Just as we sat down to diner, Julia, one of hosts at Camp Denali, asked if we were interested in doing the sightseeing flight over Denali that evening. I was stunned at first because we had just come in from a thunderstorm. But when I looked out the window I could see that the clouds were clearing. We decided, yes, we would go.
We hurried to finish dinner to be ready for the 7:30 pickup, which turned out to be more like 7:50. There were 9 of us going from Camp Denali. The operator in Kantishna had sent a van to take us the short distance to the air strip. The airstrip is at a lower elevation on the river with tons of mosquitos. Be sure to bring your head net.
It took a while to organize who was going on which plane but once on board, 5 passengers per plane, we took off quickly.
Our pilot, Liam, a young guy from New Zealand, was knowledgeable about the terrain and the mountains. This particular evening there were still patches of heavy clouds but also sun and blue sky. Liam first said that it was looking unlikely that we would be able to see the Denali summit, but by the end of the flight it came into view.
The complexity of the glacier valleys, narrow ridges and surrounding peaks combine for a dramatic landscape. We first approached Denali from the north side. Cloud cover prevented us from seeing the top of the mountain. Spotting an opening over one of the saddles, Liam climbed, having to circle a couple of times to gain altitude, and was able to fly us around to the south side of the mountain, which he said was a rarity. Here, heading towards the east side, were the most dramatic knife edges and we could see some of the Denali climbers’ base camps, tiny specs in the massive white.
As we continued around to the east side the summit opened up and we had clear views. The plane maxes out at around 11,000ft so the summit was above us.
The big excitement of late is the surging Muldrow Glacier. We didn’t fly directly over the mouth but we could see it. A crazy jumble of ice and rock created by a fast moving glacier. Something that generally only happens every 50 years or so.
At the end of the flight Liam took us over Wonder Lake for a view of the lake with Denali in the background.
Whether the flight is worth it to you depends on your expectations and having a bit of luck. Because Denali is shrouded in clouds much of the time and the clouds are constantly moving it is difficult to predict when it will be clear enough for good views. At times I was dismayed that there was so much cloud cover, other times I thought the clouds added to the dramatic landscape. In the end the clouds did shift and we had better views of the summit and glaciers.
Many flights go out of Talkeetna, the rainy side of the Alaska Range, making it even more difficult to predict the weather. At Camp Denali the mountain went in and out of the clouds but was visible every evening. Flights are bit more expensive here, but it’s easier to see what you are getting.
For links to all the posts in this series see the Alaska page.
June 13, 2021