Star Princess Denali Explorer, Day 4: Double Denali

Denali by Land and Air

Today's Amazing Experience: landing on a glacier near Denali National Park. Stunning! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Today’s Amazing Experience: landing on a glacier near Denali National Park. Stunning! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports

Friday, June 19, 2015

It’s hard to believe this is already our third full day on our 11-night Princess Cruises’ Denali Explorer Tour that began back on Tuesday in Anchorage. They say that time flies when you are having fun, and that’s most certainly the case today. Not only did we explore the vast expanse of Denali National Park by land – we also explored it by air.

After a lightning-fast breakfast, we were out and waiting in front of the main lodge for our Denali Natural History Tour. Included on Princess’ Denali Explorer, Off the Beaten Path and On Your Own cruisetour options, this five-hour long tour whisks guests 17 miles inside Denali National Park and includes three scenic stops that are interspersed with visits by local interpreters and historical guides.

For those guests who opt to do one of Princess’ top-of-the-line Connoisseur cruisetours, the more extensive Tundra Wilderness Tour is offered complimentary.

Bright and early this morning, we set out on our brief tour of Denali National Park! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Bright and early this morning, we set out on our brief tour of Denali National Park. Only these school bus-style coaches can enter the park. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Many of you might be put off by the 7:00 a.m. departure time. Like me, you probably had a late night of dinner, drinks and midnight sun that plays with your body’s circadian rhythm in ways you never anticipated. You’re tired. You want to sleep in. I know – I get it. But this is definitely worth hauling yourself out of bed for. After all, when will you be back here again?

The last time I was in Denali National Park, I did the longer, nine hour Tundra Wilderness Tour that takes guests 53 miles into the park. It was a total marathon of a journey but one that was stunning in every sense. Today, it seemed a shame to only go 17 miles into the park – because really, that’s not very far at all considering that you can take the dirt park road a full 92 miles into the six-million-acre park.

So is the short tour worth it? Yes and no – and it really depends how you want to structure your day.

One of our first stops: the Savage Cabin, which is still utilized as a proper cabin in the off-season. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
One of our first stops: the Savage Cabin, which is still utilized as a proper cabin in the off-season. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

If you’ve never been to Denali National Park before, take the tour. It gives you a great overview of the vast expanse of Alaska’s majestic landscape and this jewel of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Even in Alaska, known for its vast swaths of uninhabited remoteness, Denali is a truly special experience. It’s inspiring. It’s romantic. It’s spiritual. And it’s worth discovering.

There’s another advantage to this short tour: it leaves your afternoon free to do other things, which in my case was very important. But if Denali is the big deal for you and you’ve got time to spare, Princess will let you upgrade to the Denali Tundra Wilderness Tour for an additional cost.

Some photos of my morning in Denali:

Flowers of exquisite colour are found within Denali National Park. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Flowers of exquisite colour are found within Denali National Park. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
It's Ranger Andrea! Last year, she spent three full days aboard Un-Cruise Adventure's Safari Endeavour. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
It’s Ranger Andrea! Last year, she spent three full days aboard Un-Cruise Adventure’s Safari Endeavour with us.  Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
A native Athanbascan tells us the story of her people - and her family. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
A native Athanbascan tells us the moving story of her people – and her family. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Denali Landscapes: breathtaking! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Denali Landscapes: breathtaking! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

I had a good reason for wanting to keep this afternoon open: the chance to do one of the most elaborate, bucket-list excursions I’ve ever done in Alaska. But first, I stopped for lunch at the on-site pizzeria for a quick bite to eat.

It’s also worth noting that on Princess’s Connoisseur tours, meal vouchers are included as part of the price. These, as far as I am concerned, are worth their weight in gold. Meals aren’t cheap here, and you can expect to pay between $30 and $50 per person for the average entrée. With the meal vouchers, a starter, soup or salad, main course, dessert and non-alcoholic beverages are inclusive, along with tax and gratuity. You could argue you’re paying for that upfront, and you’d be right – but I’d rather pay for it up-front than have to deal with the sticker-shock that would occur otherwise.

The guy at the pizza place kindly informed us that our vouchers would go a lot further (financially-speaking) at the more formal King Salmon Restaurant on-site. But weary of big meals (yes, it can happen!), the allure of something quick and simple was too great to pass up. Get a small one; anything larger can feed a family!

