Taking to the Air over Denali National Park on an Alaskan Vacation

by Kelly Hess

Kelly's view of Denali National Park from the plane
Kelly's view of Denali National Park from the plane

After an afternoon in Anchorage, we started the highlights of our Alaska cruisetour on the second day with a train ride into the wilderness on the Princess Midnight Sun Express Alaska rail.  We had a nice table with facing bench seats on the upper level, great for visiting and playing games.  The windows wrapped up to the top of train, for great views.  Right outside of Anchorage we saw a mother and baby moose right by the tracks. It was amazing … but we went by so fast we did not have time to take a picture.

We arrived at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge just in time for lunch so our first stop was to The Road House, where we soon realized that everything was super-sized.  There were stacks of pancakes bigger than the plates, cinnamon rolls the size of a small pie and bowls of soup that were as big as a dog’s water bowl.  One of their gigantic cinnamon rolls reduced a woman near us to tears — claiming it was the best thing she had ever eaten and it reminded her of her mother.  Just as we had decided to try one, the waiter asked us if we wanted a free one because they made one with frosting by error.  We jumped at this opportunity and licked the plate clean.

That fortified us to explore the town, checking out a few of the historical sites — including the Talkeetna Museum.  We relaxed and watched people until it was time for the main event — our 3 p.m. Glacier Landing Explorer Tour!

But when we arrived there were lot of people standing outside, and even more people inside.  We soon got the bad news — the weather over Denali (or Mt. McKinley) and Denali National Park was stormy and they had not had a flight go up yet.

We chose to wait around to see if things changed.  This was our only chance to see this famous mountain — tallest mountain in North America — and surrounding glaciers, so if there was a possibility of going up, we wanted to take it. Around 4 p.m. they sent up a big plane that took the lower loop around and came back, they said that there was a small window for one plane to go up.  We wouldn’t land on a glacier but it was better than nothing.  We agreed and hopped in the plane with seven other people.

Our pilot, Dale, was great.  He had quite the sense of humor, he had an iPod hooked up to this old plane (it was the only modern feature) and the music played in our headphones when he wasn’t talking.  The song playing when we took off was Tom Petty’s “Free Falling” that gave everyone a nervous look.

Our plane flew us over the most amazing scenery.  We saw many glaciers like the Kanikula Glacier, Tokositna Glacier, Ruth Glacier and the Great Gorge and the Moose’s Tooth Mountain.  Then, before we knew it, Dale told us to prepare for a landing!  The plane glided across the ice and landed safely in the Sheldon Amphitheater.  The plane was tricky to get out of as there was no real handles and we did not have stairs this time.  My Dad had a bit of an issue and slipped on the way out. Once we realized he was not hurt we all had a good laugh. Who else can say that they fell out of a plane at 5,500 feet with no parachute?

We were amazed at how magnificent the area was.  We walked around, threw a few snowballs, took some pictures and checked out the Mountain House way up on top of the cliff above us.  Just as we started to wander around Dale yelled that the weather was turning for the worse and we needed to leave … now.  We all piled into the plane and we were off the ground in minutes.

Sure enough a big dark cloud spilled over the mountain and it started raining.  But once we flew away from Denali, the weather was again beautiful and we enjoyed the ride back.  It was a fantastic treasure to be able to land on the glacier and fly over the Denali National Park — absolutely a memory we will never forget!  With our feet safely on ground Dale drew a flight map for each of us and we said goodbye.

Our Princess shuttle bus then took us to the McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge — the ride was about an hour and 20 minutes so we decided to eat first.  We opted for a simple dinner at the lodge and then found our rooms and went shopping since it was still light outside.

From the lodge’s back deck you can see Denali on those rare times when the weather cooperates.  While we were shopping, suddenly everyone screamed and ran to the back deck.  We dropped our merchandise and followed suit, but by the time we got there, Denali had already disappeared again behind the clouds.  The lodge offers two wake-up calls to sign up for — one for the northern lights and the other if Denali came out.  We signed up for both but never got a call. But it didn’t matter – our afternoon in the air had given us a spectacular close up of the mountain.

All in all, it was one of the most amazing days on an Alaska cruise ever, thanks to Princess.