If you could conjure up a picture in your mind of the most quintessentially Alaskan town possible Talkeetna is almost certainly it. Charming in the extreme, Talkeetna nestles at the foot of North America’s highest peak -Denali -and is filled with flower-draped log cabins where early 20th century pioneers once lived and worked, tranquil streets and a simple way of life. It is easy to see why many believe the town was the inspiration for the TV series ‘Northern Exposure’.
Serving as a gateway to the vast Denali National Park, tiny Talkeetna has less than 1000 residents but nonetheless has a highly obvious commitment to the arts and some wonderful restaurants; it also offers one of the most authentic glimpses into a fascinating past woven from railroads, gold miners and early pioneers you are likely to find. From Talkeetna you can enjoy instant access to a wealth of incredible things to see and do which include wildlife viewing, panning for gold, cruising or walking the river or exploring the many historic buildings right here in town which have existed since Talkeetna’s very beginnings.
Sitting at the confluence of three grand rivers, the area had been used as a summer camp by native people for thousands of years. Gold prospectors arrived in the area in the late 1800s and when the Alaska Railroad came into being in the early 1900s and chose to set up a district headquarters here the town became a permanent settlement. In the years that followed Talkeetna grew thanks to the railroad and as a mining supply town and any stroll around the compact few streets of downtown today will bring you face-to-face with cabins, stores, barns, inns and private houses which all date from those days. Most come complete with their stories of the town’s characters and heroes down through the decades,
No matter where you are in town the Alaska Range with its mighty Denali peaks towering over everything form the focus of the panorama. Whether you are paddling down the river in a canoe, in a garden sipping a craft beer brewed right here in Talkeetna or admiring aurora photography in a cabin gallery magnificent wilderness and seemingly endless views of nature at its finest are never far away.
Simply put, it is impossible not to fall under the spell of this gorgeous community who, you may be interested to know, once had a cat as mayor for many years.
A Morning in Talkeetna
Your Talkeetna day will begin with a stroll through town, uncovering the history in its streets and museum while also taking in some of its lovely shops and galleries. You can decide at which point to pause for a morning coffee break.
Self-Guided Walking Tour –Historical Buildings, Moose, Music and a Museum
Charming Talkeetna is tiny and much of it of historical significance. Several blocks together make up the Talkeetna Historic District –a collection of wooden buildings and cabins -which is entered on the National Register of Historic Places. An easy morning stroll will take you on a tour of discovery, tracing Talkeetna’s story from the beginning, woven together from its mining, trapping, aviation and pioneer railroad history. Along the way you will ‘meet’ many characters who made their homes here and carved out their livelihoods in the town’s earliest days. To add even more color to your walk in summer, it isn’t unusual to find street musicians performing in the Main Street or the Village Park.
Some of the historical buildings have been preserved to show their original use such as the fascinating 1920s-built Harry Robb Cabin. After retiring as a Yukon riverboat captain, Harry Robb made a home for himself in Talkeetna and sustained himself with a little mining and trapping. When he died in 1978 he bequeathed his cabin and all it contained to the Historical Society. Stepping inside feels almost like trespassing into the home of someone who has just stepped out for a while. Others have morphed into something else such as the town’s original schoolhouse which is now home to the Talkeetna Museum, the 1930s Three German Bachelors Cabin which is where photographer Dora Miller now displays and sells her incredible aurora work and the Talkeetna Roadhouse which was originally a home when it was built in 1917 and became a roadhouse in the 1940s.
Talkeetna’s oldest building is the Ole Dahl Cabin dating from 1916 –once the home of a miner and barber. A little further along Main Street will bring you to the Fairview Inn which has been welcoming travelers since 1923 when the railroads arrived. Decorated with historic memorabilia, photos and antlers and with a layout little changed, the Fairview played host to President Warren G. Harding just days before his death in 1923.
Opposite the inn can be found the gorgeous Nagley’s Store which has been in existence and supplying goods since 1917. With customers made up of miners and trappers in the beginning, the shop was moved to its present site in the 1940s after water erosion threatened its existence on the banks of the Susitna River. The story goes that despite taking several days to move with the help of a tractor and rollers the store stayed open for business throughout.
