Only in Alaska: Flight-seeing Mt. McKinley

Yesterday we wrote about the tallest mountain in the world: Mt. McKinley (better known as “Denali”). Now, how to view this mighty peak? If you want to see the summit, you have two options: One, you could climb the mountain. But if the training and heights and gear and time are a bit too much for you, then consider a second option: a flight tour.

In both Denali Park (the village just outside the national park that houses all the visitor services) and the small town of Talkeetna, which serves as the base for all climbers making summit attempts, flight tour operators abound. You’ll have several options to choose from when deciding on a tour. Some will not only buzz the summit, but also land on one of the mountain’s many glaciers. If you want to get really adventurous, you could try a helicopter tour; many of these also include glacier landings.

On my recent tour of Alaska, I signed up for a basic summit viewing flight tour through Denali Air. The ten-seater propeller Piper was much, much smaller than any plane I’ve ever been on, and the turbulence on take-off and landing was palpable. We all wore headsets with microphones, and, once we hit 12,000 feet, oxygen masks. The unpressurized cabin also required heat, and the pilot cranked it up (the temperature outside was around 25F below zero).


The pilot flew us within a mile or two of the summit, though we felt like we were only a few hundred feet away. Besides pointing out the West Buttress and the Wickersham Wall, he also showed us the 14,000ft base camp – a minuscule smattering of several dozen tents.

A flight tour of Denali doesn’t come cheap, but it’s hard to put a price on circling the summit of the world’s tallest mountain. You can expect to pay several hundred dollars for a two-hour tour, and even more for options like a glacier landing. It doesn’t matter whether you fly out of the park or Talkeetna; the summit looks the same no matter which direction you fly in from. Pop a Dramamine if you suffer from motion sickness, and don’t forget your camera!

My trip through Alaska was sponsored by Princess Cruises, but the ideas and opinions expressed in this article are all my own.