When people describe something as “breathtaking” I always viewed it as a metaphor-before this trip. I don’t really know if it was a combination of the altitude or simply the view itself, but I actually couldn’t breathe during the flight around Denali – the tallest mountain in North America at 20,310 feet above sea level.
We stayed at the Kantishna Roadhouse deep in the heart of Denali National Park. It’s one of the few places allowed to take guests inside Denali. The park itself covers more than 10,000 square miles – about the size of the state of Massachusetts. You’re completely surrounded by wilderness with one limited access road in or out for park personnel and tour companies. If you’re looking to get away from it all and see the natural beauty of Alaska, this is the place.
One of my bucket list items was taking a flight-seeing tour of Denali – the tallest mountain in North America at 20,310 feet above sea level. Kantishna Air Taxi’s small airstrip is the closest to the mountain. You get to see more because you spend less time getting to the mountain. They don’t take reservations; you sign up at the roadhouse when you arrive if you want to go. They come by and pick you up if they’re flying that day. It all depends on the weather and your place on the waiting list.
We had been waiting for 2 days with no luck. They hadn’t been sending flights up due to the cloudy weather. On our last night, the weather broke a bit, and they were sending up three planes. We were lucky enough to be on one of them.
Up, Up, and Away
We headed out at 8:00 PM – sunset in early August in Alaska doesn’t happen until about 10:30 PM, so plenty of time.
Andy was the pilot of our single-engine six-seat over-wing airplane. We flew at about 170 mph, and climbed as high as 12,500 ft during the hour long trip. Andy explained that evening flights are the best because the light is better. The photos are more dramatic with the sharp contrasting shadows.
We broke through the cloud layers by snaking our way through the openings scattered around. Andy gave us the description of the peaks and glaciers as we passed over them. When we finally got on top of the clouds we could see the summit of Denali, formerly Mt McKinley, towering over everything else in sight. We actually flew around the mountain, able to see it and the surrounding peaks form all sides.
Andy took his time explaining where the climbers set up base amp, and the various approaches used to get to the summit. It turns out that he knows all this from personal experience. He made the three week journey to the summit a few years before.
Back to Earth
As we descended through various layers of clouds we could see for miles in every direction-and all of it within the Denali National Park system. We saw kettle ponds that had been formed at the end of the last ice age as the glaciers receded. Wonder Lake and the Kantishna Roadhouse structures could be seen below.
The melted glacial ice flows into the valleys in these “ribbon” streams. The near-freezing water is grey in color, carrying the glacial “flour” of ground rock. As it deposits the flour, it forms twists and turns in the stream that look like ribbons, crisscrossing each other for miles on end.
Taking this flight was definitely one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had.