Other notable buildings are the Tom Weatherell 1920s cabin, the 1920s stables belonging to Talkeetna’s first business woman Belle McDonald (formerly married to Ed Lee – the Talkeetna Roadhouse’s original resident) and the cabin of Frank Jenkins who, along with his wife, was found murdered in 1939. It is thought the incident concerned a quarrel over gold although the killer was never named.
While each of the most important buildings has its own plaque your walk will be significantly enhanced if you pick up a free walking tour map and guide from one of the businesses in town or the museum or download the app.
You can extend your walk to take in one or two other points of interest too. The small cemetery has the graves of two local heroes –Don Sheldon known as the ‘Climbers’ Pilot’ and Ray Genet. Ray Genet’s body is not actually interred here but somewhere on Mount Everest; his body was never found after he disappeared while climbing there in 1979. The cemetery is also the location of the Mountain Climber Memorial; a sobering reminder that although the area’s mountain range appears stunning from a distance it regularly takes the lives of those who set out to climb its peaks. Another detour can be had by following Main Street to its end to arrive at the point where the town’s three rivers meet. From this site you can see the railroad bridge which spans the Talkeetna River while also taking in views of Denali which, from here, are stunning.
As you wander around town keep your eyes peeled for the ‘Moose on Parade’ pieces which are a charming collection of painted and decorated wooden moose and occasionally other animals. Taking place annually, this Talkeetna event allows every established or budding artist to make a contribution. Some of the moose are in obvious and prominent places while others are somewhat more hidden away. If you happen to be in town on July 4 you might even be able to take home your very own moose. This is when the pieces are auctioned off with proceeds going to the Denali Arts Council, the Talkeetna Chamber of Commerce and the Talkeetna Historical Society –all non-profit groups. If you want to make these wonderful creations the focus of your walk pick up a location leaflet at one of the local businesses so you can hunt them all down
The Talkeetna Historical Society MuseumWhile downtown Talkeetna is something of a museum in its entirety this pint-sized town also has a dedicated museum housed in what was once its original school. Part of the walking tour route, you can explore the museum along the way or perhaps make it your first stop to give greater meaning to the buildings you will discover during the rest of your wanderings.
Although it is small the museum covers every element of the town’s history –native camps, gold mining, aviation, the railroads and mountaineering –which can be learned about through a collection of artifacts, newspaper clippings, personal accounts and photographs taken from the early 1900s. This latter is an especial treasure for those taking the walking tour. Here you will be able to put faces to the names of those whose cabin homes, stores and inns you will be exploring. These images also chronicle such things as Talkeetna’s fires and floods of the past.
After visiting the museum your knowledge will now include such things as the transition from tractors to aircraft in Talkeetna, how a bear trap works and how the cruel winters were survived by the early pioneers living in log cabins before modern conveniences.
Perhaps most impressive in the museum is the huge scale model of Denali (Mt. McKinley) which was sculpted after years of intensive aerial mapping. It is here that a talk is given daily by a ranger, offering insight into what it is like to climb the peak along with any recent achievements in this field.
Your museum admission also gives you entry to the Ole Dahl Cabin which is the town’s oldest building and sits alongside the museum. Constructed in 1916, this cabin was once home to a local miner and trapper whose grandchildren are still living in the town. Inside you can view a trapper’s cabin as it would have been during Ole Dahl’s time complete with household items, furs and artifacts.
Shops and Galleries
As you wander the town on your historical walking tour your will discover a surprisingly large number of gift-shops and galleries –some of them now housed within the very same old buildings detailed on your tour map. If you are on the hunt for authentic souvenirs or one-of-a-kind gifts hand-crafted by local artisans you really couldn’t have arrived anywhere better. Even if you are not especially looking to make any purchases touring the gift shops to view the incredibly diverse range of beautiful goods is an interesting diversion, particularly as many of the businesses are found in cozy and highly picturesque little log cabins.
What you can’t find would perhaps be easier to list than what you can. Everything of both the expected and unexpected variety can be unearthed somewhere. Carved wooden boxes, gold nugget jewelry, heirloom-quality knives, antler art and carvings, vintage books, quilts, aurora photography, original art works, locally-made honey and syrup, antiques and 1001 more things to add to your home or remind you of your Alaska adventure.
