Flightseeing in Alaska offers an unparalleled opportunity to soar like an eagle over the state’s vast and pristine landscapes. If you’ve ever dreamed of witnessing the majestic beauty of the 49th state from above, then adding a flightseeing tour to your bucket list is essential for your next visit.
Flightseeing tours take place in small float planes, which take off and land on the water, or on regular light aircraft or by helicopter. On all of them, the pilot will provide running commentary and point out animals and places of interest.
Choose a float plane and you’ll enjoy the rush of the water takeoff and sweeping views of mountains and glaciers from your window seat. Helicopters fly lower, so you’ll feel as though you are skimming the forest canopy and will be above to see individual crevasses on the glaciers. Helicopters can land on the glaciers, too, for hiking, climbing, and even husky driving.
Despite its mammoth land area, Alaska has less than 10,000 miles of road, so getting around by small plane is a way of life. One in 40 residents has a pilot’s license, and some pilots will laughingly tell you that they learned to fly before they learned to drive.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in Juneau, the bustling state capital, sandwiched between forested mountains and the Gastineau Channel. There’s no road into the city, so it can only be reached by air or sea. Floatplanes constantly buzz back and forth on the water—some serve as airborne taxis, while others offer flightseeing tours.
There’s plenty to see here on a tour. High above the city lies the vast Juneau Icefield, some 1,500 square miles of snow and ice, which feeds multiple glaciers. The best known is the Mendenhall Glacier, a tidewater river of ice that meets the sea some 13 miles from downtown Juneau.
While there are plenty of flightseeing tours from Juneau on floatplanes, if you want to experience the sensation of walking on a glacier, choose a helicopter tour. You’ll climb up over the birch and aspen forest and view the dazzling Juneau Icefield from the air.
It’s not just an endless sea of ice; you’ll see striped moraines, blue-white crevasses, and pools of water forming high-altitude lakes. The pilot will choose your landing spot; it could be Mendenhall, but there are other Alaskan glaciers to explore, including Taku, Gilkey, Battle, and Herbert.
Visiting the pristine Misty Fjords National Monument is one of the best things to do in Ketchikan, and a great way to see it is by floatplane. This spectacular landscape, 22 miles east of Ketchikan, is a 2.3 million-acre expanse of sheer cliffs, deep fjords, and towering rock walls.
The forest here is dense and often shrouded in mist, hence the name. It cloaks the slopes from the shoreline to the mountaintops.
On a flightseeing tour from Ketchikan, you’ll fly over ribbon-like waterfalls, sparkling alpine lakes, the bottle-green canopy of the Tongass forest, and soaring granite cliffs against a backdrop of sawtooth white peaks.
Routes are dependent on weather, but you could see New Eddystone Rock and Big Goat Lake if you fly south, or Neets Bay and Bell Island Hot Springs if the pilot takes a northern route. Some tours on floatplanes include a landing on a lake, so you can disembark and take a short hike.
The Alaskan wildlife here is impressive. You could see brown and black bears, otters, harbor seals, and bald eagles. As you fly low over the water, look out for the distinctive black-and-white shapes of pods of orca, or the blow of a humpback whale.
Other tours take you over the Inside Passage to Prince of Wales Island, where it’s possible to land at Polk Inlet and observe bears from a United States Forest Service viewing platform. This is especially rewarding in the salmon spawning season throughout the summer in Alaska, as bears come down to the water to feast on salmon.
Quirky, boho Talkeetna is known as a gathering point for climbers waiting to tackle the mighty Denali. These adventurers will fly from here to Denali’s base camp, at 7,000 feet, to start their ascent.
But not everybody has the time or expertise to tackle North America’s highest mountain, so why not admire it from the air instead?
There are various ways to see Denali on a flightseeing tour, but one of the best from Talkeetna is a flyover of the south side.
You’ll follow the valley of the Susitna River, climbing up over a landscape of glaciers, snowy peaks, and dramatic ice falls. The pilot will fly over the Great Gorge, one of the deepest in the world, filled by the incredible Ruth Glacier, a river of ice 40 miles long and 4,000 feet deep.
Higher still, seven more vast glaciers flow down the southern face of the Alaska Range. Some flights land on the ice, giving you a chance to enjoy the sensation of walking on a glacier. You’ll be under the supervision of a guide, of course, and all equipment will be provided.
Denali National Park
Flightseeing tours from the airstrip on the edge of Denali National Park itself give you the best shot at circling the peak of mighty Denali, one of the most beautiful places in Alaska.
What’s striking about this iconic mountain is that it rises steeply from the tundra, giving the impression of an unimaginably huge pyramid of rock and ice, dwarfing everything around it.