This afternoon, an excursion of a lifetime: the chance to participate in a flightseeing excursion with a landing on a glacier! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
This afternoon, an excursion of a lifetime: the chance to participate in a flightseeing excursion with a landing on a glacier! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Our DeHavilland aircraft is equipped with special skis that allow it to land on snow. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Our DeHavilland aircraft is equipped with special skis that allow it to land on snow. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

This afternoon’s excursion of a lifetime: the two hour long McKinley Glacier Landing by Airplane, one of 30 different optional adventures you can take here at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: this tour costs $524.95 per person for an adult, and $394.95 for a child aged 12 and under. It’s expensive, no doubt about it. But people will spend $500 on an iPhone and not think twice about it. It’s all about perspective.

Power is set...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Power is set…Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
...take off! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
…take off! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Also – this is the perfect vehicle for that once-in-a-lifetime journey. Apparently it’s quite popular for proposals, and I can understand that, too – how often do you get to propose to someone you love on a glacier on Mt. McKinley?

Here’s the scoop on this excursion: I expected the glacier landing to be the highlight of the trip. I never expected that the hour-long flight to the glacier would be so damn spectacular.

DeHavilland Shadows. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
DeHavilland Shadows. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Flying over the village of Denali, and the Denali Princess Wilderness Resort. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Flying over the village of Denali, and the Denali Princess Wilderness Resort. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Swooping over mountain ridges, flying 800 feet above the ground in and out of valleys and between snow-capped peaks took my breath away. It’s the kind of thing you see in a movie that, you tell yourself, surely cannot be real. It must be CGI. Some highly-trained but poorly-fed digital artist created that over the product of many long nights.

But it’s real, and it feels as though you can reach out and touch it. Flying past the peaks of Mt. McKinley – the mountain we had admired just days ago from miles away – is almost a religious experience. You can see streams flowing below you and waterfalls cascading down impossibly steep cliff faces, their streams dropping splashing down thousands of feet from some hidden outlet deep within the snowpack.

Throughout our scenic flight...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Throughout our scenic flight…Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
...the passing landscape began to take on the surreal qualities I figured only existed in films. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
…the passing landscape began to take on the surreal qualities I figured only existed in films. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

After an hour, our DeHavilland Beaver (manufactured in 1964) touched down on a snow-covered glacier nestled in between a towering mountain range. The Beaver is one of the most versatile single-engine aircraft ever created, and it’s earned its place on the West Coast of North America thanks to its rugged dependability. I’ve flow in Beavers before, but always in a float-plane configuration. This one was different: it had wheels…and it also had skis.

The skis enabled us to land right on the snow, which was a totally unique experience. You can feel the weight of the skis sink into the snow, and it was so warm out that our pilot had to give the engine an additional bit of thrust to power us around to our parking position from the main “runway” – marked with two coloured beacons resting atop large balls of snow.

Amazing! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Amazing! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Out on the ice, it was so warm you barely needed a jacket. We spent some time walking around the snow, making it into balls and casually throwing them around. We watched two other ski planes take off, and one bright-red aircraft coming from Anchorage come in for a landing shortly after ours.

Our aircraft "parked" on the glacier, located near Mt. McKinley. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Our aircraft “parked” on the glacier, located near Mt. McKinley. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Like my travels in Antarctica, it’s the stillness that hits you the most. With the airplane’s single-engine turned off and no one talking, you hear things you wouldn’t expect: water running from somewhere in the mountains off to the left. Despite our 5,000 feet of elevation, temperatures are warm enough to melt the snow pack. After a few minutes on the ice, a small avalanche occurred on a mountain about five kilometres off to our right. It sent a plume of smoky white snow shooting into the sky as it came down.

After 20 or so minutes on the glacier, we reboarded our DeHavilland Beaver for the 45-minute journey back to the Healy Airstrip just north of Denali. The brochure promises this will be the highlight of your Alaskan vacation; it most certainly was that.

The glacial "airstrip". Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
The glacial “airstrip”. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Touchdown! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Touchdown! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

If you read this blog, you’ll know I travel a lot. It sounds like fun, but it’s not always that easy. I haven’t been everywhere. I certainly don’t know everything. The one thing I have learned, though, that seems to ring true with each passing day and every changing place, is this: there are vacations, and there are experiences. The experiences you treat yourself to will be the ones that you remember and hold dear to you for years to come.

Today was one of those days.

Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Star Princess, Denali Explorer

Day 1 & 2Anchorage & Mt. McKinley
Day 3Denali National Park
Day 4Double Denali
Day 5Boarding the Star Princess
Day 6Hubbard Glacier
Day 7Glacier Bay
Day 8Skagway
Day 9Juneau
Day 10Ketchikan
Postcards from Star Princess

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