Some of the shops which seem to have a little of everything include Talkeetna Gifts and Collectibles, the Dancing Leaf Gallery at Smiley’s Cabins and Frontier Gifts although there are others too. If you want something a little more niche there are also stores which are more themed such as the Mostly Moose Gift Shop and the Antler Outpost which have antler carvings and art although you will also find pottery, jewelry and more there too.
Besides the permanent shops Talkeetna also has the open-air Artisan Market during summer which sets up in canvas open-sided tents next door to the Denali Arts Council building. Open from 10 in the morning until 6 at night, the market features hand-crafted wares of every kind –from artisan foods to unique household goods. While most of the vendors are either Talkeetna or near-area locals it also has guest marketers who come from every corner of Alaska to sell their art.
While the gift shops and market carry the bulk of the artwork for sale in town there are also a handful of dedicated galleries. These include the Flying Squirrel -also a cafe –which has monthly exhibitions (three miles out of the center), the aurora photography of Aurora Dora and the Denali Images Art Gallery which has photography, carvings and jewelry.
Morning Coffee Break in Talkeetna
As your morning is a complete design-it-yourself mixture of museum, walking tour and shopping you can decide at what point you fit in your morning coffee break. Each of the cafes suggested here are downtown central soat any given point you won’t be more than a few minutes’ walk from any of them.
If you want to keep the historic theme going through your pause for morning refreshment head to the Roadhouse. Dating from 1917 this log building has been here since Talkeetna’s very earliest days, originally as a private house and afterward as a lodgings roadhouse from the 1940s right up until the present day. These days it is also a cafe, restaurant and bakery, charming in the extreme and with its spacious interior full of climbing history and kitted out with large wooden tables which encourage patrons to make new friends. Popular with climbers, those new friends might be a team recently down from having made it to the summit of Denali. Roadhouse offers just one French-roast coffee as well as a selection of teas and cold drinks and as it is a bakery you can be assured of a mouth-watering selection of cookies, cakes, pastries both sweet and savory and the kind of cinnamon rolls which have earned themselves quite a fan club in town.
Another of Talkeetna’s most famous and oldest historical buildings is the picturesque Nagley’s store which has been selling the townsfolk what they need since 1921 with its original customers made up of miners and trappers. Housed inside a gorgeous log building, Nagley’s isn’t a cafe but it does have an espresso and cappuccino bar. Here you can pick yourself up a high quality Kaladi Brothers coffee –Anchorage’s famous coffee-roasting company –and head to the outside chairs and tables from which you can watch the Talkeetna comings and goings while sipping your drink. Nagley’s is also famous as the home of the town’s mayor from 1997 until he died aged 20 in 2017. Mayor Stubbs was actually a ginger cat, named for his short tail, whose fame spread so far and wide he ended up with thousands of followers on his Facebook page. During his term as mayor no trip to Talkeetna was complete without visiting him in his ‘office’ on Main Street.
The organic and sustainably-sourced coffee of Conscious Coffeealso offers outdoor seating on its deck and garden with benches, chairs and sofas to choose from. Inside, this lovely little book-lined cabin is a cozy space of mismatched chairs and rustic charm.
Another casual spot which is just a service window in a log cabin with outdoor seating is the Anti-Dysania where you can also pick up some home-made fudge while taking your pick from coffees, teas, milkshakes and smoothies.
Lunch in Talkeetna
Tiny town it may be but some things, such as charm and places to eat, are in plentiful supply in Talkeetna. You can opt for cafe and pub-type fare or settle down to a gourmet lunch while also taking your pick from cozy cabin interiors to spots which give you spectacular views of the Alaska
Range and the Denali peak.
Everything in Talkeetna is picturesque so on a fine summer’s day alfresco lunches are popular. The Kahiltna Bistro has an especially lovely little garden with outdoor tables. The menu is seafood focused offering a wonderful array of fish and chips, shrimp, salmon, crab and scallop along with choices for sandwiches and rice bowls.
