Go for a hike in a place where few others have walked. The 325,240 acre Denali State Park, is the definition of remote Alaska. Accessed only by helicopter, or several days of walking, this adventure drops you on the top of a mountain with 360 views all around you.
With no paths or plans, every move is based on the landscape, weather and your physical abilities. Hiking down into the valley we followed animal tracks and interpreted the flora and fauna while looking for bear, moss, sheep and caribou.
After 4 to 5 hours of alpine navigation the helicopter returned for extraction. This adventure is about exploring the Alaska that people only dream of and is only accessible by doing a heli-hike in Denali State Park.
Don’t Leave Home Without: Lonely Planet Alaska (Travel Guide)
Our heli-hiking adventure stared at the basecamp of Era Helicopters Denali Flightseeing Tours located on the main street of Denali town. Here we met with our guide and the two other hikers to be briefed on what to expect and checked to make sure we had the proper gear.
In Alaska, it is important to have the right gear for your adventure. The weather can turn on you in a minute and is unforgiving.
We watched the safety video, signed our lives away and headed to the helicopter with our camera gear hanging off us and our hiking boots tired tight.
Boarding the 6 person helicopter, Lina entered first sitting next to the pilot, then me sitting next to the window in front for the best photography and video views. Our guide and two other hikers sat behind us.
There was excitement in the air as the pilot started the engine. The helicopter blade chopped through the air making a loud nose that pierced through us.
I looked at Lina and said this is the adventure I’ve been waiting for in Alaska. The pilot gave a quick motion to all of us to get our headphones on. He then told us that the flight would take 20-30 minutes depending on where our pilot and guide would agree to drop us.
Choosing our drop point was entirely based on weather and the ability to land, they have no se landing point and every hike is different. As the motor finished warming up, the pilot said it is time to go and with a quick turn on the joystick we lifted off twisting to the right and straight above the treeline.
With amazing views of Denali National Park to our right and the towering snow topped mountains of Denali State Park to the left we made our way above the brown Nenana River.
Lina and I snapped away as our pilot pointed out the different peaks and important land formations. It didn’t take long for us to leave civilization and before we knew it, we were flying deeper into Denali State Park and up into the mountains.
The weather started to turn from partly cloudy to sleet as we climbed higher into the mountains. With a mixture of snow and rain hitting the front of the helicopter, our pilot and guide agreed that we should fly deeper into the park into an area that requires hikers to be in fit shape due to the landscape and the weather can be even more unpredictable than other areas due to the large peaks.
After a few circles around the same mountain top and some quick chatter between the pilot and our guide, we found our landing spot. Our pilot said guys this will be a run and dump, so have everything ready to go. My eyes lit up when I realized we were landing on the tallest peak in the area.
Like something from a movie, the pilot made some quick adjustments and started his sideways descent towards our landing area that was no bigger than 8×8 feet. Within the blink of an eye we had landed on a rocky, snow covered piece of terrain that was still above the clouds.
Our guide jumped out, checked the area, gave the signal and the pilot, saying good luck to us, motioned for us to vacate the helicopter. With the sounds of the helicopter blades hitting the gusting mountaintop wind, I unbuckled and with one foot hanging out I leapt onto the frozen landscape.
With adrenaline rushing, I quickly grabbed my day pack and headed to the meeting point. Our guide gave the thumbs up and the helicopter took off. The sound of the blades quickly faded away into the sound of the raging wind off the mountain top.
We were alone, just five of us, on a mountaintop with no real plans. I know it sounds like a bad joke but for us its just another epic adventure day in the office at Divergent Travelers.
After the shock and awe wore off, we snapped some photos and grouped near our guide who was making a game plan. He carried a large spotting scope for mapping out our paths along the ridge lines and also to see if we could find any wildlife.
In this short time span, the weather turned and went from tolerable to cold and wet. The clouds rolled in consuming the mountain top in fog and it began to snow.
The new air cut through us like knives and we all scrambled into our packs to start layering up with waterproof gear. Between the rain drops and the snowflakes it was getting hard to keep anything dry.
This was not the ideal weather for camera gear, let alone hiking. This was the moment where I was thankful for my rain jacket, rain pants and our waterproof backpack. After scanning the ridge line and plotting out a basic route, we planned to head towards a large open marsh several miles in the distance.
