A Bird's-Eye View - Page 2

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Breathtaking in-flight views are by no means the sole domain of British Columbia. Arizona's Grand Canyon and the Alaskan high-country are arguably the continent's two most popular flightseeing hubs. Some 600,000 people take air tours over the Grand Canyon every year, while Alaska's stunning scenery combined with its vast remoteness make small plane travel a virtual necessity.

With more than 500,000 square miles of mountain ranges, tundra plains, lakes, glaciers, and rivers, Alaska is a massive place. But despite all that space, there are less than 15,000 miles of maintained roads. It's no wonder then that one out of every 64 Alaskans is a registered pilot and that, per capita, the 49th state boasts six times as many pilots and 14 times as many airplanes as any state in the Lower 48.

Among Alaska's most popular flightseeing locales is Denali National Park, home to dozens of glaciers, the famed Wickersham Wall, and North America's highest peak, 20,320-foot Mount McKinley. To get a bird's-eye view of it all, make your way 2.5 hours north of Anchorage to Talkeetna, a quirky little town that was the inspiration for Cicely, Alaska, the fictional city featured in the popular 1990s TV show Northern Exposure.

In the real world, Talkeetna Air Taxi offers a variety of air excursions, including the 1.5-hour Grand Denali Tour that includes headphones and narration from the pilot. For $275, you'll make a full circle of Mount McKinley and cross over the mighty Alaska Range twice. Along the way you'll see active gold mines, the Kahiltna base camp where climbers begin Mount McKinley ascent attempts, and the aforementioned Wickersham Wall, the steepest continual vertical relief in the world.

For an extra $75 per person, Talkeetna Air Taxi pilots will even land their ski-equipped planes on one of the glaciers, yielding an up-close view of the mountain's grand scale and providing a great photo op. (Talkeetna Air Taxi; 800-533-2219)

If you'd rather land on water, head southeast to Ketchikan where operators such as Island Wings Air Service help you explore the nearly roadless 3,570 square miles that make up Alaska's Misty Fjords National Monument. Tucked within the numerous steep-walled canyons lie dozens of remote alpine lakes reachable only by seaplane. (Island Wings Air Service; 888-854-2444)

Nearly 3,600 road miles to the south of North America's highest point, lies the Grand Canyon, which at 277 river miles long, up to 18 miles wide, and a mile deep, provides another ideal flightseeing locale. Here, fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters are equally abundant, shuttling people over and into this wonder of the world.

In fact, the canyon's airspace has gotten so busy—more than 86,000 tours a year—that noise pollution has become a touchy topic among National Park Service officials, environmentalists, and tour operators. That's led to airspace restrictions and mandatory quite hours (no flights before 8 a.m. or after 5 p.m.), and there are plenty of people who wish the air traffic would disappear all together.

But there's no denying that a flight over the Grand Canyon yields an experience beyond just leaning over the railing at the north or south rim, or even hiking down into its depths. Flight prices run the gamut. For $91 per person, Scenic Airlines offers a fixed-wing flight that cruises over Lake Mead, Hoover Dam, and the Grand Canyon's west rim; $329 will get you a combination trip that includes a airplane flight over Lake Mead before you transfer to a helicopter for a canyon flyover, followed by a south rim drop-off for a photo op and box lunch. (Scenic Airlines; 800-634-6801)

Helicopter-only flights over the canyon typically run about $100 per half hour. The increased cost is driven by the craft's smaller passenger capacity and higher maintenance costs. The upside is the ability to drop down into the canyon. Helicopter outfitter Papillion has a broad spectrum of tours, with departures from Las Vegas, Boulder City, Grand Canyon West, and inside the national park itself. For about $400 you can fly over the canyon, land inside, and then take an 11-mile motorized raft ride on the Colorado River before flying back out. (Papillion; 888-635-7272)

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