There is no more dramatic or memorable experience available to the typical tourist in Alaska than to fly with one of the glacier pilots who support Mount McKinley climbs. Climbers typically begin with a flight from here to the 7,200-foot level of the Kahiltna Glacier. These immense mountains grow ever larger as you fly toward them until, like a tiny insect, you fly among their miles-tall folds, watching the climbers toiling on the ice below you. I was simply speechless.
Several operators with long experience offer the flights. The least expensive excursions cost around $195 and approach McKinley's south face, flying over the Ruth and Tokositna glaciers. If at all possible -- and if the weather is good -- buy an extended tour that circles the mountain and flies over its craggy heights, for $240 to $385 per person. Best of all, arrange a landing on the mountain itself, just as the climbers do. The Don Sheldon Amphitheater on the Ruth Glacier is a stunning spot high on McKinley; only after you stand there do you realize the incredible scale of what you have seen from above. These landings are treated as add-ons to the tours mentioned above, for an additional price of $75 to $85 per person, plus the $10 park entrance fee.
Should you reserve ahead or wait to see the weather? It used to be you could reliably walk in and grab a seat, but the popularity of these flights now makes reservations advisable. That's the best way to get a guaranteed price, too; otherwise, prices sometimes depend on the number of passengers aboard the plane. If you do decide on the walk-in approach, make your appearance early in the morning.
A number of air taxi companies offer these flights, all operating out of the Talkeetna airport, including these three that I can wholeheartedly recommend: Talkeetna Air Taxi (tel. 800/533-2219 or 907/733-2218; www.talkeetnaair.com), K-2 Aviation (tel. 800/764-2291 or 907/733-2291; www.flyk2.com), and McKinley Flight Services, also known as Talkeetna Aero Services (tel. 888/733-2899 or 907/733-2899; www.talkeetnaaero.com).
Jet Boat Tours
Talkeetna is at the confluence of the Talkeetna and Big Susitna rivers. Mahay's Riverboat Service (tel. 800/736-2210 or 907/733-2223; www.mahaysriverboat.com) covers these fast-moving waters of glacier silt on speedy, comfortable jet boats. Tours that leave several times a day from a dock near the Talkeetna River public boat launch range from 2 to 5 hours, priced at $65 to $155 per person. Owner Steve Mahay is legendary, the only person ever to shoot Devil's Canyon in a jet boat.
Talkeetna River Guides, on Main Street (tel. 800/353-2677; www.talkeetnariverguides.com), offers a 2-hour wildlife river-rafting tour, without white water, over 9 miles of the Talkeetna three times a day for $79 adults, $59 children 10 and under. They also offer longer rafting expeditions, including overnights that include fishing.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.