by Troy Letherman
Meaning “river of plenty” in the Dena’ina language, the area near the present site of Talkeetna offered an abundant harvest for the Athabasca Indians who originally inhabited the area, hunting and fishing there for centuries, before, in the late 1890s, a trading station was built along the riverfront to supply trappers and miners moving into the area. In 1905 gold was discovered in the Cache Creek region to the west of Talkeetna, and the village soon became a supply point for the gold fields in the Yentna Mining District. The Talkeetna townsite was established in 1916 when the area was chosen as a district headquarters for the Alaska Railroad. A post office opened, as well as a sawmill, trading post, cigar and donkey store and other businesses as well as many cabins. Today, this core downtown area is classified as a National Historic Site, with buildings dating from the early 1900s, including Nagley’s General Store, which opened in 1916 with the founding of the town. Currently, Talkeetna is the staging area for the approximately 1,000 climbers each year who attempt to reach the summit of Denali, and climbing season is one of the town’s busiest. Hordes of visitors—both from within Alaska and from without—also travel to Talkeetna each summer to raft, camp, hike, fish salmon, trout and other resident species, and go flightseeing. Products from local artists, musicians and craftspeople are available in area stores, and it all adds up to make this one of Alaska’s truly must-visit destinations.
This nice trout was caught on Clear Creek. © Dave Fish Alaska
Coffee Creek, about 45 minutes from Talkeena, can provide a serene and uncrowded experience. © Dave Fish Alaska
Top: Denali ©Talkeetna Air Taxi. Middle: Heli-fish with Talkeetna Air Taxi and Dave Fish Alaska to get to remote streams regularly hard to access. ©Talkeetna Air Taxi Bottom: Touring the backcountry by ATV with Alaska Off-Road ATV Adventures is a great way to see the area and it’s a totally Alaskan experience. ©Alaska Off-Road ATV Adventures Right: These cozy cabins are available to rent through Dave Fish ALaska. ©Dave Fish Alaska
As one of the angling hubs of this fish-rich region of Alaska, Talkeetna offers access to a multitude of angling adventures. Anglers familiar with the area can access the fishing in a variety of ways, whether rafting or jet-boating to nearby waters or hiking in to the many accessible rivers and streams in the area, while others may prefer to go the guided route, particularly for the access to remote waters that a quality guide service provides. Dave Fish, who owns the guiding service Dave Fish Alaska, is one such guide, offering customized, guided trips all across the Mat-Su Valley and southcentral Alaska. “We primarily fish the clearwater tributaries of the Talkeetna and Susitna river drainages,” Fish explained, “whether by floatplane, helicopter or raft.” There is quality angling available year-round in the Talkeetna area, but as Fish says, everything ramps up towards the height of summer.
“Our favorite time of the year is the end of July,” he explained, “when we are fishing for trophy rainbow trout during the chum salmon spawn.”
The fishing begins on the home river, and the mainstem of the Talkeetna, a swift wilderness river, is fishable during periods of moderate, dry weather, but as with the Susitna, most anglers will have much better success fishing in or near the mouths of tributary streams. Clear, Larson and Prairie creeks, which can be accessed by boat from Talkeetna, are popular hotspots.
Kameron Fish taking after her guide-father Dave Fish. The Fish family is a fishing family! © Dave Fish Alaska
Guide Dave Fish specializes in wild and remote Alaska fly fishing trips.
Similar to the Talkeetna, but much larger, the Susitna River is one of southcentral Alaska’s most significant and consistent fish-producers. Beginning in the runoff from massive glaciers in the eastern Alaska Range and flowing some 200 miles south to Cook Inlet, the Susitna is large and intimidating, laden with silt and virtually unfishable in much of its lower flows, meaning the best bet for anglers is to prospect tributaries, the mouths of feeder streams, pockets of holding water and depending on the time of year, accessible upriver seams. Though it’s seldom fished, the section of the mainstem Susitna between Devil’s Canyon and the confluence of the Talkeetna and Chulitna rivers can be accessed by jet boat and produces amazing results. If searching for king salmon, there are several clearwater tributaries that meet the river below Devil’s Canyon, and the confluences with Indian River and Portage and Fourth of July creeks are good places to start anytime near the July peak of the run. In this area the river is heavily braided, full of logjams and submerged rootwads, which makes it ideal big-trout habitat as well. The scenery is unparalleled and the fish rarely bothered. The best time for trophy trout is typically in the fall, after the big river has cleared some, providing good visibility.
A trip to Talkeetna is not complete without a riverboat cruise with the nice folks from Mahay’s Riverboat Service.
A visit to Talkeetna Love-Lee Cabins means a comfortable stay in a stylish cabin with a real Alaskan personal touch from host Randy Hughey. © Talkeetna Love-Lee Cabins
For driving anglers, the trip from Anchorage to Talkeetna is filled with fish as well, with the Parks Highway streams some of southcentral Alaska’s hottest road-system fisheries. At mile 96.5, just before town, the Parks Highway intersects with lower Montana Creek, providing easy opportunity to fish the gravel-bottomed stream’s lower reaches, and there is good gravel road access to points along the upper river. There is plenty of parking, along with a campground, right off the highway within easy walking distance to the creek. There are also many places to wade across this stream, allowing lots of water to be covered.
