Alaska's Best Mountain Experiences
Flightsee Mt. McKinley and Its Mountain Cousins
An endless sea of towering peaks outside your window. And then there are the icy faces, billowing cornices, and gaping crevasses in the glaciers that flow off their flanks.
“Fly an hour, or walk a week ” is a famous saying in Alaska‚ and with good reason. In a state with few roads, there’s no better way to get up close and personal with our mountains than to fly right up to them in a small plane or helicopter.
The granddaddy flight tour is, of course, to see Mt. McKinley , from either Talkeetna or the Denali Park Entrance. But other flightseeing tours rival it—and are just as scenic. For instance, you can take a helicopter from Girdwood or Juneau , where you’ll be staring at peaks and glaciers within 5 minutes of takeoff. Or, take a spectacular flight over the mountain range less traveled, the Wrangell St. Elias Mountains, from McCarthy. Flightseeing tours typically last 1-3 hours and range from $250 to $400.
For a truly unique experience, stay at Ultima Thule Lodge. This high-end, fly-in only lodge is located deep in Wrangell St. Elias National Park. The flying doesn't stop when you arrive at the lodge as guests enjoy a personalized bush-plane safari experience throughout their stay.
Want to see something even more impressive? Flightsee the Kichatna Spires
Forty-five miles southwest of Mt. McKinley, this area is one of the most impressive collections of densely-packed granite towers on earth. There are dozens of them, and they rise to about 8,000 feet. Few people go here, because it’s not on the most flightseeing routes, but it’s not hard to get a flightseeing charter from Talkeetna, and definitely worth the trip.
Day Cruises by the Coastal Mountains
Glassy blue waters contrasted against jagged granite: Something about being on a boat turns up the volume on Alaska scenery, making the mountains seem even bigger and more dramatic. Add to that forested green mountainsides and waterfalls plunging over slopes thousands of feet high, and you have an unforgettable, visually rich experience.
A day cruise makes seeing that scenery simple, and offers a free bonus: tidewater glaciers crashing into the ocean and marine wildlife splashing along the surface.
If you’re willing to be a little more hands-on, a kayaking trip adds one more element to the experience: it’s quieter and more intimate—and when you’re paddling, these areas will make you feel even smaller when contrasted with the giant mountains.
Get on a Trail
There’s that moment, after working your way up a trail, when suddenly the landscape opens up in front of you—and you exhale with that little bit of triumph. You don’t have to summit Mt. McKinley to appreciate the scale and immensity of Alaska’s mountains. Plenty of Alaska’s small towns—and even the big cities—have good trails with access onto nearby mountains.
Anchorage's Flattop, for instance, is the most climbed mountain in Alaska, with views of a hundred miles on clear days. In Seward, Mt. Marathon is the site of the longest-running footrace in America. Juneau, meanwhile, has Mt. Roberts, which has a 4½ mile path up to the top; to save your knees, however, your best bet is to take the scenic tram down the mountain. Read about hundreds of Alaska’s best trails, many of which are in the mountains. If you don’t want to hike solo, of course, you can often do guided day hikes on trails all over the state, which typically range from $50-$150.
You’re far from the roads and civilization, setting foot on seemingly untouched terrain. If you can afford to spend $400 or more, no hiking experience compares quite to heli-hiking. Even so, Alaska heli-hiking isn’t limited to just helicopters, and the hiking encompasses a wide variety of different terrains and sights.
There are a number of ways to set up a trip. You could stay at a remote wilderness lodge such as Winterlake Lodge, for instance, and get dropped off on a different mountain ridge every day. Or, you can find heli-hiking trips that leave out of certain towns.
From Talkeetna, for instance, a floatplane can drop you off at Moraine Lake, just a few miles from Mt. McKinley, where you’ll trek up into the tundra. From just outside Anchorage, you can take a surprisingly quick helicopter ride into the wilderness, where you’ll hike above the timberline at the peak of wildflower or berry seasons. And from Girdwood, you can take a helicopter to a glacier, where you’ll strap on crampons and then spend several hours exploring the glacier and its features, such as blue ice, crevasses, ice caves and moulins.
