Flight-Seeing Mt. McKinley–Part 2 Glacier Landing

The Glacier landing.

The Glacier landing.

Finally, the last Alaska post! After the McKinley flight on Thursday July 3rd we went back to Anchorage for a good-bye visit with my son and then left the state on Sunday July 6th. It took us 5 days to get across Canada and we were back in the Lower 48 on Friday July 11th. I’ll do some recap posts but they won’t be travelogues. I’ll post about a couple living in a van, for example how we converted Judy’s van,  and how we did in such tight space.  But first, let me answer a couple of questions about the flight around Mt. McKinley.

  1. Aren’t you scared of flying in small planes? I can easily see how you would be If you have never been in a small plane before, but I’ve spent a LOT of time in small planes. My father brought our family to Alaska in 1961 mainly because he loved hunting, but Alaska has so few roads that the only good way to hunt is with an airplane. So as soon as we got here my dad got his Pilot’s license and bought a Super Cub, the best small bush plane you can buy. So I’ve spent hundreds of ours in the back seat of his plane on wheels, skis and floats. I’ve flown in all kinds of bad, turbulent weather and landed on some tiny little landing strips including beaches, tundra, lakes, gravel bars, and tiny clearings. So getting into this DeHavilland Otter was second nature to me.
  2. Do I get to enjoy the trips, or am I so busy with the camera taking pictures that I don’t fully participate in it? That’s a question I’ve given a lot of thought to because the camera is basically glued to my eye the whole time there is any action going on. Occasionally I put it down and look around, but the great majority of the trip is seen through the viewfinder. Am I cheating myself out of the full experience of the trip just for some pictures? The simple answer is no, I’m not. It’s impossible for me to express how much I enjoy the act of photographing these trips. My single greatest joy in this life have been the moments I’ve spent with a camera to my eye, or standing behind the camera on a tripod waiting for something (sunrise or sunset, better light, an animal to move, the Northern Lights to glow brighter, etc.). I’ve written about this before so I won’t repeat it but there is something about the technical requirements and the creativity of nature photography that brings me to a state of almost ecstasy. It sounds silly but I think more of my brain is engaged then, than at any other time of my life. More than that it puts the event so deeply into my memory bank that at any time I can look at those photos and the joy of that moment floods back to me just like I traveled back in time and was literally reliving it.
A selfie in front of McKinley.

A selfie in front of McKinley.

In my last post we left off with the flight around the peak of McKinley. After we were done with that we slowly descended by flying all around the area and the Peak of Mt. Foraker. While we were breathing oxygen from the masks, the cabin was not pressurized so we were going to drop fairly quickly from 21,000 feet to 6,000 feet. We’ve all experienced needing to “Pop” our ears after descending in a jet but this was that taken to extremes because it happened so quickly. I was actually pretty uncomfortable for a while.

Looking down from McKinley at where we are going to land. The arrow marks the spot.

Looking down from McKinley at where we are going to land. The arrow marks the spot. The large are in front of it is the Ruth Amphitheater and the Ruth glacier flows out of it.

In this close-up you can see the area between the steep cliff and the rock. You can see them in most of the shots from the ground.

In this close-up you can see the area between the steep cliff and the rock. You can see them in most of the shots from the ground.

On each of Talkeetna Air Taxis flights you have the choice to include a glacier landing or not and I had chosen to include it. No way was I going to miss out on a chance to be on a glacier that close to the McKinley peak. So we descended to about 7000 feet and flew over the landing site and there was already a plane on it, but as we flew past he was taking off. There was a lot of air traffic around McKinley! The pilot was talking to us over our headphones but when he talked to the Air Traffic Control tower at Talkeetna, or to other pilots in the area, we could hear it also. He was very careful to report to other planes our position at all times so there was no risk of collision. He had also been speaking to the pilot on the ground so he would know we were coming in for a landing and he was gone before we did. I imagine it’s all well laid out between the different Air Taxis flying over McKinley so it runs smoothly.

Here you can see the plane on the ground where we are going to land.

