Alaska has always held a prominent position on my travel bucket-list. Whenever daydreaming about this 49th state, my future visit always takes place during the sun filled summer months. That being said, plans change when your baby brother who is working in Seward asks you to come visit. My weekend adventure to an Alaska firmly within winter’s icy grip surpassed any of my shiver filled expectations. As a Michigander growing up in flat, farm country it is always a thrill to be surrounded by any landscape resembling mountains, making my flight from Seattle to Anchorage extra special as my seat next to a window facing the coast. It was a clear and sunny day, affording stunning mountainous views along the British Columbia coastline.
Touching down in Anchorage, Samuel picked up me and we headed to get an early dinner at the 49th State Brewing Company before driving up to Talkeetna for the night. We’d both forgotten it was Valentine’s Day so we had to laugh as we were surrounded by couples for the brewery’s special dinner event celebrating the Hallmark holiday.
I loved every minute of our drive to Talkeetna as I was still soaking in the unique landscape. During the drive Samuel challenged me to look out for moose along the route. Excited as moose do not call home to southern Michigan, within a few minutes of searching I spotted my first one just off the road in a swampy area. After that, we spotted quite a few, with one even standing just along the road, which provided quite the shock as it was after dark.
Arriving at our destination, we were staying in the adorable Talkeetna Roadhouse
. The original building was built in 1917 with the addition housing the rooms being constructed in 1944. The overall feeling was of a cozy, creaky old farm house. When we woke in the morning, you could hear the bustling restaurant kitchen gearing up, with light from downstairs filtering up through the vocal floorboards.
We were lazy getting up in the morning because we had ventured out at 2 AM to attempt to view the elusive Northern Lights. It was a frosty, -11ºF as we drove around, clueless as to the surrounding landscape due to getting into town after dark. The sky was crystal clear, without a cloud in sight, however despite seeing green tinges in the distance, we were not treated to any full blown shimmering lights. The next morning, we enjoyed breakfast at the Roadhouse, which had generous pancake portions, but the breakfast burrito left much to be desired.
We had a few hours to kill before our noon flight tour around Denali so Samuel had the idea of driving to Denali View South in the Denali State Park that he and Kara had visited over the previous summer. On our way to the viewpoint, we drove by the Talkeetna Lookout where we’d been searching for the Northern Lights the previous night. I was surprised to see several cars parked at the overview with people taking pictures of the scene behind us. Upon glancing in my side mirror, I was shocked to find a breathtaking view of Denali filling the mirror. We quickly turned around, marveling at the landscape had been hidden in the dark of night. As it was -17ºF at this point it was a quick, if not comical jump out of the car to snap a few photos and run back to the safety of the warm vehicle.
After some debate regarding driving the hour to the Denali State Park due to our phenomenal first look of Denali in Talkeetna, we decided to still make the trip. It proved to be an enjoyable drive as we had glimpses of the iconic mountain throughout. Arriving at the view point, we had to make due with the parking lot not being plowed by parking along the road and following the knee high path people had already carved to the lookout. We found out the hard way that if you ventured to the edge of the packed path, you would slip through to snow deeper than your knees. The end of the path afforded expansive views of the range, with Denali at its center. Needless to say, we were froze through by the time we made it back to the car as temperatures were still approximately -10ºF.
Turning around and heading back toward Talkeetna, we were getting increasingly pumped for our flight tour! During the planning stage of this trip we’d initially mulled around the idea of driving to Denali National Park, however it would have added hours of driving to an already packed schedule. The deciding factor being that we could only drive three miles or so into the park, we began investigating alternative excursions. That’s when Samuel came up with the idea of a flight tour in which we would get to fly around Denali. Based on fantastic reviews, we picked K2 Aviation
and were delighted to find out that they were still giving tours in the heart of winter. K2 Aviation offered several different flight packages, however understandably based on the time of year, they were not landing on the Ruth Glacier. While it would have been an amazing experience to actually land on a glacier and walk around, we loved the fact that we were able to fly around Denali. I was initially very concerned with how to dress for the flight. Six people other than the pilot fit in our cute little plane and with surface temperatures still approximately -10ºF I was worried I would be frozen throughout the two hour flight. I ended up wearing my winter boots, leggings, stocking hat, gloves, and my winter parka but was stressing that I should have worn my snow pants. Thankfully, in the plane they provided lap blankets resulting in a comfortable ride. Samuel opted for the snow pants and was warm, sans blanket.
Words fail to capture how majestic the mountains were from our bird’s eye view as we flew over several ridges, with the peaks seeming an arms length away. Ok, I’m exaggerating, but the size made them appear closer than they actually were. For example the closest we flew to Denali was four miles, although the mountain consumed our viewpoints, skewing our overall level of depth perception.
While on our tour we were able to spot the British couple who had currently been on the mountain for two weeks attempting to summit Denali. Unfortunately, they’d been waylaid due to storm after storm, making their progress minimal. In the photo below can you spot the two tiny dots dragging their gear behind them?
The massive ridges were separated by different glaciers of various sizes. Taking photos of all of them, I was certain I’d be able to remember their names and unique identifiers when reviewing the images. Alas, upon compiling these photos weeks later the names and order escape me so you’re treated to a hodgepodge of glacier photos, each beautiful in their own right.
Having read several Arctic survival stories, e.g., Into Thin Air
, Frozen in Time
, Alone on the Ice
, In the Kingdom of Ice
, I’d been imbued with a healthy fear of crevasses without being able to truly comprehend what one looks like along with the potential hidden nature of them. Only upon flying over top of a vast crevasse field, was I able to understand the difficulty explorers would have faced traversing this dangerous terrain. That’s not even taking into account the fact that from the ground these adventurers couldn’t see how far the field extended or the most efficient path through the maze. Additionally, flying over top of smooth, snow covered glaciers highlights the dangerous hidden crevasses that are obscured, potentially giving way underfoot to unsuspecting explorers.
Before we knew it we were heading back to Talkeetna. On the way back we were able to fly lower, allowing us to spot moose as their tracks were everywhere in the deep snow. Samuel and I turned it into a game, which he proved to be significantly better. Can you spot the lone moose in the photo below?
The two hour tour flew by and was over before we knew it! Prior to this trip, I’d been skeptical of flight tours as I wasn’t sure what more they could offer in contrast to just hoofing it through a park on foot. That being said, Samuel and I couldn’t stop talking after our flight about what a memorable experience the tour had been. We were able to see parts of Denali National Park that we could never viewed from the ground, even had we visited over the summer. We were both left with a lingering awe regarding the size and expanse of Denali and the surrounding ranges, which contrasted sharply with the deep valleys that are tucked away in between jutting peaks. I can’t recommend this tour enough as an alternative way to visit Denali National Park, especially during winter. Although, I do look forward to one day adventuring to this expansive park during the summer months.
After our flight concluded, Samuel and I were both starving so we headed to the Denali Brewing Company where we grabbed a delicious lunch before heading to Seward for the night.
Unfortunately, it was dark out before we even reached Anchorage so I wasn’t fully able to take in the stunning drive from Anchorage to Seward. The moon was almost full though and with the cloudless skies we could see the mountainous scenery late into the night. Stay tuned for my next blog post highlighting our adventure dog sledding through Kenai Fjords National Park during a snow storm!