We started making our way down along the ridge line weaving in and out of rocky, snow covered areas. There was no vegetation, just large rocks and snow. Our feet would punch deep into the snow as we walked into the snow-covered parts of the mountainside.
It was kind of a game, would we make it this time or would we sink. No matter how lightly we stepped, we would always break through the snow ending up to our knees. Our guide lead the way making the trail.
With each movement as we navigated down into the valley, the landscape came to life with more and more vegetation. It turned from gray to green and went from bare rocks to low growing vegetation and mossy like vegetation that can take cold damp weather.
It was hard not to walk by the large groups of fresh wild blueberries just ready for the picking. At a few points I stopped and filled up handfuls, as our guide would point out the different kinds of plants living at the different elevations. Blueberries aways make a nice snack while hiking.
Every few miles we would stop as a group and scan the mountainsides for better paths down and look for any signs of wildlife. As the vegetation grew so did the animal signs as we went from no animal paths to large animal paths that veined the valley in all directions.
Dodging insanely large piles of moose poop, our favorite find was a large antler rack left behind by a large caribou. It was exciting searching the mountain side as we hiked down looking for fresh berries and antlers.
As the vegetation turned into large bushes, we made our way to the bottom of the mountain and the frozen rocky soil turned into soft marsh lands with every step.
We found a large caribou path that twisted along the valley and followed this path until we stumbled across a large pond that housed a playful beaver. The beaver swam circles around his pond while randomly slapping his tail as an act of intimidation.
After watching the playful beaver we spotted a large group of caribou about 2 miles away. They blended easily into the remote Alaskan scenery and were hard to spot but thanks to our eagle eye guide we found them.
We quickly made a game plan to hoof it to a section where we could get relatively close to observe the wild caribou. Let me tell you, this is easier than it sounds because they are very aware of their surroundings.
Following another well-beaten animal path we made our way to the caribou. The path was wet with several areas that were still frozen, making it a gamble to know whether your move would result in a wet boot or not.
In one of those snows covered areas we found a whole caribou skeleton poking out of the snow. Our guide told us that this looked to be a kill spot where wolves ran down the caribou.
This is a normal site in the Alaskan bush and he explained how he has seen different kills happen while hiking and how the wolves use the lay of the land to heard the caribou right where they want them to go. The scene unfolded in my mind as something you would see on a Marty Stouffer Wild America episode.
Don’t Leave Home Without: Lonely Planet Alaska (Travel Guide)
We slowly crept up on the large heard of caribou, leaving us able to view them from an adjaent hill. There were 8 to 12 of them scattered across the hillside. Just like anywhere you should practice proper wildlife viewing and respect the animals, they are wild.
Staying low and moving slow we managed to get with 200 yards. Our presence startled them at first but they quickly determined we were not a threat and continued to graze.
By this time we had hiked for hours and the day had quickly passed. We finished our caribou viewing and made our way to an adjacent ridge where our guide used his satellite phone to arrange our extraction.
He gave them our coordinates and plans were set in motion to come and find us. Pickup would involve another 10 minutes of hiking to a flat area where the helicopter could land safely.
A half hour passed before the sound of the helicopter started to cut through the silence and out of nowhere the helicopter whipped around the back of a mountain twisting between the hillsides in pursuit of the landing area.
He was flying no more than 20 meters in the air just above the Alaskan bush. There was no circling or flyovers, the pilot headed to a flat part in the valley and landed.
We grabbed our gear and moved to the helicopter however the pilot was excited because this was a great stop and he decided to shut down the helicopter and give us a little longer in this remote part of Alaska.
We grabbed some photos with the helicopter and looked around to take in the last bit of remote Alaska before heading back to the little town of Denali, Alaska. Leaving this part of the Denali State Park was bittersweet.
The weather decided to clear, giving us some warm sun and view so clear we could see the mighty Denali peeking through the clouds in the distance. It was the perfect end to our adventure and we both spent the rest of the day in reflection of what it means to explore lands so remote. We’re some of the lucky ones, that’s for sure.
Heli-hiking in Denali State Park is one of the most epic adventures in Alaska. It’s not for the weary and you need a sense of adventure, but we can highly recommend this adventure for someone that likes remote places and wants to explore more of rugged Alaska.
Below are the most common questions people ask about heli-hiking in Alaska. We have also added some tips and hints on how to make your heli-hiking adventure as epic as ours.
