Mountaineering Milestone in Denali National Park

NOTE: In 2015 President Barack Obama officially renamed Mount McKinley to its Athabascan given name, Denali, meaning "the High One."

Since the very first visitors started traveling to Alaska, one landmark has consistently ranked near the top of must-see lists: Mount McKinley. This year marks the centennial of the first successful summit of the massive and technically challenging mountain, and a series of events and commemorations are bringing new focus to one of Alaska’s most beloved landmarks.

In 1913, a group of four men, including an Episcopal priest and an Athabascan teenager, became the first to summit Mount McKinley. This summer, a group of descendants of the original mountaineers recreated the expedition. Their effort was supported by the National Congress of American Indians and the Alaska State Board of Education, which created a website and other multimedia tools to document the climb.

Closer to sea level, several exhibits in locations around the state are focusing on the ongoing fascination with Mount McKinley. The mountain, which many Alaskans call Denali out of respect for the Dena’ina Athabascan people who originally named it, is North America’s tallest peak. At 20,320 feet, it towers above the Alaska Range and on clear days is visible from hundreds of miles away. At the University of Alaska Museum of the North in Fairbanks, the exhibit “Denali Legacy: 100 Years on the Mountain” runs through mid-September, and several special exhibits will be featured in the Denali National Park and Preserve visitor center all summer as well.

Caribou and a rainbow in Denali National ParkYou don’t have to be a mountaineer to experience its wonder, however. Mount McKinley sits in the midst of Denali National Park, a 6-million-acre wilderness renowned not only for its namesake mountain but for the thousands of wild animals that roam the park. The park is one of Alaska’s most visited attractions and offers a full range of amenities and services, including a variety of tours, lodging, dining, shopping and transportation. River rafting, hiking, ATV and Jeep™ tours, and wildlife viewing are popular options.

You might think that with the mountain’s massive size, a visit to the park guarantees you great views of Mount McKinley, but that’s not always the case. Due to its tremendous size, the mountain actually creates its own weather and is often shrouded in clouds. It is visible an average of one out of every three days during the summer months, so it makes sense to stay a few days to ensure you get good view.

One of the most popular experiences in the park is the wilderness bus tour offered by a National Park Service concessioner. The tours take guests deep into the park, where views of the mountain occur frequently along the single road that stretches 92 miles into the park. Private vehicles are only allowed to drive the first 15 miles of the road, so the bus tour provides deeper access to the park. (The mountain is visible at Mile 9 of the park road, so even on your own it’s possible to see Mount McKinley.) Tours are narrated and drivers stop frequently for photos and observation of grizzly, moose, caribou, wolves, foxes and other critters that call the park home.

To get a truly breathtaking perspective on the sheer mountain’s size and the geological features that surround it, however, there’s no experience quite like a flightseeing tour. Tours of various lengths and from various departure points in the region (as far south as Anchorage, but most commonly from Talkeetna or Healy) feature fly-overs, fly-arounds and glacier landings. Some tours even pay a visit to base camp, where climbers are preparing for the three-week trek to the summit.

No matter how you do it, most Alaska visitors would agree you simply can’t leave the state without a trip to Denali. Read on for a suggested itinerary.

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