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Seaplane in Alaska (Photo: cdrin/Shutterstock)
Seaplane in Alaska (Photo: cdrin/Shutterstock)

Denali Flightseeing: Our Experience in Alaska and What You Need to Know

Seaplane in Alaska (Photo: cdrin/Shutterstock)
Seaplane in Alaska (Photo: cdrin/Shutterstock)
Executive Editor, U.S.
Chris Gray Faust
Assistant SEO Editor
Marilyn Borth

Last updated
Mar 1, 2024

Read time
6 min read

Denali flightseeing is one of the most sought after experiences for both Alaskan cruisers and land travelers alike. Most itineraries on Alaska cruises include Denali National Park and Preserve, which spans 6 million acres and includes North America's tallest peak, Denali (formerly called Mount McKinley). And what better way to see such a difficult-to-access natural masterpiece than to fly right beside it?

Flightseeing is an excursion where travelers get a better view of more remote areas via small plane or helicopter. Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska is very well known for them, offering visitors options for both helicopter and small plane rides, some even going so far as to land on a glacier in the park.

One major downfall of this thrilling experience is the steep price tag. Denali flight tours typically cost $400 per person or more, depending on the itinerary. We went Denali flightseeing with Denali Air during our Holland America Line cruisetour to see what the hubbub was all about -- and to see if it was worth the hefty expense.

Denali Flightseeing: Our Experience with Denali Air and What You Can Expect

Denali Air airstrip in Denali National Park
Denali Air airstrip in Denali National Park (Photo: Marilyn Borth)

Holland America Line arranged a shuttle bus to the airstrip from the McKinley Chalet Resort, where we were staying, in Denali National Park. When we arrived, we were greeted warmly by the staff at Denali Air, one of the most reputable sightseeing tour agencies for flightseeing in Denali. They went over our flight path via a topographic 3D map, the distance we'd travel and the current weather conditions.

They'd explained that we would fly towards the northern side of Denali due to weather and better viewing than the southern side. Denali has two peaks -- and there's a massive two miles between the two, which certainly put its immense size into perspective. We'd also learned of Muldrow Glacier, a surging glacier within the park that's 39 miles long, which we'd also see during our hour-long flight.

Pilots on a Flightseeing Tour in Denali
Pilots on a Flightseeing Tour in Denali (Photo: Marilyn Borth)

We stepped out onto the airstrip, ducked into our tiny fixed-wing twin-engine aircraft, and sat with our provided bulky headphones on our heads. Before we knew it, we were taking off on the strip, wings dipping side to side a bit more vigorously than we were used to. While we ascended -- and were wiggling quite a bit in the air -- our two pilots introduced themselves and explained that the ride would be a bit bumpy as it usually is in such a plane and Denali in general.

Gradually, the landscape below us lifted and went from a brown-green to speckled with white to blinding white. The mountains were all around us as we soared between their peaks. Muldrow Glacier appeared a distance away along our left side, its river of cracked ice at the foreground.

Muldrow Glacier in Denali National Park
Muldrow Glacier in Denali National Park (Photo: Marilyn Borth)

The views were simply otherworldly and humbling. Being surrounded on all sides by towering glaciers and mountains from within a seemingly tin can is an experience I won't soon forget. And seeing another flightseeing excursion fly next to us with one particular mountain face on its other side was the mind-boggling portrayal of just how big these mountains are.

In a word, we were all mesmerized, even the pilots who make several similar runs per day. Even though we unfortunately couldn't see Denali because of cloud coverage, the ride was worth the expense through and through. The natural splendor was nothing I'd ever experienced before -- and I've visited nearly 40 countries and traveled extensively.

This was simply one of the best excursions I've ever taken, so yes, I'd say the money spent was worth every single penny.

Flightseeing in Denali: Things to Know Before You Go

Flightseeing in Denali National Park
Flightseeing in Denali National Park (Photo: Marilyn Borth)

While for me it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience I won't soon forget, there are some things to know and consider prior to taking a Denali flightseeing tour yourself.

The minimum age requirement is typically 2 years old. The tour is headset-equipped -- and you must wear them -- and the pilots are also tour guides. The rudders and wind are loud, so be sure to keep your headphones on at all times. This excursion also isn't wheelchair accessible.

Due to how easily these planes can be whipped around in the wind, we recommend going on a somewhat empty stomach. You will very likely have a bumpy ride that resembles something of a tin can being tossed around by the elements.

Because the views are exemplary -- and all seats are window seats -- be sure to bring a good camera to properly capture them without being too heavily affected by lighting. However, we do highly recommend having a camera stabilizer if you intend on taking any videos.

Wear sunglasses and bundle up, too, as it does get pretty bright and brisk in the clouds.

Be aware you very likely won't see Denali (only about 30 percent of people see Denali when visiting). However, views all around are once-in-a-lifetime all on their own.

Flightseeing Safety: How Often Do Flightseeing Accidents Happen in Alaska?

Flightseeing at Denali in Alaska (Photo/Tim Johnson)
Flightseeing at Denali in Alaska (Photo/Tim Johnson)

Considering the volume of flights that go up every day, the number of Denali flightseeing tours with fatalities is comparatively low. However, they do happen. In June 2015, eight cruise passengers from Holland America's Westerdam, as well as the plane's pilot, died when their floatplane crashed.

In 2013, one cruise passenger from Lindblad Expeditions' National Geographic Sea Bird died and two others were injured after a small plane crashed into a mountain outside Petersburg. In 2007, two flightseeing excursions to Misty Fjords ended in fatalities.

While these crashes are rare, it's important to consider prior to booking and taking a flightseeing tour in Denali.

Denali Flightseeing: Precautions You Can Take for a Safer Flight

Flightseeing in Denali with Denali Air
Flightseeing in Denali with Denali Air (Photo: Marilyn Borth)

Prior to your Denali flightseeing experience, there are some safety precautions you can take for your excursion. For one, note that there is usually an extra level of vetting if you go on a flightseeing tour operator used by the cruise line, as opposed to a tour selling tickets at the pier.

That being said, accidents have happened on cruise line excursions. You can also find out the name of the operator and check its safety record ahead of time on the database maintained by the National Transportation Safety Board.

You should also ask the company about the route the plane takes. If the small plane flies through tricky mountain passes, it's likely a riskier trip than one that flies over plains.

Finally, trust your gut about the weather and realize the risks that Alaska weather poses. If you're not comfortable with the conditions outside, follow your instinct and cancel the trip. Your peace of mind is worth whatever you'll lose on a deposit.

Where Else in the World Can You Go Flightseeing? Alaska, Hawaii and Beyond

Helicopter Ride Near Napali Coast, Kauai, Hawaii (Photo: kyrien/Shutterstock)
Helicopter Ride Near Napali Coast, Kauai, Hawaii (Photo: kyrien/Shutterstock)

Flightseeing excursions are available all around the world. You can take a helicopter trip over scenic Kauai or Oahu in Hawaii, fly over Iceland’s volcanic mountains from Reykjavik, land on glaciers in New Zealand or visit the hard-to-reach Misty Fjords National Monument near Ketchikan, Alaska.

If you'd rather get a bird's eye view of a particular city, those are available as well, like in Las Vegas, New York City, Vancouver, Dubai and plenty more.

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