You step up into the airplane and think you’ve stepped back in time. The three strangers in line with you make a valiant effort at small talk, but no words can mask the buzz of excitement and nerves. As you duck your head and climb awkwardly into the aircraft, you’re suddenly aware of how small it really is—there’s room for only four passengers on this plane.

That’s because it’s a Cessna 185—a bush plane designed to take you and your newfound friends deeper into the Alaskan wild than you ever imagined you would go. You fasten your seatbelt and secure the headset over your ears just in time to hear the pilot say “Welcome aboard” from the cockpit two feet in front of you. Your hands shake lightly as you unwrap a piece of chewing gum, pop it in your mouth, and brace yourself for the adventure of a lifetime.

For Alaskans, flying is not just a pastime—it’s a way of life. As long as people have lived in Alaska, there has been a need to transport groceries, mail, medical supplies, and other necessities to the remote villages that make up Alaska’s bush. Because nearly 90% of the enormous state is unreachable by road, bush planes have become the lifeline for Alaska’s most isolated residents.

The Beginning of Bush Planes

Before the era of aviation, Alaska’s bush communities got their supplies from barges during the summer and from dogsleds during the winter. In the 1930s, daring pilots began to brave the unforgiving Alaskan airspace to carry cargo and personnel to remote destinations cut off from normal supply routes. As more and more pilots pushed their skills—and their planes—to new limits of this “Last Frontier,” the legacy of the Alaskan bush pilot was born.

Bush pilots like Will Rogers (left) have navigated Alaska's skies since the beginning of the 20th century.

Bush pilots like Will Rogers (left) have navigated Alaska’s skies since the beginning of the 20th century.

Several decades and countless technological advances later, bush planes and their pilots still dominate Alaska’s skies. On any given summer day in Anchorage, you’ll be mesmerized by the friendly, faraway hum of innumerable airplanes that sail in and out of sight, awakening your desire to explore.

In fact, Alaska boasts more aircraft per capita than any other state. Small, private runways are an integral part of many neighborhoods in Anchorage. Why do so many Alaskans feel the need to own a small airplane? The answer is simple: They love to explore the majestic expanses of their beloved state, and the best way to do this is in a bush plane.

Thankfully, the locals are not keeping this bush-plane tradition just to themselves. It’s so deeply ingrained in Alaska’s culture that it has paved the way for what is perhaps the most spectacular branch of the state’s tourism industry—flightseeing.

Taking to the Sky

For many people from all over the world, Alaska is a bucket-list destination. Some people’s dreams of visiting Alaska include specific activities like catching a glimpse of Mount McKinley (the tallest mountain in North America), walking on a glacier, or getting a front-row seat to watch wild Alaskan brown bears catch salmon between their razor-sharp claws. Whatever the itinerary for your Alaskan vacation, a bush-plane excursion is guaranteed to enhance your experience.

Mount McKinley

Perhaps the most sought-after sight in Alaska is the 20,237-foot (6,168 m) giant known as Mount McKinley. This mountain is also known as Denali, a word that means “The Great One” in the Athabaskan language. A select few extreme mountaineers travel to Alaska with the sole purpose of climbing to Denali’s summit. But most visitors simply want to see the mountain. Anyone who has viewed it from a bush plane will tell you that the best way to experience Denali is from above.

Janel Grimmett of Spokane, Washington, has spent several summers as a tour director in Alaska. Her guests always arrive with high hopes of getting the most stunning views of Mount McKinley. On a clear day, the mountain can be seen from hundreds of miles away in all its rugged, snow-capped glory.

At 20,237 feet, Mt. McKinley is the tallest mountain in North America and one of Alaska's most popular destinations.

At 20,237 feet, Mt. McKinley is the tallest mountain in North America and one of Alaska’s most popular destinations.

Unfortunately, Grimmett says, the mountain seems to create its own unpredictable weather pattern and is often hidden from sight by low cloud cover. Nothing is more disappointing than making the trek to Denali National Park only to walk away without getting an unobstructed view of Denali itself. That’s when bush planes come in handy.

“When the clouds are so low that you can’t see the mountain at all from the lodge, I send groups up on flightseeing tours,” Grimmett explains. “The pilot will take you to about 8,000 feet (2,438 m), so you’re above the clouds with a clear view of Denali. Everybody always comes back with these breathtaking pictures that they never would have gotten from below the clouds.”

Flightseeing companies like K2 Aviation and Talkeetna Air Taxi offer a variety of flight routes that you can choose from, depending on which parts of the mountain you want to see. Because bush planes can go where no other airplanes can, you’ll get a unique perspective that will leave you in awe of Denali and its surrounding peaks. As you weave between mountain passes and soar above sweeping valleys, your small plane will be dwarfed by the towering pinnacles of granite that rise from the pristine snow.

