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If you’re a prospective Alaska visitor of a certain age, it’s likely you feel like you already know Talkeetna. After all, this tiny Alaskan town served as the inspiration for Cicely, the town in Northern Exposure. (For those younger readers, this was a popular dramedy show that ran from 1990-1996.)
However, the real Talkeetna is completely different – you can’t believe what you see on TV, after all. As you might guess, Talkeetna is a town with tons of character. It’s a bit off the beaten tourist track thanks to being at the end of a dead-end highway, but well worth the detour.
Growing up in Alaska, I had the chance to visit Talkeetna a few times, but a return trip in Summer 2021 showed me how much has changed… which is to say, very little! Talkeetna is in some ways a time capsule, reliably quirky and very Alaskan in character.
If you’re planning an Alaska trip and on the fence about whether or not Talkeetna is worth a visit, prepare to be amazed. There’s a ton to do in this small, historic town ranging from outdoor adventures to history, culture, and food. Whatever you choose, these are the best things to do in Talkeetna, so you really can’t go wrong.
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Dena’ina Ełnena peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
1. Explore Historic Talkeetna
Part of what inspired the writers of Northern Exposure is the area of “downtown” Talkeetna – and I use the term “downtown” loosely, because it’s only a few blocks, and you won’t find a single high-rise anything in town! (In fact, there’s a city ordinance about it, and a current debate ongoing regarding a cool new balloon attraction…)
Starting at the beginning, the area of Talkeetna was originally inhabited by the Dena’ina Ełnena people; European-descended settlers came to the region in the early 20th Century after gold was discovered in nearby Cache Creek. Talkeetna grew again when it was selected as the district headquarters during the construction of the Alaska Railroad. Mining remained the primary industry through the 1970s, though tourists occasionally boomed the town population (such as in 1963 when a total solar eclipse was visible!)
Since the 1970s and the completion of the Parks Highway, tourism has been a primary driver in Talkeetna, but the town has fought to retain its off-beat charm. Many downtown buildings are historic and embrace their part in Alaska’s history, such as Nagley’s General Store and the Talkeetna Schoolhouse.
2. Take a Speedboat Ride
If you wanna talk about operators that have been around forever in Alaska, Mahay’s Jet Boat Adventures has to make the list. They’ve been running boats on the Nenana River since 1975; today their river boat tours are one of the top things to do in Talkeetna.
There are two tour options I recommend:
- The three-hour Wilderness Excursion is great if you only have a half-day in Talkeetna (say you arrive in the afternoon for a one-night stay before heading north to Denali or south to Seward/Anchorage). This tour covers history and culture in the area, and gives sweeping views of the scenery in this remote part of the state.
- The five-hour Devil’s Canyon Adventure is great if you have a full day in Talkeetna (as part of a two-night stay). This tour traverses some 130 miles of river, includes a short walk to educate you about Native Alaskan culture and settler history, and the stunning views in every direction.
As you can tell, my suggestion on which to do depends on how much time you have. Like Denali bus tours and Kenai Fjords cruises, the longest tour you can fit in your Alaska itinerary is what I suggest booking.
3. Visit the Talkeetna Museum
In addition to walking around Talkeetna’s core area – which is definitely walkable – you could also visit the Talkeetna Historical Society Museum to learn even more about what you’re seeing and experiencing.
Located in the old Talkeetna Schoolhouse (two birds with one stone!), the Talkeetna Museum houses collections and artifacts that document life in Alaska, and specifically in this tiny town. Here you’ll learn the stories of Native Alaskans, aviators, gold seekers, and trappers – many of whom now rest in the Talkeetna Cemetery, which is worth a visit if you have the time too.
4. Go Flightseeing to Denali
I typically recommend people book their Denali flightseeing with Fly Denali, based out of Healy; my #2 suggestion is based in Talkeetna.
K2 Aviation has been operating in Alaska for decades, and offers an incredible flightseeing tour – including the option to add a glacier landing to any of their tours based on availability and weather. This makes the experience similar in part to the Fly Denali tour I love.
No matter which route you choose, you’ll be treated to jaw-dropping views of Denali and the rest of the Alaska Range. Since Talkeetna is actually closer to Denali than the Nenana Canyon area where the Park Visitor Center is located, the flight is a bit shorter – but no less impressive considering you won’t see any roads leading into this part of the park during your flight.
5. Go River Rafting
If you’d rather not have any noisy motors or jets involved with your exploration of the Alaskan wilderness outside Talkeetna, river rafting is a great option.
There are a few operators, including Willow Creek Tours, Denali View Raft Adventures, and Talkeetna River Guides. They all offer a variety of rafting adventures ranging from easy two-hour floats on the Talkeetna River to 4-5 hour rides with a bit more scenery and bumps on the water.
Like rafting in Denali, the variety means you can find something that appeals to your travel style – whether that’s for those desiring no thrills or adrenaline junkies.
6. Book a Fishing Charter
People ask me all the time about fishing in Alaska; while I grew up fishing with my dad, I don’t remember everywhere we went and am not totally up on the best places to go fishing nowadays.
I do know that Talkeetna is a good spot though, and there are a number of fishing charters available:
- Dave Fish Alaska River Guides
- Fishbone Charters – (907) 841-3963
- Phantom Tri-River Charters
- Talkeetna Fishing Guides – (907) 733-3355
- Talkeetna Wilderness River Fishing Guides
In all cases, you’ll be primarily fishing for salmon and other river fish (trout, etc.). Most offer both fly-fishing and sport-fishing charters, so be sure to research/call each one to find the experience you’re looking for.
7. Head Out on a Hike
Talkeetna might not strike most people as a hiking destination, but like, well, all of Alaska, there are trails if you know where to find them – and plenty of backcountry if you don’t.
