Pristine parkland, magnificent wildlife and Denali are highlights of this national park
The towering granite spires and snowy summits of Denali National Park and Preserve straddles 160 miles of the Alaska Range and display so much elevation they are often lost in the clouds. Dominating this skyline is North America's highest peak; Denali ascends majestically to 20,310 feet and is one of the most awe-inspiring sights in Alaska. Approximately 400,000 intrepid travelers journey to Denali National Park and Preserve each year, primarily between late May and early September.
Although generations of Athabascans had wandered through what is now the park, the first permanent settlement was established in 1905, when a gold miners' rush gave birth to the town of Kantishna. A year later, naturalist and noted hunter Charles Sheldon was stunned by the beauty of the land and horrified at the reckless abandon of the miners and big-game hunters. Sheldon returned in 1907 and traveled the area with guide Harry Karstens in an effort to set up boundaries for a proposed national park. Sheldon was successful as the area was established as Mount McKinley National Park in 1917 with Karstens serving as the park's first superintendent. It was designated an international biosphere reserve in 1976. As a result of the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the park was enlarged to more than 6 million acres and renamed Denali National Park and Preserve. In 2015 President Barack Obama officially renamed Mt. McKinley to Denali, its Athabascan given name meaning “the Tall One.” Denali now comprises an area slightly larger than the state of Massachusetts and is ranked as one of Alaska's top attractions.
Denali National Park and Preserve includes the central, highest portion of the Alaska Range, together with many of the glaciers and glacial valleys running southwards out of the range. The terrain spans boreal forest and arctic tundra. More than 650 species of flowering plants, shrubs, lichen and moss comprise the vegetation of the park, while coniferous trees, birch and aspen grow in the lowlands. Only plants adapted to long, cold winters and short growing seasons can survive in this subarctic wilderness. Landslides, glacially-fed braided rivers and moving glaciers define the ever-changing landscape of the park.
It’s not just the mountain that makes Denali National Park a special place. The park is also home to 37 species of mammals, ranging from lynx, marmots and arctic ground squirrels, to foxes and snowshoe hares, while 130 different bird species have been spotted here, including the impressive golden eagle. Most visitors, however, want to see five animals in particular: moose, caribou, wolf, Dall sheep, and the brown, or grizzly, bear. See all five in the park, and visitors score what is called a “Denali Slam.” Denali is also home to black bears that inhabit the forested areas of the park, while grizzly bears mainly live on the open tundra. Most of the bears seen by visitors along the Park Road are grizzlies.
Unlike most wilderness areas in the country, you don't have to be a backpacker to see this wildlife - people who never sleep in a tent have excellent once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to get a close look at these amazing creatures roaming free in their natural habitat.
Over the years the National Park Service (NPS) has developed unique visitor-management strategies, including closing its only road to most vehicles. As a result Denali National Park is still the great wilderness it was 20 years ago. The entrance has changed, but the park itself hasn't, and a brown bear meandering on a tundra ridge still provides the same quiet thrill as it did when the park first opened in 1917.
The activities in this expansive park are nearly endless. Denali draws hopeful mountaineers from around the world. Visitors take bus tours, bicycle rides or long walks down the 90-mile Denali Park Road, which is closed to private vehicles after Mile 15. Hiking, camping, rafting, backcountry travel, fishing, wildlife viewing and flightseeing are also popular activities. Winter activities include dog mushing, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling and Northern Lights viewing.
Denali is reached at Mile 237 of the George Parks and at its entrance area is Riley Creek Campground, the Alaska Railroad station, the Denali Visitor Center, the interesting Murie Science and Learning Center and Wilderness Access Center (WAC), which serves as the park's transport hub and campground-reservation center. From the entrance the 92-mile Park Road heads west through the heart of Denali, passing Eielson Visitor Center and five backcountry campgrounds including Wonder Lake Campground where on a clear day campers enjoy a reflection of Denali on the mirrored surface of the lake. The road ends at the old mining settlement of Kantishna, now the site of several wilderness lodges.
Visitors with vehicles can only drive to a parking area along the Savage River at Mile 14 of the Park Road. The rest of the Denali is reached by the park's wonderful shuttle bus system. Buses begin leaving the WAC at 5:30 a.m. with many making the run out to Wonder Lake, providing one of the best wildlife viewing experiences in Alaska. Day hikers can get off the bus anywhere along the Park Road and at the end of their trek can flag down any bus for a ride back to the park entrance. Campers have their own bus.
For many visitors Denali is the opportunity to escape into the backcountry for a truly Alaskan experience. Thanks to Denali's rigid restrictions and permits, backpackers can trek and camp in a slice of the wilderness all their own, even if it's just for a few days. The park has few trails; most hiking is cross-country over open terrain such as gravel river beds and tundra ridges.
Other activities at Denali or just outside of it include sled dog demonstration, even during the summer, rafting the Nenana River, mountain biking on the Park Road and flight seeing. In Talkeetna the National Park Service maintains its Mountaineering Ranger Station (907-733-2231) for climbers from around the world who arrive to scale North America's highest peak. In the winter activities include dog mushing, cross-country skiing, snow machining and Northern Lights viewing.
Denali has an entrance fee which is good for seven days. Camping, shuttle bus transportation and mountaineering permits require additional fees.
Denali is accessible by car on the George Parks Highway or via the Alaska Railroad from either Anchorage or Fairbanks. Gateway communities to the park are Healy, Cantwell and Talkeetna. In summer a variety of private bus and van services and the railroad operate daily from Anchorage and Fairbanks.
For more information on the park contact the Denali National Park Headquarters (907-683-2294; www.nps.gov/dena). You can reserve shuttle bus seats, park tours and campground sites in advance through the Denali National Park Reservation Service (907 272-7275, 800-622-7275; www.reservedenali.com). You can reserve online or by phone for the following year beginning December 1. For a list of tour guides, transportation and other services in and around Denali National Park contact the Greater Healy/Denali Chamber of Commerce (907-683-4636; www.denalichamber.com).