Talkeetna area Dolly caught with Dave Fish Alaska. © Dave Fish Alaska
A solid king salmon river, the best fishing is from late June through early July and takes place anywhere from the mouth of the creek to several good holes located upstream. In addition to kings, the silver salmon action can be exceptional during the month of August. Pink and chum salmon make their way into this creek in late July and the run lasts through mid-August. Rainbow trout fishing can be good in spring and fall, and anglers fishing the upper stretches of the creek will encounter plenty of opportunity to cast to hungry grayling.
At mile 88.6 of the Parks Highway, Sheep Creek is another popular king, silver and pink salmon fishery, but because of its limited bank access, it’s typically crowded. If you want to try your luck here, September is a good bet, when the crowds have thinned and rainbows and grayling are in.
Small, clear-flowing Caswell Creek is situated at mile 84 on the Parks Highway and offers king, silver and pink salmon, and a run of rainbow trout. The best action comes at the mouth, and there are limited boundaries marked by the ADF&G as to how far upstream you can fish. Due to its ease-of-access, Caswell Creek receives considerable pressure during the king and silver salmon runs. However, in September, it’s worth checking out for late-arriving silvers and rainbows.
For more intrepid souls, Talkeetna also serves as an excellent jumping-off point for the remote fisheries of Southcentral, including Lake Creek and the Talachulitna River. Anglers who appreciate the stillwater environment will also find much opportunity around Talkeetna, including the opportunity to fly-out to one of several remote, fish-filled lakes in the area.
On your route up the highway to Talkeetna, whether fishing or not, make sure to stop by Scott Thompson’s Willow Creek Studio. Located at mile 69.5 of the Parks Highway, the gallery features works from more than 50 local artists and craftspeople—from carvings, chainsaw work, paintings, fur, jewelry and pottery to log furniture and other cabin décor. Scott is himself an accomplished Alaskan artist who specializes in painting and carving scenes from the state’s fishing and hunting lifestyle. His fine depictions of our natural world represent all that’s best about fishing and hunting in Alaska and make incredible keepsakes.
Drive to Talkeetna on the Parks Highway for a scenic way to see Alaska. One stop to make is to Scott and Joan Thompson’s Willow Creek Studio, purveying the works of over 50 Alaskan artists for truly artisan memorabilia. Scott is an accomplished outdoor painter and carver and he makes incredible pieces like the carved sign and painting above. Look for the giant log chair to find the gallery at mile 69.5.
After the summer’s fishing for salmon and trout comes to a close, fall hunting takes center stage in Talkeetna, with the hills, timber and tundra flats near town filled with hunters pursuing moose, bear, caribou, and Dall sheep. Mountain climbers from all over the world also use the town as their base before attempting to challenge Denali. After registering as a climber with the National Park Service, most of these visitors fly to the Kahiltna Glacier Base Camp, located at an elevation of 7,200 feet, and from there begin their journeys to the summit. You don’t have to be an expert mountain climber to view the same panoramas, however, as scenic flights offered through local air services such as Talkeetna Air Taxi give visitors the thrill of seeing North America’s tallest mountain up-close. Many flights have the option to land on the glacier.
The Kahiltna Glacier Base Camp.
Talkeetna Air Taxi offers drop off services for out-of-the-way float fishing trips by helicopter or by airplane.
Alaska Offroad ATV Adventures can be booked for half- or full-day excursions.
A really nice Susitna River rainbow.
For summertime visitors, an equally unique and thrilling adventure is offered through Mahay’s Jet Boat Adventures, who provide riverboat tours exploring more than 200 miles of wilderness water nearby. There is also a plethora of other activities on offer, including guided hiking tours, gold-panning excursions or even an exhilarating guided ATV tour provided by Alaska Off-Road ATV Adventures. You’ll find quality accommodations whenever you visit, too, as the majority of Talkeetna’s lodgings are open year-round. This includes campgrounds and RV Parks, B&Bs, lodges and cabin rentals, and contemporary motels and hotels.
Downtown, local flavor is available at a number of atmospheric pubs and eateries, while a range of special events spice up particular times of year. Summer events include “Moose on Parade,” which kicks off in May and offers scavenger-hunt-style fun for the whole family. The event ends with the Moose Art parade on the Fourth of July each year. Additionally, every Friday evening throughout the summer, you can enjoy a free concert in the Talkeetna Village Park from 5 to 7 p.m. Live at Five! runs all summer long, from Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day Weekend.
Talkeetna is a popular destination for tourists in the summer in Alaska. There’s a buzzing vibe and music scene in town but you can still get to the pristine wilderness that surrounds the area.
Don’t forget winter in Talkeetna either, if you’re looking for a fun getaway to break the cabin-fever blues. In December, the town hosts the Wilderness Woman and Bachelor Auction & Ball, which is a notoriously good time. The town’s largest celebration of the winter takes place throughout the month of December. Called Winterfest, the event features a motorized Parade of Lights, a lighted tree in the Village Park, a Taste of Talkeetna, and numerous special events hosted by local businesses and special events at the Talkeetna Public Library. In March, the Oosik Classic Ski Race is organized by the Denali Nordic Ski Club and offers a great chance for cross-country skiers to test
All in all, Talkeetna is a unique town, even amidst a unique state. No matter your reason for visiting Alaska, you’d be wise to pencil-in a few days here, where you’re sure to get a true taste of the Last Frontier.
Troy Letherman was editor of Fish Alaska and Hunt Alaska magazines.
Destination Talkeetna originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Fish Alaska.