It doesn’t get dark in early July in Talkeetna, so the town doesn’t do a fireworks display to celebrate Independence Day. The lack of fireworks, however, didn’t mean a lack of holiday spirit. The main event was a festive parade through downtown, complete with American flags, floats, live music, a convoy of emergency vehicles and kids tossing candy to enthusiastic spectators.
Talkeetna’s downtown is only four blocks long, so after the procession passed by, they went around the block and paraded down Main Street the other way!
It was a beautiful day, so we took a stroll down to the river to see if “the mountain” (Denali, of course) was “out” (visible).
What a beautiful sight! Denali (North America’s highest peak at 20,310 feet) is on the right, Mount Foraker (17,402) on the left, and Mount Hunter (14,573) in the middle.
Situated only 58 air miles from the summit of Denali, Talkeetna is an optimal spot to see the mountain on a (rare) clear day. Apparently, we weren’t the only ones who knew that.
Throughout the course of the morning, afternoon and evening, we spent a couple of hours just sitting on the shore and gazing at the mountains. It was time well spent, because here’s the view the next day from a similar vantage point.
The small town of Talkeetna (population ~1,200) has been touted as the inspiration for the 1990s TV show, Northern Exposure. A few years later, Talkeetna made national headlines when residents elected Stubbs the cat as mayor, a position he held until his passing in 2017.
Despite the casual and off-beat vibe, Talkeetna is all business when it comes to mountaineering. If you’re planning to climb in Denali National Park, Talkeetna is the place to start. We visited the Walter Harper Talkeetna Ranger Station to learn more (because we’re curious, not delusional).
We spoke at length with the on-site park ranger and learned a few interesting facts. Alaskans like to point out that the elevation gain from base to summit is greater for Denali than for Mount Everest (18,000 feet vs. 12,000 feet) and that Denali’s northern location creates especially harsh climbing conditions.
Of the Seven Summits (highest peaks of the seven continents), Denali is also unique in that climbers tote their own gear, typically about 100 pounds each, using sleds.
The National Park Service requires that prospective climbers obtain a permit and attend an orientation, but rangers do not have the authority to stop anyone from proceeding, even if they obviously lack the fitness or gear to do so safely. Hmmm.
Here’s a snapshot of climbing activity for the 2021 summer season as of July 4th:
The season officially ended on July 13th with a 53% success rate for summiting Denali.
The Talkeetna Historical Society has a captivating historic and educational exhibit on Denali and mountaineering, including a nail-biting video that follows a group of climbers as they make their way to the summit. (YouTube offers several videos as well.)
A room-sized model of Denali located at the Talkeetna Historical Museum depicts the details of the topography and the various routes to the summit.
The local cemetery even has a special section for mountain climbers. There is a memorial wall with a long list of people who have perished on Denali. And there are numerous headstones, most of a nontraditional style, and many with poignant inscriptions.
This is not your typical, well-manicured cemetery, and there were countless headstones hiding among the lush vegetation. Check out this link for an interesting read on the cemetery in Talkeetna.
In addition to mountaineering, Talkeetna’s colorful history includes the 1896 gold rush, construction of the Alaska Railroad beginning in 1915, and bush plane aviation pioneers just a few years later. Today, tourism is the primary economic driver for the town.
Let’s take a look around town.
We spent a fair amount of time exploring the old buildings in town, of which at least 11 are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. They were easy to find on a self-guided tour using an easy-to-navigate map and brochure.
The Talkeetna Historical Museum building is the former territorial schoolhouse, in use from 1936 through 1972. Wow – that’s the year I graduated from high school!
The David St. Lawrence/Harry Robb Cabin (below) was built in 1924 and occupied by Harry Robb from the 1930s until his death nearly a half century later. At that time, the cabin was boarded up until the 1990s, when it was acquired by the historical society.
And what did they find? “Upon opening up the cabin, Society members said it was like walking into a time capsule. All his belongings lay on the table as he left them, his clothes draped over the chair, and canned goods still on the shelf.” So those are the items that are on display – I think that’s pretty cool.
Built in 1916, the Ole Dahl Cabin #1 (below) is presumably the oldest existing home in Talkeetna. It’s definitely old, but not particularly interesting.
The Weatherell House (below) was built in the 1930s and obviously needs attention to prevent further deterioration. It’s privately owned.
The Frank Lee Cabin & Barn (below) was built between 1915 and 1917. It was converted to a roadhouse in 1944 and is still in operation today, renting rooms and serving home-style meals to travelers, including mountain climbers on their way to (or back from) Denali.
Check out the photo of Nagley’s Store below. An iconic Talkeetna landmark, it debuted in 1916 adjacent to the river and was moved to its present location on Main Street in 1948. I would venture a guess that most visitors to Talkeetna wander into Nagley’s at least once, if not for insect repellant or other necessities, then perhaps for ice cream or a bottle of wine.
Built in 1923, the Fairview Inn (below) contained the first bathtub in Talkeetna. Today, there are stories about the upstairs being haunted by a friendly ghost. Perhaps that explains the “For Sale” sign on the building.
Once used as a hangar by local aviator Don Sheldon, the building shown below sat empty for many years until local volunteers shored up the structure and created the Sheldon Community Arts Hangar. Today it’s used for concerts, plays and other arts activities.
The Talkeetna Village Airstrip (below) is situated right in the middle of town. After its construction in 1938, local pilots no longer had to land on gravel bars in the river. It’s still an active airstrip (we heard several planes take off and land each day), although most planes use the state-owned airport located about a mile away. That’s right – Talkeetna has two airports!
More Interesting Headstones At the Cemetery
Plants and Flowers
Also Seen Around Town
Three Rivers in Talkeetna
Talkeetna sits at the confluence of three glacier-fed rivers – the Talkeetna, the Susitna and the Chulitna – to form the big Susitna River that eventually empties into the Cook Inlet near Anchorage. It’s an important habitat for wild salmon.
Talkeetna was a fun stop, and we found plenty of things to do during our three night stay. We enjoyed our time there and would return in a heartbeat, hopefully with a rental car for exploring the hiking trails and other activities outside of town.
Time to move on! On a rainy, soggy morning, we boarded an Alaska Railroad train bound for Fairbanks. Next post – a visit above the Arctic Circle.