Other venues which offer outdoor seating choices are the Denali Brew Pub with its lovely flower-filled deck featuring craft beers and spirits from the town’s very own micro-brewery, the West Rib Pub and Grill located next to Nagley’s store which has a patio serving seafood and pub fare and the Wildflower Cafe. Despite its name this latter is 100% restaurant, part of the Talkeetna Suites and home to a French-trained chef who once worked as a White House chef. Another of the town’s picturesque log buildings, the Wildflower Cafe is a wonderful place to sample seafood and local, organic ingredients. King crab, halibut, scallop, shrimp and salmon are all here but so too are such menu inclusions as chicken, Angus steak burgers and beef Wellington. You can watch the Main Street activity from the front deck or head inside the cabin. Italian food fans who want to lunch outside can head to Mountain High Pizza Pie. Principally a pizzeria there are also pasta, calzones and the establishment’s own pizza pies.
Otherwise charming settings are really quite a standard inclusion in this picturesque town so wherever you choose to lunch the chances are you will be able to describe it as pretty, charismatic or lovely. The Roadhouse, a favorite with climbers, is certainly one such and also one of the town’s very first buildings, constructed as a private home in 1917. Functioning as a lodge and somewhere to get a hearty meal for travelers for more than 60 years, the Roadhouse today offers both light meals and more substantial dishes and even earned itself a mention on the Travel Channel’s ‘101 Tastiest Chowdown Places’ list.
An Afternoon in Talkeetna
Whether you just want to get out in the fresh air and take an easy stroll with some fantastic scenery, explore the river and local wildlife or are looking for something a little more adventurous and active Talkeetna has many options. You can commit as little or as much time as you like to one or more outdoor activities with possibilities ranging from a couple of hours to excursions which will fill a whole afternoon.
Water lovers have a diverse menu of possibilities to choose from. Located where three great rivers fed by the area’s glaciers join, getting out on the water in some way from Talkeetna is almost compulsory and no matter in which way you decide to do it the reward is typically an escape into natural beauty. Perhaps you would like to sit back and relax on a meandering river cruise, enjoying the unbeatably magnificent scenery, keeping your eyes peeled for moose and other wildlife while learning about the history of the area. To up the adrenalin stakes you can opt for a jet boat ride or a white-water rafting experience, passing through dramatic gorges and perhaps stopping off on route to visit such things as a native camp replica or to head out for a nature walk. At the other end of the scale, are such things as tranquil floats, kayaking and canoeing. Either self-guided or led by a knowledgeable local, such trips can be as low-impact or as adventurous as you choose and may include panning for your very own gold in the traditional way. With no engine or sounds except your paddle in the water such trips are full of hush, nature and the incredible scenery of Mt. McKinley and the Alaska Range.
Flightseeing is also popular, taking visitors on an airborne journey over the mountain range where below you the latest climbing crews are preparing their mountain ascent from base camp. Covering a lot of ground quickly, bush-and float-planes can take you deep into wilderness areas such as Denali National Park where you can view wildlife such as bears or follow the ribbons of mighty glaciers where some planes will even land.
Another way to get a view from above is with a zipline adventure where you can soar above the forest and rivers on a series of exciting lines connected by woodland aerial walkways.
For those who prefer to keep their feet on the ground the outdoor adventure menu includes such things as dog-sledding and mushing with champion huskies on snow or the dry land conditions of summer, hiking –either with a guide or independently –or an ATV safari where you can visit remote homesteads, splash through creeks and perhaps spot moose and bears along the way.
While instant access to the naturally magnificent is easy from Talkeetna it is also serves as a gateway into the grandiose majesty of Denali National Park. This vast wilderness area is home to North America’s highest peak, Mt. McKinley –known as Denali to the native Athabascans and now its official name –which represents the heart of the park. Made up of tundra, forests and glaciers and inhabited by bear, wolves, moose and caribou, Denali National Park covers 6 million acres and forms a natural playground for hikers, nature-lovers, bikers, campers and mountaineers. Every year hundreds of climbers from every corner of the planet descend on the area with a goal of getting to the top of Denali’s highly-challenging 20,310 foot peak, first conquered in 1913; only half of them succeed.
A little closer to town –less than two miles away –can be found the Talkeetna Lakes Park. This is a great option for those with less time because despite such easy access it will instantly make you feel remote and amid pristine wilderness. Made up of lakes and forest and inhabited by otter, beaver, bear, moose and an incredible number of bird species people are drawn here to canoe, hike or simply immerse themselves in Alaska nature. One maintained trail loops around a lake and through wooded areas, covering three and a half miles if you follow the whole walk.
