Is it possible to fall more in love with a place after visiting for a 3rd time?
Yes! This was my 3rd trip to the small community of Talkeetna Alaska, but my first visit in the winter. Talkeetna has always been one of my favorite small communities in Alaska. This once-popular Denali climbing hub has grown into a popular stop for people going between Fairbanks and Anchorage on the beautiful Parks Highway.
Slightly off the beaten path, you’ll need to take the spur road off the Parks Highway about 15 miles to where the spur road essentially ends. Here you’ll turn onto Main Street and be greeted by Talkeetna’s small-town charm, not to mention their welcome sign.
Tip: The Alaska Railroad also stops in Talkeetna on their Denali Star Line.
Three-block Main Street ends at the river one of the highlights of the area, and a place for great views of Denali National Park peaks. Along Main Street, you’ll find a few historic buildings, a few restaurants, some gift shops, climbing shops, and that’s it. It has an abundance of great bakeries (it seems like a requirement for a small town!), history, charm, and most importantly to me – outdoor adventures and things to do.
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Talkeetna is the Gateway to Denali National Park
Talkeetna lies 100 miles south of the entrance to Denali National Park and Preserve and it seems to be the place where it all starts. There’s a lot of backcountry between the park and Talkeetna, so it’s one of the last main stops before the park when coming from the south.
You can get some of the best views of Denali from various places around Talkeetna, and it just feels like it has a rich history with the park as you walk around the community. This is how the town started after all – it started as a climbing town and some locals humorously call it a climbing town with a drinking problem.
It is where all the Mt. Denali summits/expeditions begin, therefore I often consider it the gateway to the park. There’s even a park ranger station there just off of Main Street (more on that below).
Best Time to Travel to Talkeetna Alaska
I have always loved this quirky little community, but I fell more in love with it in the winter when I felt like its true character shined through in the off-season. Talkeetna in the winter was bliss; the empty main street, the historic buildings without crowds, the piles and piles of snow, and the incredible views of Denali on a crisp winter day. Things have changed due to COVID-19 – but the Talkeetna locals were as welcoming as ever…in masks.
Sure – there might not have been as much open or to do, but it was just right for me; it felt real. No crowds in Nagley’s store, no waiting for restaurants, and ample parking was available. Groups of snowmobiles were parked outside of Denali Brewing Company and cross-country skies were planted in the snow drifts. It felt like what it should be, a sleepy Alaskan small town/community.
The summer is lovely too, but you’ll definitely find it more crowded with visitors. And as each year goes on, it becomes more so. That honestly worries me as the town wasn’t meant to house that many seasonal people. They even had to start a special community tax to help fix the community sewer system for the growth in visitors.
The 2 times I’ve been there in the summer have been in late August or September – which is getting into shoulder season and less crowded too. It’s a beautiful time to be in Alaska in general as the fall colors are out and if you are lucky you may even catch the beginning of aurora season. The first time I ever saw the Northern Lights was in Talkeetna in August!
Go off-season or in shoulder season, when in theory your presence will have less of an impact on local communities. You’ll beat the crowds and enjoy shorter waits wherever you go. Prices also tend to drop in off-season, so this is a win-win.
Things to do Around Talkeetna Alaska At Any Time of the Year
As I mentioned before, I’ve been to Talkeetna 3 times; all of these Talkeetna things to do come from my personal experience. These are all places I’ve visited personally or tours I’ve taken. I feel like it’s important to provide travel advice based on personal experiences, not just a list of things anyone can write on the internet. So – know that this is all my personal opinions and experiences with these companies and feel free to contact me with any additional questions – I’m a real person who’s traveled there and I’m happy to help!
This is a great place to start, this old building was the town’s schoolhouse. The Talkeetna Historical Society was founded in 1972 by residents concerned with protecting the original Talkeetna Schoolhouse and Talkeetna’s history.
They even have a free walking tour app that will lead you around to all of the historic buildings and teach you about the history! Get it for Android or iTunes. And for that, don’t you think they deserve a visit and a donation at the museum?!