What is Heli-hiking?
Heli-hiking is an adventure where you take a helicopter to a remote area to be dropped for back country hiking. There are no paths or plans while hiking, you let the landscape and what you find pave this adventure out.
At the end of the hike, you will be extracted by helicopter based on coordinates communicated via satellite phone. You will be accompanied by a skilled guide that is familiar with the topography of Denali State Park and has the tools to ensure you hike safely.
When is the heli-hiking season?
The heli-hiking season runs late May-Oct and we were the first group for the year in the last week of May. Like other adventure activities in Denali State Park and Denali National Park, everything shuts down in the late September and reopens in late May.
It is best to check with operators to see if they are running trips during your planned dates. Weather also can limit this adventure, so it is best to plan a few float days in case your day gets changed due to bad weather.
How long and far will I hike?
There are no walkways or paths, just ridge lines and the few animal trails along the valleys. Most heli-hiking in Alaska lasts around 4-5 hours depending on the weather and your group.
How far you hike depends on your ability; the normal is 8-10 miles within that 5-hour time frame. Some groups have done less but I highly recommend being prepared for 10 miles.
What fitness ability do I need to heli-hike in Alaska?
This adventure requires you to be in fit shape. Not super muscle man shape but fit hiking shape. You will be hiking on loose, rocky, ice covered terrain. You should be comfortable traversing varying ground conditions and able to walk at a steady pace for several miles carrying a day bag.
If you are not into hiking remote landscapes with little to no pathways this is not the adventure for you.
What was the helicopter like?
The helicopter was a nice clean piece of machinery and looked almost new. There was plenty of room for us to move around and snap photos and videos while in the air. The windows were clean and without markings.
You would not believe the scenic flights we have been on and the windows are always marked up. This is not the case with Era Helicopters and it made for great photography.
Denali State Park scenic flight by helicopter or airplane?
We have taken scenic flights all around the world. We feel a scenic flight in a helicopter is 100 times better than in a small airplane. Helicopters seem to have a smother flight and they can maneuver into more difficult positions, meaning you have the opportunity for more unique photography shots. If your options are an airplane or a helicopter for a scenic flight pick a helicopter. You will not be disappointed.
What is the guide like?
The guide is 100% experienced and cares about your well being. His goal is to guide you through this amazing experience. Be prepared to be educated while on this hike, the guide will do his best to inform you on everything but he can’t answer questions that are not asked so free to ask away.
Our guide did a nice job of teaching us about the topography of the park, the vegetation, the animal patterns and also telling us some pretty awesome back country stories from his years of guiding and exploring the Alaskan bush.
Should I book this in advance?
Yes, if you want to go heli-hiking during your trip to Alaska, you should book in advance. The tourist season is short and many people will plan their trip a year in advance.
As soon as you know your dates, we recommend booking to avoid disappointment. Since this is a small group adventure they also have a tendency to fill up quickly. Most group sizes are no more than five, however they do have two other helicopters if you are a larger group.
Where to stay near Denali National Park?
We love great adventures and love to have a little of luxury after those great adventures. We stayed at the Grande Denali Lodge where we enjoyed not only a bit of luxury but also some more amazing views overlooking Denali State Park.
This lodge pays attention to the details, offering beautiful rooms and a cozy main lodge with bar, restaurant and fantastic outdoor viewing platforms.
Book your stay today at the Grande Denali Lodge.
What to Pack and How to Dress for your Heli-Hike
Dressing in layers is a normal part of travel in Alaska and while heli-hiking it is your key to comfort. Once out of the helicopter it will be cold but as you work your way down you will get warmer.
For the best advice on what to wear in Alaska, read our Ultimate packing guide for Alaska.
We use two kinds of daypacks. I love our waterproof day bag that is a full size backpack. This is nice for when the weather turns bad. It’s 100% waterproof and carry’s like a normal day bag. Lina loves her Pacsafe day bag as it fits her right and allows her to carry all of her camera gear.
- Day Pack: Pacsafe Venturesafe X30 Anti-Theft Adventure Backpack
- Water Proof Day Backpack: Outdoor Products Shasta Backpack, 30-Liter
- Water Proof Small Bags: Universal Waterproof Phone Case
David’s Alaska shoe list: Merrell Men’s Chameleon, MuckBoots Chore Cool High Waterproof Work Boot,Brown
Rain Coat – You will encounter snow and rain so your outerwear will need to be water proof. It is best to pack a raincoat. We always like the raincoats that have pit zips so as you get hotter you can open up your sides to cool off.
