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'Where the road ends and life begins''Where the road ends and life begins'

Talkeetna, AlaskaTalkeetna, Alaska

In Alaska, scrubbed plans lead to new adventures.

  • Talkeetna, Alaska, sits at the end of the road system, and as the saying goes it’s the place “where the road ends and life begins.” Photo by Mike Fizer.
  • Don Lee, founder of Alaska Floats and Skis, and AOPA Director of eMedia Alyssa Cobb prepare for some gravel bar landings near Talkeetna, Alaska. Photo by Mike Fizer.
  • Christiansen Lake is still frozen in early May, but spring is on the way and Alaska Floats and Skis has already swapped its PA–22s’ gear from skis to floats in preparation for a busy season. Photo by Mike Fizer.
  • Talkeetna is a favored by adventurers as the last jumping-off point before the Denali wilderness. Photo by Mike Fizer.
  • Twister Creek Restaurant is a popular hangout in Talkeetna. Photo by Mike Fizer.
  • The Dancing Leaf Gallery is filled with souvenirs, including unique jewelry with Alaska rocks and gems. Photo by Mike Fizer.
  • When you visit Talkeetna Roadhouse, you must try the giant cinnamon rolls! You won't be disappointed. Photo by Mike Fizer.
  • The muddier the jeep, the better the adventure! Photo by Mike Fizer.
  • Stop in for some general supplies at Nagley’s Store. Photo by Mike Fizer.
  • Explore the Susitna River that runs south of Anchorage for spectacular sights and fun gravel-bar flying. Photo by Mike Fizer.
  • In early spring, the trees are still bare in Talkeetna, Alaska. Ice packs break up on the rivers forming beautiful patterns. Photo by Mike Fizer.
  • Don Lee, founder of Alaska Floats and Skis, and Joseph Talbot, one of his pilots, instruct AOPA Director of eMedia Alyssa Cobb on gravel-bar landings near Talkeetna, Alaska. Photo by Mike Fizer.
  • Don Lee, founder of Alaska Floats and Skis, and Joseph Talbot, one of his pilots, walk a gravel bar with AOPA Director of eMedia Alyssa Cobb. After landing on a gravel bar, walk it to move sticks and large rocks to improve the area for takeoff. Photo by Mike Fizer.
  • Alaska Floats and Skis owner Don Lee and AOPA Director of eMedia Alyssa Cobb fly in Denali National Park. Photo by Mike Fizer.
  • Alaska's Talkeetna Airport sits in the valley near Denali National Park and is a popular jumping-off point to explore the Alaska Range. Photo by Mike Fizer.

When three days of advanced seaplane flying in early May with Alaska Floats and Skis in Talkeetna were canceled by cold temperatures that held on longer than expected and kept Christiansen Lake (where the flight school is based) frozen, my heart sank. The school’s half-dozen Piper PA–22 Super Cruisers fitted with straight floats and perched atop the ice didn’t help. (The gear had been swapped so that they would be ready to fly as soon as the ice melted).

Other adventures awaited, however. That’s par for the course in Talkeetna, and Alaska in general, where the weather can change quickly but the possibilities for backup excursions are seemingly endless. And disappointment quickly turns into excitement.

Alaska Floats and Skis owner Don Lee, AOPA Senior Photographer Mike Fizer, and I piled into a tailwheel-converted PA–22 at the Talkeetna Airport and headed out to explore Denali National Park. The views are unparalleled: Sheer rock faces extend thousands of feet above and below the aircraft, and glacial blues peek through snow pack. Sometimes, I forgot that I was flying the airplane and just sat spellbound by the splendor of the creation surrounding me. Later, Lee and I flew 200 feet above the Susitna River south of Talkeetna, following its every curve to hone my stick-and-rudder skills while searching for gravel bars long enough to land the aircraft. Gravel-bar hopping is the perfect way to get away from it all and enjoy unspoiled nature.

At the end of those aviation-filled three days, memories of my original float flying itinerary were long gone, replaced with priceless experiences, sights, and memories.