More Information: Talkeetna Museum Website
Another original building on Main Street is the Talkeetna Roadhouse which was established in 1917. Roadhouse history in Alaska is fascinating. Roadhouses were born of the gold rush and trapper culture in Alaska. They were a place where people could stay and get food; all spaced out about a day’s journey apart (an early 1900s journey apart!). They are a part of the early Alaskan culture and there are a few that still remain. The Talkeetna Roadhouse is one of the few remaining ones, and it’s also probably the best known.
I’m not really sure how it became so well known; maybe it is because it was a hub for Denali climbers, or maybe it’s their incredible cinnamon rolls and bakery items. Whatever it is – it’s a gem in Talkeetna and not to be missed. The Roadhouse is really known for its family style and communal everything. Meaning that you just grab an empty chair at a table and sit with other people. That’s the beauty of a roadhouse – you meet other travelers, and hear their stories.
Discover all the things to do in Anchorage in Summer or Winter
It also still serves as a historical place to stay in town. On my recent winter trip to Talkeetna, I stayed there finally! It’s like a step back in time with communal tables and shared common areas and bathrooms. The sleeping rooms are simple but authentic, just like they used to be!
Stop in, grab one of their famous ginger molasses cookies, or other baked goods, and talk to fellow travelers!
Note: During COVID-19, things operate a little differently at the Talkeetna Roadhouse, learn more.
Often considered the heart of the Historic District, and also a bit of a party bar. It was built in 1923 during prohibition, it has since added a bar and it is the place to go in Talkeetna for live music! I personally have finished a few nights with a drink at Fairview Inn Bar. I think I lost a few years of my life there – it’s sort of like an Alaskan frat house, but filled with all of the seasonal workers from the area and loads of fun.
Check out my packing list for extreme temperatures
Walter Harper Talkeetna Ranger Station
This unique ranger station serves as the center of mountaineering operations. Climbers wishing to attempt Denali or other peaks in the Alaska Range must stop here first, for an orientation to the mountain and to acquire their climbing permit.
Even if you aren’t a climber, I suggest you stop there anyway – especially if you are an outdoor lover like me. Rangers are on hand to answer any questions about the park and there are always some great climbing exhibits to see. Plus, they have the current statistics on display, including how many climbers are on the mountain, how many have reached the summit, and how many climbers are now off the mountain. Adventure junkies like me always love to learn about stuff like this!
Hit the Trails in Talkeetna
There’s plenty of wilderness around Talkeetna. In the summer there are some lovely lake trails or walks along the river, and in the winter, you can go snowshoeing. In winter or summer, you can make the most of your trail time with a naturalist guide from Alaska Nature Guides. They’ll be able to teach you about wildlife, plants, and the native culture.
I took a snowshoeing hike with Bernard from Alaska Nature Guides. The snow was deep in Talkeetna and perfect for snowshoeing outside of town. We simply walked to the end of Main Street and took off snowshoeing along the river! It doesn’t get much easier than that. We crossed over the railroad bridge which has a safe pedestrian (and snowmobile) crossing, and suddenly we were out in the middle of the forest.
It had been snowing all morning in Talkeetna and Bernard thankfully broke trail taking on all the really hard work through the new powder. I was in the back reaping the rewards of everyone else’s hard work. He thoughtfully pointed out the trees, and animal tracks, and tried to point out the Denali Peaks shrouded in low clouds. It was hard to imagine mountain ranges behind those gray clouds, but they were there…just being shy. I think because of the fact the mountains were hidden it made me pay even more attention to the details of the winter woods.
Some might say that a forest full of willows and alders in the winter is boring and leafless – but I found myself noticing little details I had never really considered before. The colorful lichen, the texture of the snow on the bark of a tree, the appearance of the thick bark on a big old tree, and the colors of the buds on trees against the stark background of snow. It brought me closer to the landscape.
A little hot chocolate and sweet snacks on the banks of the frozen river were perfect as the snow continued to fall. As we snowshoed, we kept our eyes and ears peeled for moose. I normally don’t want to encounter moose in the woods, however, I found myself completely at ease with it with Bernard at the helm.
Take to the Skies and Go Flightseeing in Denali National Park
Denali National Park and Preserve is over 6 million acres, and most people only get to see 15 miles of it. Denali Park Road is open for any vehicles to drive the first 15 miles, after that you have to ride a park bus further into the park. And even though you can get off that bus and then go anywhere you want – few people have the skills, proper equipment, and desire to do that.
