation, get in the air.
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.
When it comes to seeing Mount McKinley, do some research to choose your flightseeing operator and itinerary. For instance, Rust's Flying Service (flyrusts.com) and K2 Aviation (flyK2.com) have the same owners but offer different flightseeing trips.
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 have the option of a landing on a remote lake. On the three-hour trip, the plane flies past the Alaska Range foothills, over the Ruth Glacier and the Great Gorge, and up close to McKinley. The trip is $365 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. $215.
• 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. $255.
• The Denali Grand Tour, a trip all the way around the mountain, including a view of the 14,000-foot Wickersham Wall. $295.
• The McKinley Climber / Summit Tour, a trip to about 20,000 feet encircling the mountain. $320.
A glacier landing can be added to the first three trips for $75.
Other companies operating from Talkeetna and near Denali itself offer similar routes. Ask around to find the one that works best with your schedule and viewing desires.
It doesn't take loads of time or cash to enjoy flightseeing.
Smokey Bay Air (smokey bayair.com) in Homer offers 30-minute flightseeing trips for $78, but also has longer trips. The company offers a 3-hour trip that includes volcano flightseeing and bear viewing. The tour is about $440.
Rust's 30-minute Anchorage Flightseeing Safari is $100 and starts at Lake Hood before heading over the Chugach Mountains, which border Anchorage to the east. It's possible to see wildlife -- including beluga whales and Dall sheep -- on this trip.
The Glacier and Wildlife Flightseeing Tour is 112 to 214 hours and $225 to $275. The flight passes the Knik and Colony glaciers and has an optional landing on a wilderness lake.
Another option is the 212-hour Prince William Sound Glacier Tour ($325). 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 ($365) and see Columbia Glacier, Southcentral Alaska's largest tidewater glacier.
Whether it's bears, Mount McKinley, glaicers or just a view from above, the right flightseeing trip will leave you breathless and wanting more.