End of the road

“Where the road ends and life begins" reads a bumper sticker spotted in Talkeetna. This is certainly a place where you can live life to the fullest, especially if you love the outdoors and flying.

The crown jewel that keeps tourists flocking to the small town at the end of the road system is Denali, the highest mountain peak in North America at an elevation of 20,310 feet. People from all over the world come to climb, fly around, or just get a glimpse of Denali from the ground on those rare but breathtaking days when the summit isn’t shrouded by clouds.

Pilots who fly at Alaska Floats and Skis can stay in one of their cabins. How much more inspiration do you need to fly floats than to stay in a cabin with a model hanging from the ceiling? Photo by Mike Fizer.

Even with all of the tourists, Talkeetna has managed to keep its quaint feel for more than a century. Inns, cabins, lodges, and bed and breakfasts house hikers and sightseers; pubs and restaurants serve portions so large they must be designed to nourish climbers who have been stranded on Denali by a snowstorm and run out of food; and art and souvenir shops are filled with local crafts, Alaskan stones, and more. The town sits at the end of the Talkeetna Spur Road, just 112 driving miles northwest of Anchorage, so it’s a popular remote location in the state because it can be accessed by road. A lack of through traffic helps to shelter the town.

Outdoor pursuits

Whether you fly yourself, book some bush flying lessons, or take an aerial tour, when you visit Talkeetna, you need to go flying. The Alaska Range and Denali to the west are stunning, but the Talkeetna Mountains and their tiny glaciers (comparatively speaking) to the east are also beautiful. Really, in Alaska, there’s no bad view from the air.

Talkeetna Airport sits just across Talkeetna Spur Road from the town and is a hive of activity with flight training, sightseeing, and transient general aviation operations—there’s no shortage of de Havilland Twin Otters and Beavers; Cessna 185s; and Piper Super Cubs, Navajos, and Cherokees. Talkeetna Village Strip located in town (the two airport patterns overlap), and nearby lakes with seaplane operations keep the area busy. I’ve flown in a handful of times, and the best thing you can do if you are flying in yourself is to watch for traffic, provide clear position reports, and do your best to fit in with the flow of the sightseeing operators.

If you fly with Lee or any of his instructors at Alaska Floats and Skis, ask to fly by attorney Phillip Weidner’s cabin, called Goose Creek Tower, on the way to your lesson (if you are heading to the south). The 185-foot structure features several log cabins stacked on top one another as if straight from the imagination of Dr. Seuss himself, something you’ll probably only see in Alaska.

Talkeetna Air Taxi, K2 Aviation, Sheldon Air Service, Alaska Bush Float Plane Service, and N2 Alaska provide tours of Denali. AOPA Opinion Leaders blogger Leighan Falley flies for Talkeetna Air Taxi, so if you want to go for an aerial tour or land on a glacier, consider checking out her availability and let her know you’re a fellow AOPA member! Before becoming a flightseeing pilot, Falley worked as a mountain guide and has summited Denali six times.

Leighan Falley is a mother, pilot, writer and artist who flies for Talkeetna Air Taxi. Photo by Mike Fizer.

Mountain climbing is extremely popular, with expert climbers coming from around the world to try to summit Denali, which is one of of the Seven Summits, the highest peaks on each of the seven continents. Hiking is also popular, with several trails around the town.

The Chulitna, Susitna, and Talkeetna rivers converge at Talkeetna, so a booming water tour industry offers fishing, float and raft trips, and more.

In the winter, Nordic skiing, dogsled tours, and snowmobile tours are available. Don't forget skiplane flying!

No matter what time of year you visit, remember, Talkeetna is where the road ends and life begins—live it up!

Alyssa J. Miller

Alyssa J. Cobb

AOPA Director of eMedia and Online Managing Editor
AOPA Director of eMedia and Online Managing Editor Alyssa J. Cobb has worked at AOPA since 2004 and is an active flight instructor.
Topics: Backcountry, Mountain Flying, Travel

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