Pre-dinner Drinks and Dinner in Talkeetna
Whether you spent the afternoon cruising the river, meeting champion dog-sled teams, panning for gold or soaring over glaciers and peaks on a flightseeing trip you will no doubt have worked up an appetite. You will certainly have earned yourself the right to find just the right bar, lounge or deck to sit back and enjoy the view or the company with a pre-dinner cocktail or glass of wine to sip on. If you’d like to enjoy a free concert before you dine head to the Talkeetna Village Park between 5 to 7 pm on a Friday evening. All through the summer, the Talkeetna Chamber of Commerce and the Denali Arts Council offera ‘Live @ Five’ free-for-all program in which Alaskan musicians perform blues, folk, jazz, rock and more.
Considering its size Talkeetna has a good variety of choice for drinking venues with several offering outdoorgardens and decks. If you are a craft beer fan then you should head directly to the Denali Brewpub. While most of the bars and restaurants in town stock this micro-brewery’s creations the brewery’s very own bar offers the widest choice of firm favorites, specials and seasonal brews. The Denali Brewing Company also have their own distillery and meadery which means you can sit on their lovely flower-filled deck and enjoy a wide choice of cocktails mixed using their own spirits or sample one of their refreshing ciders.
Another choice for cocktail fans is Latitude 62’s lounge which comes with Denali views from inside a cozy log cabin and whose walls are filled with Alaskan artifacts and old photos. If you’d like to enjoy a rustic pub which has changed little since it first started offering refreshment and lodging to thirsty and weary railroad travelers back in the 1920s head to the Fairview Inn. Hung about with antlers, historical paraphernalia and intriguing photos, this historic log-cabin once served lunch to President Warren G. Harding in its very early days. Older still by a handful of years is the Roadhouse which offers wines, beers, spirits and a few cocktails from an interior as charming as it gets anywhere.
If you are looking for a dash of sophistication and Denali mountain views which are unbeatable in Talkeetna and quite possibly anywhere make your way to the Talkeetna Lodge. Located a short ride out of town (the hotel offers free shuttles) on a ridge which overlooks Talkeetna, this lodge and restaurant is certainly worth making the effort to get to so you can combine some pre-meal cocktails in the lounge followed by dinner in what is arguably the area’s best fine dining choice at the award-winning Foraker Dining Room. Here there is nothing between you and the majestic mountain range where the mighty Denali soars above everything. Discerning diners can enjoy their meal of finest Alaska seafood or game on an expansive deck or surround themselves in the elegance of the wood-rich interior space with immaculate table linen and hung with chandeliers made from antlers. The atmosphere here is intimate with an award-winning wine selection which makes it a favorite with couples.
If you’d prefer something a little less formal the lodge is also home to the Base Camp Bistro. Spectacular views are the same but the fare is more casual, featuring such options as burgers, fish and chips and other long-established hearty favorites.
Compact downtown of course has the greatest cluster of dining venues. Each of the pre-dinner drinks suggestions with the exception of the Fairview Inn also serves meals and most of the restaurants and cafes offering lunch are also dinner venues. Everything is so close you can wander from place to place until you happen upon your own idea of perfect venue and menu.
An Evening in Talkeetna
If you have found yourself dining somewhere with incredible views you may just want to linger over a few after-dinner drinks where you can watch the light change as the sun moves in the sky but never sets. You may also have chosen one of the venues where live music is a common feature during the summer months. Both Mountain High Pizza Pie and the Fairview Inn host regular bands and musicians playing jazz, blues, rock-n-roll and more but a live session can and does spring up all over town. Just follow your ears.
If you’d like to work off any dinner excess you can rent a bicycle, perhaps take a stroll by the riverside or hunt down any of the colorful moose creations you couldn’t find earlier. On a Thursday or Friday evening you can join a ghost tour and discover Talkeetna’s spooky places as you hear ghostly tales and stories of supernatural goings on.
Across from the museum in town you can find the Sheldon Community Arts Hangar –once actually the hangar of local hero Don Sheldon. Home to the Denali Arts Council and the Denali Drama Theater this non-profit organization brings several art mediums to the residents and visitors of Talkeetna. Whether you will find gallery viewings, music performances, plays, poetry readings, circus acts, film screenings or some other event will depend entirely on what is currently on the calendar at the time of your visit.