Denali National Park is one of the largest parks in the world, protecting over 6 million acres in central Alaska. One of the main attractions is Mt. McKinley, at 20,320 feet the tallest mountain in North America. There’s a saying in Denali National Park that you have a 95% chance of seeing a bear but only a 25% chance of seeing Mt. McKinley. That’s because this massive mountain generates its own weather and is often shrouded in clouds. It held true on our earlier visit to Denali when we never even caught a glimpse of “The High One.” But on this sunny day with near-perfect weather, Mt. McKinley was out in its full glory.
We chose Talkeetna Air Taxi because they have great reviews on the web, are the most popular air taxi flying over 70% of the Mt. McKinley climbers to base camp, and they offer 100% refund if the weather isn’t good. This is very important because of the persistent cloudiness in Denali. Who wants to pay $700 to be stuck in the clouds?
We were strapped in and ready to fly!
The Tokositna Glacier is notable for the squiggly patterns in its ice.
This photo shows Mt. McKinley (left) and the Tokositna Glacier. The dark stripes down the middle of a glacier are medial moraines from where two glaciers merge into one. As a glacier slowly crawls down a mountain, its tremendous weight scrapes rock off the sides of the canyon to form a lateral moraine at the edge of the glacier. When two glaciers merge, the lateral moraine from each combine to form a medial moraine in the center.
Mt. McKinley (not shown), Mt. Foraker (left) and Mt. Hunter (right) are known as the “Three Sisters” in the Alaska Range. At 17,400 feet, Mt. Foraker is the second-highest peak in the Alaska Range and fourth highest in the United States. The base camp for climbing Mt. McKinley rests just below Mt. Foraker on Kahiltna Glacier. Rangers told us that Mt. McKinley is like a walk-up compared to the technically challenging Mt. Foraker. We have the honor of being friends and neighbors with Barbara Roach Adair, the first woman to climb Mt. Foraker in 1975.
Some of the glaciers are buried under a smooth cap of snow. Can you see the circular tracks in the snow? (Click on the image for a larger version.) I’m not sure if the tracks were made by a plane, skier, or snowmachine that was dropped on the glacier.
In terms of topographic prominence (independent height of a mountain from base to peak), Mt. McKinley is the third most prominent peak in the world after Mt. Everest in the Himalayas and Mt. Aconcagua in the Andes.
The Wickersham Wall on the north face of Mt. McKinley is the world’s tallest vertical rise above sea level. It was named after Judge James Wickersham who made the first recorded attempt to climb Mt. McKinley in 1903. This route is tremendously dangerous and prone to avalanches, and Wickersham was able to climb up only 8,000 feet. The challenging route was first successfully climbed in 1963.
The Peters Glacier heads north into the heart of Denali National Park.
Another plane was doing stunt tricks over the glacier below Mt. McKinley.
We landed on a glacier below Mt. McKinley. Our pilot Tyler Westhoff did a great job flying around the mountains and banking to ensure we could see all the sights. According to the Talkeetna Air Taxi website, “If TAT ever made an action figure, it would look like Tyler.”
Though Mt. McKinley was visible for most of our flight, unfortunately it was hidden behind a deck of clouds (upper left in the photo) when we landed on the glacier at about 5,000 feet elevation. Nevertheless, the view was terrific in all directions.
Do we look happy? This was another incredible day on our journey of a lifetime.
The Ruth Glacier is the largest glacier in Denali National Park at over 5 miles wide in some places and 2/3 of a mile thick. The glacier moves more than 3 feet per day.
Ruth Glacier travels through the Great Gorge, which is one mile wide and drops 2,000 feet over its 10-mile length. The granite cliffs you see here rise one mile above the surface of the glacier. If there was no glacier, the Great Gorge would be deeper than the Grand Canyon.
From the air, it looks like you could just walk across the glaciers. But a closer view of Ruth Glacier shows dangerous crevasses that can be hundreds of feet deep and turquoise pools full of icy glacial water.
The Talkeetna River shimmered in the sunlight on our return trip to the airport.