Glacier Landings

Many bush planes are equipped with a special type of landing gear that uses large skis to facilitate glacier landings. As part of the Denali flightseeing experience, some aviation companies will land on one of the glaciers that flank Mount McKinley and allow passengers to walk around on the glacier and take in the view from just below the peak.

Grimmett says she felt really excited, but just a little bit nervous, the first time she was in a plane that landed on a glacier. When the pilot invited her and the other passengers to step out of the aircraft and walk on the glacier, it took her a moment to adjust to the situation.

“When it was my turn to get off the plane, I had to think about it for a minute,” she explains. “I knew that we had just landed on the glacier, and I knew that the pilot was already walking around just a few feet away. I knew that I should be okay, but I wasn’t sure if I should trust my surroundings because I had no previous experience that made it okay for me to step out of the plane onto a field of ice.”

When you embark on a flightseeing excursion in a bush plane, you'll get to land on a glacier in the shadow of some of North America's tallest peaks.

When you embark on a flightseeing excursion in a bush plane, you’ll get to land on a glacier in the shadow of some of North America’s tallest peaks.

Looking back on the experience, Grimmett says that her brief glacier walk has been one of her most memorable Alaskan adventures. She affirms that the bush-plane excursion makes for an intimate encounter with Alaska’s majestic wilderness.

“Despite the fact that you’re high above the ground,” Grimmett says, “the stunning view from the airplane lets you see Alaska in a way that makes you appreciate it so much more than you did before you left the ground. I’ve never met anyone who has regretted going up for a flightseeing excursion. Everyone who does it says it’s definitely the highlight of their trip to Alaska.”

Katmai National Park and Preserve

One of Alaska’s most iconic images—and one that has captured the heart of many travelers—features a dazzling series of waterfalls dotted with brown bears. These enormous creatures congregate at Brooks Falls every July and September to feast on spawning sockeye salmon. Thanks to bush planes, you can watch the bears in action from an observation deck on the banks of the river. What makes this circle-of-life experience so memorable is the sheer remoteness of the location. When you’re out there with the bears, you’re deep in the heart of Alaska’s wilderness.

The seemingly endless stream of salmon fights against the driving current of the Brooks River in order to reach a safe spot to lay eggs. The waterfalls create a difficult obstacle for the salmon, made even more difficult by the bears standing as sentinels on the falls. The determined fish must throw themselves at the waterfalls in hopes of clearing these aqueous hurdles, often flying completely out of the water in their attempts. The brown bears seize this opportunity to snatch the salmon as they soar through the air. It may take a few tries, but these skilled predators rarely leave the river unsatisfied.

Visit Katmai National Park and Preserve to catch an intimate glimpse of Alaskan brown bears as they feed on sockeye salmon.

Visit Katmai National Park and Preserve to catch an intimate glimpse of Alaskan brown bears as they feed on sockeye salmon.

Brooks Camp, the access point for the bear-viewing locations, is not accessible by road. Instead, you’ll need a special type of bush plane—a floatplane—that is equipped with pontoons beneath the fuselage and allows you to land on nearby Naknek Lake to begin your backcountry adventure. From there, you’ll follow the trails through the national park to arrive at one of several bear-viewing platforms that have been constructed to give you a very close—yet very safe—look at the bears. Rust’s Flying Service is one of a handful of local Alaskan operations that can get you to Katmai in a bush plane.

Storm Warning

When planning your Alaska flightseeing experience you’ll definitely want to consider the weather. Longtime Alaskan Mont Mahoney has been flying bush planes in the “Great Land” for more than 35 years. Mahoney has learned from experience that “weather is the single most important factor when it comes to flying a small plane in Alaska. No matter what time of year, Alaska’s weather is always unpredictable. Some days you don’t fly; you just sit, or you land the plane and camp somewhere.” Alaska certainly has its fair share of stormy days, and a good pilot knows when to call off a flight and keep the plane on the ground.

Special bush planes called floatplanes are equipped with pontoons that facilitate water landings.

Special bush planes called floatplanes are equipped with pontoons that facilitate water landings.

However, nothing beats a bird’s-eye view of Alaska on a sunny summer day. As Mahoney describes it, “You’re flying over pristine, beautiful country where there’s no evidence of civilization. It doesn’t get any better than that.” The minute your bush plane takes flight above Alaska’s sprawling tundra, you’ll know exactly what Mahoney is talking about.

A Small Price to Pay

Most flightseeing adventures carry a hefty price tag, but don’t let the cost scare you away. If you’re planning a trip to Alaska, do whatever you must to set aside the extra few hundred dollars it will cost to board a bush plane while you’re there. It’s a small price to pay to gain such a unique and unforgettable perspective on Alaska’s breathtaking landscapes and its rich culture of aviation.

Cody Phillips

Photo credits (from top):
Pete Klosterman
Library of Congress
Brady Maughan (2 photos)
NPS/K. Jalone
Frank Kovalchek