Floating above the Alaskan wilderness in a powerful, quiet helicopter is a dreamy experience that almost seems to unfold in slow motion. Because they can fly slowly—even hover—and cruise at low altitudes, helicopters have an advantage over fixed-wing aircraft when it comes to studying the landscape and viewing wildlife (though hovering over animals isn’t allowed). There’s less turbulence in a whirlybird, and a chopper’s large windows don’t hurt, either. They have excellent safety records in Alaska. And of course, you can set down just about anywhere.
The flip side is that because helicopters are more costly to operate, so tours are more expensive (50 minutes for $260 in a helicopter versus 60-90 minutes for $140-240 in an airplane).
And when it comes to flightseeing Denali (Mt. McKinley), it’s important to remember a couple things: first, airplanes operate at higher altitudes—essential if you want to look down on Denali’s summit. Second, helicopters aren't permitted to land within Denali Park. So if you want to experience a helicopter glacier landing, you'll have to take a different tour, which lands on the Yanert Glacier at the foot of 13,500 Mt. Deborah. While breathtaking and remote, the scale is not as impressive as the Ruth Amphitheatre glacier, where fixed wing planes land.
Fixed wings are the workhorses of the Alaskan Bush—the machine that opened up Alaska. Just climbing into one is an adventure; it makes you feel Alaskan. You'll fly at higher altitudes than a helicopter, which will give you a sweeping view over the landscape. And you’ll fly in reliable planes with good safety records: Cessna 185's, Cessna 206's, Piper Navajos, and Twin Otters (listed in increasing order of spaciousness). Smaller planes have the advantage of intimacy; larger ones more leg room.
If you’re interested in a Denali flight, you can’t go wrong in an airplane. You can choose from different routes that take you around the mountain or even look down on its summit. And we highly recommend adding a glacier landing (roughly $60 more). Get out, take photos, make snow angels, throw snowballs, and just feel what's it's like to stand on the surface of an ancient glacier, surrounded by scale you've never before seen.
Depending on weather, you'll land either at:
The Ruth Amphitheatre, one of the most dramatic mountain amphitheatres on earth with mile-high granite walls, crevassed glaciers, and enormous hanging ice blocks, or climber's base camp on the Kahiltna Glacier where you'll likely see tents pitched on the glaciers and climbers readying their gear for the ascent.