Quirky. That’s the word that comes to mind when I think of Talkeetna. I challenge you to name another town that has a cat as the mayor. Driving into Talkeetna feels like taking a step back in time. Many of the buildings along Main Street are originally from the early 1900s. You can almost feel what it was like to be there during the gold rush.
The town sits on the historic lands of the Dena’ina people. Native Alaskans used the area at the confluence of the Susitna, Chulitna, and Talkeetna Rivers and called it K’daltiknu which means “food is stored river.” In the early 1900s, gold was discovered in the foothills west of modern-day Talkeetna, bringing prospectors to the area. In 1915, the construction of the Alaska Railroad between Anchorage and Fairbanks named Talkeetna as the district headquarters for the railroad. This brought in more people and businesses; a sawmill, roadhouses, and cafes opened. Most notably, HW Nagley opened a general store that is still operating today. The store operates in the same structure that was built in 1918.
In the 1960s, Talkeetna was connected to the road system by a 14-mile gravel spur road. Today it is paved and connects to the Parks Highway. Many visitors use Talkeetna as a stopover on the way to or from Denali National Park, but it is also worthy of a several-day stay.
North America’s tallest peak is visible from Talkeetna on a clear day. The first summit was in 1913 but in 1951 a new climbing route, known as the West Buttress was pioneered by Bradford Washburn. This route along the southwest side of Denali allowed climbers to fly from Talkeetna, land on Kahiltna Glacier, and begin the climb from there. Today, this is the most popular climbing route and brings hundreds of hopeful climbers to Talkeetna every spring.
Mountain climbing is embedded in the fabric of Talkeetna, from the names of businesses to the memorabilia on their walls. One of the more sobering sites in Talkeetna is the Climber’s Memorial in the Talkeetna Cemetery, with names, ages, and countries of those who have lost their lives on the mountains of the Alaska Range.
Getting a glimpse of Denali is always a thrill but seeing the great one from the air is on a whole new level. Talkeetna Air Taxi and K2 Aviation both offer flightseeing tours of Denali and the surrounding mountains of the Alaska Range. You have the option of a glacier landing, where the plane lands on one of several glaciers in the area. Stepping out of the plane onto a glacier, surrounded by the mountains of the Alaska Range really gives you a feel for the scale of the highest mountains on the continent.
Weather in the mountains is unpredictable. There is often heavy cloud cover so it is not unusual for flightseeing tours to be canceled, delayed, or altered due to weather concerns. Both companies are flexible with refunds or rescheduling. If flightseeing is a must-do on your itinerary it is best to add in some extra time in Talkeetna to allow for rescheduling if needed.
A walk down the main street of Talkeetna brings you to the banks of the mighty Susitna River. It should come as no surprise that river rafting and boating are big attractions. Mahay’s Jet Boat Adventures and Denali View Raft Adventures both offer river tours.
As mentioned in my blog post Riding the Rails, the Hurricane Train departs from Talkeetna. Excellent fishing, backcountry camping, mountain biking, and hiking can all be found in the wilderness just off the train tracks. I’ve got a combination train ride and river floating trip in mind for our next visit to Talkeetna.
Mayor Stubbs the Cat
Stubbs was the most famous citizen of Talkeetna during his reign as honorary mayor from 1997 to 2017. He spent most of his time greeting visitors in Nagley’s General Store. Despite a well-publicized health scare (also known as a dog attack), he lived to be over 20 years old. His successor, Denali the cat now holds the title.
One of my favorite things about Talkeetna is just walking down Main Street, people-watching, and taking in the sights. On a clear day, Denali and the Alaska Range are in full view. During summer weekends, there’s an open-air market where local artisans feature their products. There are tons of shops for browsing and many great restaurants. The Roadhouse breakfast is one of our favorites. The seating is family style and you never know who you’ll end up meeting—a local, a fellow tourist, or even a mountain climber. The breakfasts are huge (you’ll be sorry if you order a full rather than half). Of course, this was pre-pandemic and things have been different over the few years. Here’s hoping that the Roadhouse dining room and travel, in general, will be back to normal in 2023.