Adjacent to Denali State Park (not Denali National Park), there are a number of good trails in the Talkeetna area.
For an easy hike near town, loop around Otter Lake (1.9 miles, flat and easy) or Talkeetna Lake (3.7 miles, also flat and easy), or hike four miles out and back on the Talkeetna River Trail/Chase Trail. Assuming you have a car, there are a number of other trails in the area, especially off AK-3 (the Parks Highway) between Talkeetna and Denali.
Kesugi Ridge is the go-to if you want a challenging multi-day trail. This is a 29.2-mile point-to-point trail that many consider to be one of the most beautiful trails in Alaska – if not the whole U.S. On a clear day, you’ll have insanely good views of Denali and the Alaska range.
8. Take a Sled Dog Kennel Tour
There are loads of great sled dog kennel tours across Alaska – I’ve mentioned them pretty much everywhere, including Fairbanks, Seward, and Denali. They’re also offered as cruise excursions in a number of Alaska cruise ports.
Don’t let that deter you from considering this as one of the things to do in Talkeetna; it’s a great option if you have kids or haven’t prioritized this experience elsewhere in the state. Five-time Iditarod winner Dallas Seavey runs AK Sled Dog out of Talkeetna, with both summer and winter tour options; Sun Dog Kennel is another great option with a fellow Iditarod musher, Jerry Sousa.
Unlike other parts of the state, you should expect to try “dryland” mushing in Talkeetna, if you visit during the summer months. There are no glaciers/year-round snowpacks near Talkeetna that you could take a helicopter ride to, as in other destinations (like Seward and Juneau). I just want to manage your expectations on that – it’s still a great experience, especially if they have husky puppies you can meet during your tour.
9. Ride the Hurricane Turn Train
If you love trains and are up for a really unique experience, there’s nothing quite like the Hurricane Turn Train service on the Alaska Railroad.
This unusual service gives you a peek at life off the highway system in Alaska: the train makes whistlestop service at a number of communities along the train line (including Curry, which I really want to visit!) before turning around at Hurricane to return back to Talkeetna. It takes all afternoon/evening to do this ride even if you don’t disembark, but is a truly different way to ride the Alaska Railroad (which most people ride straight from Anchorage/Talkeetna to Denali/Fairbanks or vice versa).
Riding the Hurricane Turn Train is definitely on my next-visit list!
10. Go Ziplining
While I thought that Denali was the only place for ziplining in this part of Alaska, a little bit of research showed me that you adrenaline junkies have another option: Denali Zipline Tours is based in Talkeetna, and offers the same kind of thrilling as the zipline tour you can do in Denali.
DZT offers a number of zipline tours, but the most popular is their Canopy Adventure Tour. This three-hour experience includes a handful of zip lines, as well as suspension bridges, a rappel, and a spiral staircase. You’ll also get to enjoy epic views including the Alaska Range and Denali.
11. Taste Birch Syrup
When it comes to local flavor, you’ve probably gotten the sense that Talkeetna has a lot to offer. The town is also home to one of the more unique flavors in Alaska, literally.
Oprating from a facility 13 miles outside of town, Alaska Birch Syrup & Wild Harvest does exactly what their name says: they make birch syrup from Alaskan birch trees, as well as other sweets and treats. You can stop in to their facility/gift shop to take a tour, try samples, and buy delicious souvenirs. Some of my favorites include the Birch Water (a byproduct of syrup-making but not TSA-friendly if you plan to bring it home), the birch syrup cream caramels, and the salmonberry jam that’s made from berries picked on Kodiak island. They also have delicious fireweed ice cream!
If you’re curious about some of these treats, you can find them it the Alaska Box, a quarterly subscription box I offer to bring the flavors of Alaska into your home (and other Alaskan-made goods too!).
Where to Dine & Drink Locally
Last but certainly not least, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a few of Talkeetna’s drinking and dining establishments. There are plenty of good options in town, but here are a few of my favorites:
- Denali Brewpub is a wildly popular spot for dinner and drinks; during the staffing shortages of 2021, the wait was really long and I couldn’t get a table – so this place is still on my must-try list.
- Mountain High Pizza Pie is next door, and offers incredible, creative pizza options as well as Alaskan craft beer to go with it. Best of all, you can do half-and-half pizzas to make the whole fam happy (or just try a few delicious topping combos).
- The Denali Fairview Inn is a local institution, and a popular watering hole for summer employees working in the Talkeetna area. They also live music under normal circumstances.
- I’ve never been to Mimi’s Haus of Cheese (they were closed during my visit) but need I say more???
- I also didn’t have dinner at the Foraker Dining Room at Talkeetna Alaska Lodge (where I was staying), but my fellow John Hall’s Alaska guests said it was awesome – if you’re looking for an upscale option, this is it.
- Incredibly important: Talkeetna Alaska Lodge has a great coffee stand, or you can fuel up at Conscious Coffee on Main Street or grab breakfast at Flying Squirrel Bakery.
That said, this is just a sampling. I saw a number of other delicious looking spots for a meal – way more than you can try during the 1-2 night stay in the area that most people do.
Where to Stay in Talkeetna
There are a lot of funky, off-beat accommodation options in Talkeetna, but here are two I like:
- The Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge is the best option in town, with sweeping views of Denali on a clear day – but it’s a ways out of town, cutting you off from the local flavor (book on the hotel website or Hotels.com)
- Rocky’s Cabin is a historic cabin in the heart of town. You can’t book online; call 907-229-6053 to inquire about availability and prices.
As I said, there are plenty of others – especially smaller, family-run options, but these are the two I recommend to start with.
Have any questions about things to do in Talkeetna and how to spend your time there? Let me know in the comments!
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