Near the center of Denali National Park is Mount McKinley, whose sheer bulk and the immense rise of its perpetually white-mantled summit make it look like a monument left by ancient gods. At 20,320 feet, McKinley is the biggest mountain in the world. Its awesome north face rises 18,000 feet to its summit from a 2,000-foot subarctic plateau. Denali is one of the great spectacles of the American landscape, a sight that, once seen, will never be forgotten.
The park that encompasses the mountain and its surrounding peaks in the Alaska Range is a huge wilderness tapestry. The mountains here, unlike the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada, are not covered with forests, because in northern latitudes the timberline falls between 2,000 and 3,000 feet instead of 11,000 to 12,000 feet. This means that most of the park is treeless. It is a broad open landscape that creates a feeling of vastness that can be overwhelming.
Most visitors concentrate their wildlife viewing activities along the 90-mile gravel road that bisects the northern range of the park. Along the way to Wonder Lake, the park road crosses five river valleys and climbs four mountain passes.
The views are magnificent and wildlife often is present. In fact, wildlife is so visible and abundant here that Denali has been called a "subarctic Serengeti." There are shy wolves, vicious little wolverines, lumbering moose, and quick foxes, as well as countless birds and small mammals, such as the tiny pikas that inhabit the slopes.
Grizzly bears are the undisputed sovereigns of this wild terrain. They roam the park at will, feeding mainly on roots, berries, and other plants. When they are ravenously hungry -- for instance, after a winter's hibernation -- the bears may also go after arctic ground squirrels, injured caribou, or moose calves.
On a summer day, when there is up to 24 hours of sunlight, visitors to Denali see sights they will remember the rest of their lives. A huge herd of caribou migrates through a pass below Mount McKinley, heading toward its summer feeding grounds. A golden eagle soars off a cliff along Polychrome Pass on the park road, while the eerie call of a loon rolls across Wonder Lake. At the same time, a grizzly takes time out to stretch and survey the surroundings while munching berries on Sable Pass, just as the clouds part to reveal the awesome bulk of Mount McKinley for one magic moment.
Denali National Park Photo Opportunities
If you take a picture of ice against snow, you may be disappointed by the results -- the photo won't be as striking as the scene was in person. However, there are plenty of high-contrast landscapes at Denali, and you needn't be a camera expert to capture these stunning views:
- Mount McKinley: When the clouds cooperate, which is only about half the time in summer, Mount McKinley presents an overpowering spectacle. At midday, the great peak sparkles as the bright sun glints off the snow. At sunrise or during the long subarctic twilight, the great mountain is almost beyond belief. It becomes a magnificent mass of granite, ice, and snow enshrouded in delicate shades of pink, mauve, and purple, which change with the slow movement of the sun. The shifting light makes the mountain look deceptively soft and ethereal.
- Horseshoe Lake: Frame this jewel of a lake, situated in an oxbow of the Nenana River, with the mountainous terrain for a stunning effect.
- Sable Pass: From this vantage point, the snow-draped mountains recede into the blue horizon. The view in every direction is spectacular.
- Primrose Ridge: The rolling green meadows of Primrose Ridge are a welcome respite from the subarctic surroundings. If you're lucky, perhaps you'll catch a band of pure-white Dall sheep making their way to the high alpine crags where they prefer to spend their summers.
- Reflection Pond: A favorite of outdoor photographers for obvious reasons, Reflection Pond is home to a rich variety of Alaskan wildlife, including moose, beavers, muskrats, and waterfowl such as loons and grebes.
Although the mountains of the Alaska Range are imposing and seemingly timeless, the glaciers that carved them out are still changing and shifting. On the next page, we'll tell you about recent movement of the massive Muldrow Glacier. You can also read about how Denali National Park was established.