The outdoorsy and youthful town of Talkeetna (pop. 360) lies at the end of a 14-mile side road that splits away from the Parks Highway 98 miles north of Anchorage. Two closely related phenomena dominate this small bush community: The Mountain, and flying to and climbing on The Mountain. On a clear day, from the overlook a mile out on the Spur Road, Mt. McKinley and the accompanying Alaska Range scrape the sky like a jagged white wall.
All summer, local flightseeing and air-taxi companies take off in a continuous parade to circle Mt. McKinley, buzz up long glaciers or even land on them, then return to Talkeetna’s busy airport to drop off passengers whose wide eyes, broad smiles, and shaky knees attest to the excitement of this once-in-a-lifetime thrill.
Late April–early July, these same special “wheel-and-ski” planes might be delivering an American, European, Japanese, or Korean climbing expedition to the Kahiltna Glacier (elevation 7,000 feet), from which—if they’re lucky—they inch their way up the popular West Buttress route 13,000 feet to the peak.
On a clear day, if you’re anywhere within striking distance, make a beeline for Talkeetna and be whisked away to some of the most stunning and alien scenery you’ll ever see.
If you visit Talkeetna early in the summer, you’ll find a peculiar mixing of people: the earthy locals with their beards and rusty pickups, the mountaineers—mostly male—decked in color-coordinated Gore-Tex, and the busloads of cruise ship passengers who unload on the south side of town and wander through in a dazed blur of gawks and photo-ops.
Talkeetna (“where the rivers meet”), nesting at the confluence of the Talkeetna, Chulitna, and Susitna Rivers, was originally settled by trappers and prospectors who paddled up the Susitna River to gain access to rich silver, coal, and fur country around the Talkeetna Mountains. The settlement got a boost when the railroad was pushed through in the early 1920s, and it still remains a popular stop on the route. In 1965 the Spur Road from the Parks Highway to Talkeetna was completed, providing further access to the town.
Getting to Talkeetna
The turnoff to Talkeetna is 100 miles north of Anchorage on the George Parks Highway, and the town is another 14 miles out on Talkeetna Spur Road.
Several companies provide van transportation to Talkeetna; one-way rates are around $65 to Anchorage, $75 to Denali, or $99 to Fairbanks. Alaska/Yukon Trails (907/479-2277 or 800/770-7275, www.alaskashuttle.com) has a daily run from Anchorage to Talkeetna, Denali, and airbanks in the summer. Denali Overland Transportation (907/733-2384 or 800/651-5221, www.denalioverland.com) has charter service connecting Anchorage, Talkeetna, and Denali, and often has space for individual travelers. Alaska Park Connection (907/245-0200 or 800/266-8625, www.alaskacoach.com) provides summertime service connecting Talkeetna with Seward, Anchorage, and Denali.
The Alaska Railroad (907/265-2494 or 800/544-0552, www.alaskarailroad.com) Denali Star costs $146 one-way from Anchorage to Talkeetna. The train leaves Anchorage every morning at 8:15 a.m. and arrives in Talkeetna at 11:05 a.m., and a second train leaves Talkeetna for the return trip at 4:40 p.m. A local flag-stop train, the Hurricane Turn, runs the 50 miles from Talkeetna north to Hurricane and back Thursday–Sunday in the summer. It’s a great way to see the countryside with locals for $96 round-trip.
© Don Pitcher from Moon Alaska, 10th Edition