Here you can see the plane on the ground where we are going to land between the steep cliffs and the rock.

It was so cool to be this low in the mountains because the walls of the Ruth Glacier gorge were all around us. For this the pilot dropped the skis and we landed right on the snow. It’s actually uphill so it was a very short landing and then he took off downhill so we very quickly lifted off after we had been there for about 20 minutes.

In this shot you can see the Ruth Amphitheater below us. You can also see the skis with the wheels all the way above the skis.

In this shot you can see the Ruth Amphitheater below us. You can also see the skis with the wheels all the way up above the skis.


While it is ice in the winter in the summer the top layer thaws so we were walking around in about 5 inches of snow—that’s why they had given us Gore-Tex over-boots. If you are familiar with most snow in the mountains, as it thaws in the spring you “posthole” down into it. That means your leg sinks through all the way down to your crotch and then you have to struggle out of it. But this is an actual glacier so only the top few inches thaw in the summer; underneath its ice year-around.

These were BIG cliffs! This photo doesn't really show it.

These were BIG cliffs! This photo doesn’t really show it.

In this shot you can barely see Mt McKinley. You can see a tiny part of it behind the highest cloud on the far right. In the foreground you can see our "landing strip."

In this shot you can barely see Mt McKinley about 6 miles away. You can see a tiny part of it behind the highest cloud on the far right. In the foreground you can see our “landing strip.”

Because we were the last flight and landing of the day, the pilot didn’t hurry us at all, everybody but me stayed right beside the plane but I walked out about 150 feet and did a circle around the plane taking pictures. Finally he said we needed to go and we all climbed back in. Because we were down to about 6000 feet, we didn’t need oxygen for the flight back to Talkeetna. On this leg of the flight I rode in back so someone else could be in the co-pilots seat. One of the cool things about this airplane is that everybody gets a window seat and the windows are actual bubbles. I could put my Nikon point in shoot actually outside the body of the plane and shoot forward. I think it makes for some interesting photos.

This jerk kept jumping in front of my camera!

This jerk kept jumping in front of my camera!


The pilot kept up his tourist information on the way home and it was also very interesting and made the trip go faster. When we got back to the hanger and we were climbing out, I make sure to tip the pilot a twenty dollar bill so other passengers could see me. It seems odd to tip a pilot because usually we never see them, but on flight-seeing trips it’s normal to do so, even if it is not expected or required. On the Bear viewing trip I tipped the pilot who flew me $20 and Dereck the naturalist guide $50; that’s 10% of the cost. I thought he went so far and above what was expected that I wish I could have given him more.

Flying home following the Ruth Glacier.

Flying home following the Ruth Glacier. With the bubble windows, I’m shooting right down the side of the plane.

We're just about out of the mountains; these are the foothills leading up to McKinley.

We’re just about out of the mountains; these are the foothills leading up to McKinley.

And so ends our amazing Alaska Trip! It had its ups and downs, good times and bad, but it was something I wouldn’t have missed for anything. For the rest of my life, it will probably be one of my most treasured memories! My wish for all of you, is a life full of treasured moments and memories that take your breath away and knock your socks off!!

If you don’t have that, now is the time to start. If not now, when?

Overlooking the Ruth Amphitheater.

Overlooking the Ruth Amphitheater.

This is coming in for the landing. On the left is the cliff we are landing beside and down the gorge is the Ruth Glacier which we fly out of.

This is coming in for the landing. Straight ahead, between the propellers, is the gorge with the Ruth glacier.  On the left of it is the cliff we are landing beside’ 

The cabin of the plane, We were all very relaxed and happy on the flight home!

The cabin of the plane, We were all very relaxed and happy on the flight home!


I've been a full-time VanDweller for 12 years and I love it. I hope to never live in a house again!

20 comments on “Flight-Seeing Mt. McKinley–Part 2 Glacier Landing
  1. Avatar Canine says:

    Are activities available that would include furry little beasts? (dogs?)