Ride a Tram to the Mountaintop
All of the scenery, but none of the sweat. Not everyone wants to climb a mountain on their vacation, and luckily, in Alaska you don’t have to, in order to enjoy a mountain’s rewarding views. There are two great scenic tram rides in Alaska, where you can spend either an hour or a whole afternoon:
- Mount Alyeska: Located in Girdwood—just an hour away from Anchorage—this is a popular ski resort during the winter months. As the tram travels up Mount Alyeska, you’ll have views of glaciers tucked in between mountain peaks, as well as Turnagain Arm in the distance.
- Mt Roberts: Located in Juneau, this mountain visit is perfect for anyone doing an Inside Passage cruise. You’ll ride 1,800 feet to the top of Mt. Roberts, where you can take in the views of the Chilkat Mountains and Gastineau Channel below.
For either tram, the prices are reasonable—just $20-30 per adult. Plus, at the top of both tramways you’ll find beautiful views, gift shops, restaurants, hiking trails, and more.
Mountain Scenery Drives
In Alaska, the bar is set pretty high for road trips with mountain views. After all, it’s hard to find a road in Alaska that doesn’t offer some mountain scenery. That said, there are some extraordinarily spectacular mountain drives—and happily, some are extremely convenient to the main city centers, too.
Turnagain Arm may be the most famous
If you’re heading south out of Anchorage, this area offers views on both sides of the road —and each turn reveals another scenic wonder. Chugach State Park's 3000-foot mountains jut up on your left, while on the right, the sprawling, sometimes-four-mile-wide flats of Turnagain Arm seem to stretch like a plain to the opposite shores of Cook Inlet—where you can see sloping, mammoth mountains. In fact, the mountain scenery continues nonstop all the way to Seward.
The drive north from Anchorage is strikingly scenic, too
On the drive to Denali, you’ll see three mountain ranges: the Chugach, the Talkeetnas, and the Alaska Range. About an hour from the park, you’ll pass through Broad Pass, which is the highest point on the Parks Highway at 2,300 feet, but the lowest point between the mountain ranges. Still, you’ll feel as though you're high above the valleys here, with a rapid-fire succession of mountain peaks in your view. The forest is sparse, so you can see for miles, whether it’s the Alaska Range to the northwest or the Talkeetna mountains to the southeast. On a clear day, you can often see Mt McKinley and the rooftop of North America.
The drive from Valdez to Glenallen is another stunning drive
You’ll see great views of the Wrangell St. Elias Mountains, where a whopping four mountain ranges converge. The area also boasts North America's largest assemblage of glaciers, and the greatest collection of peaks above 16,000 feet, plus stupendous roadside waterfalls.
Ride the Alaska Railroad
Rich scenery, comfy seats and waiter service: it’s hard to argue with taking the train for soaking up mountain views and relaxing to boot. Better yet, much of the rail lines of the Alaska Railroad lie far from any major roads or development, so you get plenty of unadulterated views. Rail travel ranges between $79 - $300 pp depending on route. Here is what you’ll see on the two banner routes:
Leaving Anchorage, you’ll get views of the Chugach Mountains —in fact, the train hugs the mountains so close in some places that you have to get right up to the window and look straight up to see the tops. As you gain elevation, you’ll head into the Kenai Mountain crossing, a dramatic landscape of corrugated peaks that stretches as far as you can see. Check out our flyover video of this route.
This stretch also offers some quirky history: You’ll pass through the historic loop district, where in the days of the steam engines, the pass was too steep for the train to pass through directly. So, they created a giant wooden loop —like the entrance to a parking garage but structured like an old wooden roller coaster—to allow the train to pass through the mountains. Today’s trains can handle a slightly steeper grade, but the train will take you on a series of curves as you make your way up, passing glaciers, and finally summiting at the aptly named Grandview.
You get views of the Chugach Mountains and the Talkeetna Mountains, as well as Mt. McKinley and the rest of the Alaska Range. Some highlights: just before Palmer, you’ll see Pioneer Peak (more than 6,000 feet) and Twin Peaks (around 5,000 feet). Right before you get to Talkeetna, start looking for Mt. McKinley and the Alaska Range ahead—and watch for the one spot where Mt. McKinley, Mt. Foraker, and Mt. Hunter all look as if they are rising out of the Susitna River.