The best way to really get to see the grandeur of the park and the Alaska Range is to go flightseeing. Most flightseeing is done out of the little town of Talkeetna Alaska. Bonus – you can even do it in summer or winter!
Plus, an Alaska bush plane experience is a real slice of local culture. I’m always in awe of the number of people who can fly and own bush planes in Alaska. My recent pilot, Chris, got his license to fly at 17 years old and was taught by his Grandpa. His Grandpa had a plane that he owned and would often fly it and land it on a glacier to go hiking in the park for the day and then fly back. Don’t worry Chris is now much older than 17, and he was a great pilot – great teaching job Grandpa!
Summer Flightseeing and Hiking
The first time I went to Talkeetna was in the summer and I flew with K2 Aviation. I was actually able to go and hike in an extremely remote section of Denali National Park – something very few people get to do if you aren’t a professional climber! A float plane flew from Talkeetna to Moraine Lake in the park located between Backside Glacier and the Ruth Glacier within the vast roadless area of Denali National Park. The area is only accessible by float-plane.
We landed on the lake, the pilot let us off with a guide and we proceeded to hike around for 2 hours and get incredible access to the park. The float plane returned and picked us up. This is one of the most incredible tours that K2 Aviation offers from Talkeetna in the summer! Learn more about the K2 flightseeing hiking tour here.
As we took off and flew towards the park I loved seeing all of the twisty snowmobile tracks in the snow all over the backcountry. It’s always incredible to see the braided rivers and lakes from the sky. I bet you didn’t know that Alaska is the land of 3,000,000 lakes!
We flew on a beautiful day that started cloudy and cleared to beautiful skies. The weather cleared for us just enough to have a successful (yet bumpy!) flightseeing trip with K2 Aviation. Tip – Bring some Dramamine if you are prone to motion sickness!
We took the Denali Grand Tour and had an incredible view of the Alaska Range in Denali National Park. Most people just think about Mt. Denali, but this park is so much more than that. One seldom gets to see the enormity of an entire mountain range, but the best way to do it is from above. Chris knew every peak and glacier as we curved through the mountains – so close I felt like I could reach out and touch them at times.
How do you make an epic trip even better? In March when the days are a bit longer (they have 7 more minutes of light every day here!) K2 Aviation starts their flightseeing PLUS glacier landings! For us though – just being able to see this majestic range from above in February was enough.
Ride the Hurricane Turn Train
This unique AKRR flag stop train leaves daily out of Talkeetna, goes to scenic Hurricane Gulch, turns around, and returns to Talkeetna late in the day. It’s a local train with a few tourists – and that’s just one of the things that makes it so great. It was put in place for locals living off the grid to access remote cabins, hunting, and fishing in the wilderness.
However, the Alaska Railroad offers it up to anyone who wants to ride this whistle-stop service as way to experience local life in Alaska. This is probably the most immersive local experience I’ve had in the whole state, and it’s something not to miss if you are looking for things to do in Talkeetna Alaska.
Find out why I think the Hurricane Turn train is the best Alaska train tour on the entire AKRR route!
I rode the Hurricane Turn train in the late summer and was able to really enjoy the fall colors and wildlife. Wildlife viewing is prime since this is probably the only train you’ll ride that stops, and even backs up, for wildlife viewing!
I’ve ridden the Hurricane Turn train twice and each time it’s different; different locals, different stops, and different people to meet on the train. I even flagged it down myself once when I got off for a picnic in the wilderness and then flagged it down to pick me up on its way back to Talkeetna! It normally only runs as a turn-around train in the summer, you can check the schedule here.
Here’s how you can plan a perfect Hurricane Turn Journey!
Talkeetna Jet Boat Adventures
The Native Alaskans named Talkeetna for its essential landmark – the rivers. The word Talkeetna means “where the rivers meet.” Three rivers meet in Talkeetna and are woven into the town’s history and fabric. One of the best things to do in the summer is to get on the rivers and explore this unique landscape of braided rivers. Plus, to make it more exciting, why not do that by jet boat?
I did this trip with the Mahays River Boat Tour as a part of the Hurricane Turn Train journey called the River, Rails, and Trails Tour. I rode the train for a way and got a taste of its unique offering, and then got off in the old settlement of Curry. After learning about the historical significance of this abandoned settlement we proceeded to take a jetboat back to Talkeetna! This was a really different way to get your ‘boots on the ground’ in the wilderness!
