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How to do Alaska's Denali National Park in a day

Scott McMurren
Denali, or Mt McKinley, as seen from the Susitna River.
Scott McMurren photo
Steve Mahay's riverboat service in Talkeetna.
Scott McMurren photo
Steve Mahay's trips include a visit to a re-created Athabascan village.
Scott McMurren photo
Denali, or Mt. Mckinley on a beautiful day for flightseeing.
Scott McMurren photo
The summit of Denali, or Mt. McKinley, as seen from a small airplane.
Scott McMurren photo
Looking north into Denali National Park, Kantishna and Wonder Lake are visible.
Scott McMurren photo
Passengers breathe supplemental oxygen as their small plane climbs above 11,000 feet in Denali National Park.
Scott McMurren photo
Breakfast at the Talkeetna Roadhouse.
Scott McMurren photo

Every now and then I get a phone call or email from an optimistic visitor to Alaska that goes something like this: "We'll be in Anchorage for a day and we'd like to drive up and see Denali Park."

I reply quickly, "Do you have a plane?"

That, of course, is the only way to get a good view of the park in one day. And even then, you'll probably get a nice shot of the mountains, but it's tough to see the critters from 10,000 feet!

But if you want that once-in-a-lifetime view of The Great One, an air tour is the way to go. And Talkeetna is the place to be.

Whether you're entertaining out-of-towners, or you just want a quick getaway, it's easy to plan a one- or two-day adventure to Talkeetna. It's just 113 miles north of Anchorage.

Get an early start and plan on breakfast at the Talkeetna Roadhouse. According to proprietress Tricia Costello, there are two parts to the menu: "Breakfast and non-breakfast."

And the breakfasts -- wow. The pancakes flop over the side of the plate. Or pick the biscuits and gravy -- it fills up the whole plate. If you're more of a roll-and-coffee breakfast person, fear not: the cinnamon rolls are huge.

There's no sense being bashful at the Roadhouse. There are several long tables, and you just pull up a chair and get to know your neighbor. Toward the back of the dining area you'll see a cozy lounge and a fireplace. Farther back are the guestrooms, if you want to spend the night. In fact, Trisha has a special package called "Beer, Bed and Buns". It includes overnight accommodations, as well as a growler of beer from Denali Brewing. When you arrive, there is an empty growler in your room. All you have to do is walk across the street and fill it up at the brewery. The next morning, your package includes some fresh buns for breakfast! Trisha also offers a discount for folks who are taking any classes at the nearby Alaska Folk School.

When you're done with your meal, you might grab some sweets to go. I opted to go light and walked out with only a half-dozen cookies and a couple of chocolate cheesecake brownies.

Planes, trains and riverboats

The airport is right next to downtown, and there are several great flightseeing outfits, including K2 Aviation, Talkeetna Air Taxi and Talkeetna Aero Services. Eric and Geri Denkewalter are the owners of Talkeetna Aero Services and they have a twin-engine Piper Navajo that's fitted for oxygen for "Summit Tours" of Mt. McKinley. That's right: you fly up to around 22,000 feet.

I've flown up to the Ruth Amphitheater on ski planes several times, and it's fabulous. But the summit tour is in a faster airplane and you really get to see more sides of the mountain -- and the surrounding peaks -- up close.

In fact, our pilot cautioned us that it's very difficult to judge distance because the mountains are so big. We flew around Mt. Foraker and Mt. Hunter and I thought I could reach out and touch the peaks, but we were still a mile away! We picked a nice day so we flew around the north side of Denali to see the awesome Wickersham Wall and look out toward Wonder Lake.

Our pilot took his time weaving in and around the peaks and passes--dipping the wing and telling us when to snap our cameras! We passed over Base Camp on the Kahiltna Glacier and we could see the tiny dots against the snow: the climbers and their tents.

Here's an album of photos I took on the tour. There are more than 100. I just couldn't figure out which ones to cut!

Although the flightseeing trip is an awesome adventure, it typically lasts less than 90 minutes. So you'll be back on the ground with plenty of time to take a jetboat trip up the Susitna River. Steve Mahay and his family have been working the rivers in the Talkeetna area for more than 30 years. You can choose from three trips, depending on how much time you have. Families like the Three Rivers Tour. It includes excursions up both the Chulitna and the Susitna Rivers (you start your trip on the Talkeetna River). Mahay says his Devil's Canyon Tour is the favorite with adventuresome Alaskans.

 

It's a longer trip (five hours) and goes into the heart of Devil's Gorge on the Susitna River. Lunch is included on the longer tour.

All of Mahay's trips include a stop at a Native Indian encampment, designed after an Athabascan community. You'll see what the traditional housing looked like and learn more about these hardy people. Nearby is an authentic trapper's cabin, including a nearby food cache. Your naturalist guide will point out the indigenous flowers and plants.

Keep your camera ready for wildlife: moose, eagles, beaver and bear. Also, your river guides will know just the right places on the river to get a great shot of the mountains with the water in the foreground!

 

 RELATED: Photos from the trip

After "summitting" Denali and cruising on the river, you're bound to be hungry again. Try Mountain High Pizza Pie. It's across the street from the Roadhouse and my kids swear they have the best pizza in the state -- even better than Moose's Tooth in Anchorage (which is impressive!).

Because Denali is so close, Talkeetna is where the climbers come before their flight to Base Camp on the Kahiltna Glacier. And all of them must complete their orientation at the Talkeetna Ranger Station. It's fun to go through and check out the maps and learn more about "The Great One". The station is open from 8:00 a.m.-5:30 p.m. every day during the summer.

So the next time someone says they want to see Denali in a day (and they don't have their own plane), send them up the road to Talkeetna. 

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based travel marketing consultant who has lived in Alaska for three decades, spending much of that time traveling the far-flung corners of the state. Visit his website at www.alaskatravelgram.com. And follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/alaskatravelgrm for breaking updates.