In a flight of just over an hour, weather permitting, your experienced pilot will get you within half a mile of the mountain, circling the icy peak so you can see it from all angles. As with all good flightseeing in Alaska adventures, everybody gets a window seat.
As well as the peak itself, you’ll see the rust-colored tundra, braided rivers, and tree-lined ridges as you climb. You’ll fly over lesser peaks, too, including Mount Mather, Mount Huntingdon, and Silverthorne.
A Denali flightseeing tour is especially beautiful if you chance upon a clear day during fall in Alaska, when the colors of the tundra glow every shade of orange and scarlet, and the mountains are dusted with the first snowfall.
Hopeful souls during the Gold Rush era had to make their way on foot from Skagway across the treacherous White Pass to the gold fields of the Yukon. It was a tortuous journey, with enormous suffering and deprivation along the way.
You can follow their journey on the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway from Skagway. But why not gaze at the route from the air, as well?
Helicopter tours take off from Skagway, flying low over the canopy of aspen and hemlock of the Tongass National Forest, giving you an idea of just how impenetrable this landscape was, during both summer and winter.
You’ll see glacier-filled valleys, plunging Alaskan waterfalls, deep gorges, and narrow, rock-strewn trails. Visible from the air are the vast Chilkat Glacier, the Ferebee Glacier, and the mighty Meade Glacier.
As well as giving you a bird’s-eye view of this ravishingly beautiful landscape, helicopter tours often include a landing on one of the glaciers, where there’s a chance to try dog sledding.
The dogs spend the summer in training for the winter racing season and love nothing more than to dash across the snowy landscape, pulling a sled. You can either ride as a passenger or have a go at mushing yourself, under the supervision of an expert.
Sitka lies on Baranof Island, a landscape of mirror-like Alaskan lakes that glint in the sunshine, as well as stony beaches, and dense forest.
Across the water, on Kruzof Island, the conical Mount Edgecumbe dominates the landscape. On a flightseeing tour, you’ll see sea stacks and the brownish patches of kelp forests in the water.
Sitka is also one of the best places for whale watching in Alaska; spotting a pod from the air is an extraordinary experience as you’ll get a real perspective of just how enormous these animals are.
On a clear day in Sitka, your pilot may take you over to the volcano, so you can see the patterns of past lava flows rippling down the mountainside.
Seward lies at the end of Resurrection Bay, where multiple glaciers, fed by the 700-square-mile Harding Icefield, inch their way to the water’s edge.
It is also the gateway to the serene Kenai Fjords National Park, a beautiful landscape of fjords and cliffs, where the ocean is studded with forested, sheer-side islands. The whole region is rich in wildlife.
From a floatplane, then, there’s much to see. You’ll slowly gain height as you fly over Resurrection Bay, leaving the compact urban area behind. Look out for whales and pods of dolphins cruising the bay; you can spot the white spout of their blow, and the ripples they cause in the dark water.
Focus hard and you could even see bears shuffling along rocky Alaskan beaches, or mountain goats on the cliffs.
There are different tours on offer, from float plane rides to helicopter flights that land on carefully selected spots on the glaciers for ice-trekking with a guide.
If you’re an experienced climber, you could get kitted out with crampons and an ice ax, admiring crevasses, surface water lakes, and waterfalls that tumble down underneath the ice. Some operators take you to Exit Glacier, landing where hikers can’t reach.
Others can make a landing on top of Mount Marathon, which forms a backdrop to Seward and is famed for its grueling annual race. By helicopter, you can get an idea of just how tough the course is while enjoying the sweeping views from the top.
The town of Girdwood, surrounded by mountains and glaciers, is a great base from which to go flightseeing in Alaska. You could opt for a short flight over the forested slopes around the town, soaring up over Mount Alyeska on the lookout for bears and mountain goats.
Longer tours in Girdwood whisk you by helicopter along glassy Prince William Sound, fed by towering tidewater glaciers, their blue-white faces up to 400 feet tall.
As you fly close to the biggest of these walls of ice, you could even be lucky enough to see the glacier calving. This occurs when great chunks of ice crash into the water, sending out ripples as far as you can see.
On a clear day, as you soar over the Chugach backcountry, you could spot otters and seals in the ice-strewn water and bears foraging at the water’s edge. You’ll make a landing on either Colony or Surprise glaciers with time to walk around, see shimmering blue pools of icy water, and gaze into crevasses.
Ready to go flightseeing in Alaska to witness the state’s pristine landscapes from a new vantage point? Browse our Alaska cruises and book your dream getaway.