Rain Pants- This is one item I would not forget; Rain pants are a must for this adventure. Just like we said before, it could be snowing and raining on this adventure and rain pants also help cut off the wind. (Mens or Womens)
Vest- This is nice to throw over that lightweight sweater when it’s not cold but it’s cool. I would look for one that is waterproof, has down filling and is rated for cold weather. Most, if not all, of those types of vest roll up into a ball so you do not have to worry about the vest taking up much room in your bag. Truth be told, we lived in our vests in Alaska.
Gloves- Its going to be cool and damp weather, so it’s good to have a pair of mild weather gloves, you will be glad you have them. We carry a pair that allows us to also use our phones and other touch screen devices. A good mild pair will work well, there is no need for large winter gloves.
- Light Gloves (Mens or Womens)
- Waterproof Gloves (Mens or Womens)
- Heavy Winter Gloves (Depending on the time of the year. Men’s or Womens)
Winter Hat- A winter cap is a must when visiting Alaska, even in the summertime. I lived in my winter cap when visiting Alaska at the end of May/June.
Extra socks – You feet may get wet so it is best to have an extra pair of socks. Merino wool socks are the best to have for hiking. I have the same few pairs I’ve had for the past five years. If your feet are dry, you will be a happy hiker.
- Hiking Merino Wool Socks (Mens or Womens)
- Quarter Cushion Socks (For Everyday Use And Workout Use. Mens or Womens)
- Thick Wool Socks (Mens or Womens) For Spring, Fall and Winter months.
- Water Proof Socks (Mens or Womens)
Buff Headwear- We love our Buff’s because you can wear them 16 different ways. This is a must-have item for any traveler. Use it to cover your face from the wind, use it to cover your head, our Buff’s go on all of our adventures. We typically carry 2-3 different patterns (each!) in our bags when we travel.
Check out How To Wear A Buff Headwear – It’s Easy!
Other gear for your Heli-hike
- Sony FDRAX53/B 4K HD
- Extra Batteries
GoPro Extra Batteries
GPS Unit Garmin makes some great handheld GPS units that work great for hiking or road tripping. This is something you need to pack if you are going to be off the grid hiking or road tripping in Alaska. Your cell phone will not work.
- Garmin- inReach SE®+ Satellite Communicator Handheld Satellite Communicators with GPS Navigation
- Garmin eTrex 30x
- Garmin GPSMAP 64s Worldwide with High-Sensitivity GPS and GLONASS Receiver
Heli-hiking in Denali State Park with Era Helicopters
Heli-hiking in Denali State Park needs to be on every adventurers must do list when visiting Alaska. We had a lot of epic adventures during our 4 week trip around Alaska, but this one rates right up there as one of the best. It’s rugged, remote and who doesn’t love a helicopter ride?
Book Your own – Denali Heli-Hiking Tour Few things are more exhilarating than a hike through the incredible Denali National Park, unless of course that hike also includes a round-trip helicopter flight over some of the most rugged and remote terrain on earth.
If you think the Heli-hike is too aggressive for you or that you wouldn’t enjoy the remoteness of this kind of adventure, don’t worry there are other scenic flights in Denali that we recommend. Below are some of the best scenic flight operators that offer tours around and in Denali State Park and Denali National Park.
- Denali Grand Tour Admire comprehensive aerial views of Denali Mountain (formerly Mt McKinley) on this 1.5-hour flightseeing tour from Talkeetna. On this small-group tour limited to six passengers only.
- Denali Flyer Tour Soar over the Denali National Park’s Alaska Range on this 1.25-hour flightseeing tour from Talkeetna. Fly over the towering mountains of Denali (formerly McKinley), Hunter, and Foraker.
- Denali North Face Flight Expedition Fly over Denali National Park for spectacular views. Over the course of the 1.5-hour flight, snap photos of area glaciers, untouched Alaskan terrain, and the avalanche-prone Wickersham Wall. Round-trip transportation from Denali hotels and guesthouses provided.
- Denali Experience Flightseeing Tour Soar over Denali National Park’s glaciers on this 1-hour flightseeing tour from Talkeetna, and see all sides of Denali Mountain (formerly Mt McKinley).
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