These river tours are narrated by Coast Guard licensed captains and trained naturalists, so you will learn a lot about the region. After hiking for a bit, we got to our jetboat, strapped on our life vests, and took off downriver. If you have a lucky clear sky day, you’ll get great views of Denali too! It felt as if I were flying or hovering just above the river – the ride is exhilarating! It drops you off right at the end of Main Street and you can walk directly to the Denali Brewing Company for a beer!
Go Meet the Mayor of Talkeetna
You are on vacation – why am I telling you to bring politics into your vacation? Fear not – these are fun politics…yes, there is such a thing! The town of Talkeetna Alaska elected a cat named Stubbs for their mayor.
Truth be known – even though Talkeetna has all of these wonderful things to do, this is probably the main reason why I have such a deep love and fascination with Talkeetna…a cat for mayor!
He was the mayor for 20 years and sadly recently passed at 20 years old! Stubbs, who got his name from his short tail, had an ‘office’ in the Nagley General Store. I went on numerous occasions to try to visit him but had no luck as he was always ‘in meetings’.
When Stubbs passed away – RIP my fluffy friend – Talkeetna put in place a new mayor, his ‘brother’ Denali. On my most recent trip to Talkeetna in 2021, I again tried to stop by and see the new mayor in his office at Nagley’s. The guy behind the counter said that he was on vacation. Even a cat has to escape winter I guess. However, he introduced me to Denali’s sister Aurora.
This first lady was a purr and attention monster. Quite frankly – I think she should be Mayor – she’s definitely social and isn’t afraid of the winter.
Regardless – stop in at Nagley’s and try to get a meeting with the Mayor, and definitely ask for a picture with the First Lady, Aurora – she’ll be happy to oblige.
You can learn more about Mayor Stubb’s 20 years in office here.
Where to Eat in Talkeetna
After visiting 4 times, I do have some favorite places to eat in Talkeetna. However be patient, it’s a small town with only a few restaurants – be prepared to wait. Or get your food to go and eat by the river! In the winter though, I didn’t have to wait at all…the beauty of going in the winter!
NOTE: During COVID-19, you will want to check to see if these places are still open. I know for sure that the Roadhouse is only open to the people staying there. Mountain High Pizza and Flying Squirrel are only open for take-out as of Feb 2021.
The Roadhouse Bakery
Be still my heart – pies, cinnamon rolls, butter molasses cookies. Plus – for those doing day trips or riding the Hurricane Turn train you can also pre-order delicious sandwiches and treats.
Mountain High Pizza
They have so many unique pizzas to choose from like Reindeer pizza, Buffalo chicken pizza, and Gyro pie. Be daring and try something different! Their crust is crunchy, golden perfection!
Flying Squirrel Bakery and Cafe
Located a bit out of town on Spur Road, this is another bakery heaven. Get fresh bread there, treats, or delicious paninis and salads!
Denali Brewing Company
It’s not only about great craft beer, but Denali Brewing Company also produces mead, cider, and spirits. Their brewery and tap room is on Spur Road outside of the town and close to the Parks Highway. However, they also have a restaurant and bar on Main Street that serves up delicious burgers and other bar food creations!
Where to Stay in Talkeetna
The Roadhouse is not only a café – but it’s also a hotel still modeled after a historic Roadhouse and definitely worth checking out (Read reviews of Roadhouse Hotel).
If you are looking for something a bit more substantial, then check out Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge – a large lodge just outside of town that runs a regular shuttle into town. (Read Reviews of Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge)
Or a nice in-between choice is the Chinook Wind Cabins; individual lodging complete with kitchens. (Read Reviews of Chinook Wind Cabins)
Note – I’ve stayed in all of these places, and recommend them all depending on what you are looking for.
Talkeetna Alaska may be small, but it deserves more than a day there. Only when you stay for a few days do you experience the real character of this village by the three rivers governed by a cat. Plus, you’ll have more opportunities to meet the mayor…and the locals! After all, it’s the locals there that have made this town the gem that it is.
I was a guest of Travel Alaska for all of my trips to Talkeetna. However all opinions expressed here are my own.