    • Bob Bob says:

      Canine, I’m not sure I understand the question. Do you mean like a doggie daycare? Because I lost Homer before we got up there I never looked into it. Besides, with Judy along she would have watched Homer for me if he had made it. Not only that but it is almost never too hot for a dog to stay in the van so I could have just left him in the van if he had been along. I was gone almost 8 hours for the bear viewing so for that I would have needed daycare.

      • Avatar Canine says:

        I meant which activities allow dogs to be included. Activities 4 hours or less are good, too, but am curious about the ones that actually include dogs. Like when you got close to the bears. My dog is fine around bears, but the bears wouldn’t be so accommodating. (I’m imagining the disruption that would cause! Lol. No fun!) Since I would likely be alone, finding a doggy-sitter could be challenging. Enlisting in activities that included dogs, although limiting, would be ideal.

        • Bob Bob says:

          Canine, none of the fly-in trips will let you bring a dog. In fact both were into National Parks so it would have been illegal as well as unsafe.

  2. Avatar leftcoaster says:

    Wow…it looks like the snow and the glaz
    iers are disappearing. Are they?

    • Bob Bob says:

      leftcoaster, most glaciers all over the world are in sharp retreat but I’m not aware of these retreating faster than most. Probably some, but I don’t think an unusual amount.

  3. Avatar Calvin R says:

    Those pictures, with their different perspectives, give a real idea of the scale of the mountain. I guess if I want to really feel it I’d have to go there.

    • Bob Bob says:

      No doubt you’re right Calvin, no photo can take the place of the experience. But, they can take you instantly back to an experience you already had!

  4. Avatar Terry says:

    Bob, just wanted to let you know, I followed your adventure all summer long. Great postings, and terrific photography. Too bad it is coming to an end:(. But look forward to your next adventure!

  5. Avatar Linda Barton says:

    yep what Terry said. I am sad to see this book end. Oh well I will look forward to you next adventure book.

  6. Avatar swade says:

    Me too…

    I have enjoyed every “travelogue” post. Your pictures were so well done; providing a great perspective to a spectacular adventure. The bear viewing and McKinley flight were unbeatable! I also appreciated the tipping tips, camping info and the road details.

  7. I’ve been following along too, and really enjoying your trip vicariously. Your photos are amazing! Linda Barton has a good idea: you should bundle these posts and photos up and put them on Kindle… as well as your other adventures. A lot of people would buy them!
    LaVonne Ellis recently posted…PrioritiesMy Profile

    • Bob Bob says:

      LaVonne, the Kindle does not do well with photos. The fire isn’t bad but it isn’t good either.

      But I appreciate the thought!

  8. Avatar Dan says:

    Thanks for the great pictures. When I went to Alaska, I went to the park that has Mt. McKinley in the middle, and my pictures we’re nearly as good as yours from the plane. They make you take a bus in that park, and all the pictures were from ground level, so not nearly as many perspectives. Also, quite often the top of the mountain is obscured by clouds. I was very disappointed that the park service personnel are so controlling about driving the park road(S), but I guess they’re just doing their jobs. I think the only way to really experience that park is by backpacking, because the park service has it so regulated. Ug. I’m sure there are people who would cause great damage to the park if not prevented from doing so, but I’ve spent my whole life dealing with rules and regulations that bureaucrats put up because of the bad deeds of others who couldn’t manage themselves, and I’m kind of tired of it. Anyway. Again, thanks for great photos. You had the right idea taking the plane ride up into the mountains. The pictures really make that plain. I’m looking forward to your comments on living space, and whether or not a van is big enough for 2 people. Tell Judy that I found her comments to be very helpful too!

    • Bob Bob says:

      Dan, having been a campground host I have a better understanding of the total necessity of the many rules. Probably 90% of my campers were great, thoughtful people out to have fun. But the remaining 10% were such a**holes that the only way to take care of the campground is through strict enforcement to strict rules. It’s pretty hard to imagine the incredibly stupid things people will do.

      The National Park Service has ONE job, to preserve the National Parks just the way they are for ALL future generations. It’s a very difficult job but they do it extremely well. I don’t like their rules either, but I totally respect the need for them.

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