Denali National Park
PO Box 9
Denali Park, AK 99755-0009
Denali National Park pays homage to a single geological entity: Mount McKinley, or Denali ("the Great One"), as native Alaskans call it. At 20,320 feet above sea level, it is North America's highest peak and one of the grandest mountains in the entire world.
Denali National Park is accessible via train, bus, or car from either Anchorage (240 miles south) or Fairbanks (125 miles north). Besides climbing Mount McKinley, Denali visitors can backpack, hike, cross-country ski, fish, and raft. Travelers can also explore the sub-artic eco-system, which is inhabited by moose, caribou, grizzly bears, Dall sheep, and wolves.
Entrance fees: $20/family for seven days or $10/individual for seven days
Visitor center: The visitor center is open daily from May to August.
Other services: Talkeetna Ranger Station and Murie Science and Learning Center are open year-round. There are also four lodges and cabins available.
- Riley Creek Campground. Open year-round. Reservations are recommended. 800-622-7275.
- Savage River Campground. Open from May to September (weather-dependent). Reservations are recommended. 800-622-7275.
- Sanctuary River Campground. Open from May to September (weather-dependent). Reservations are recommended. 800-622-7275.
- Teklanika River Campground. Open from May to September (weather-dependent). Reservations are recommended. 800-622-7275.
- Wonder Lake Campground. Open from June to September (weather-dependent). Reservations are recommended. 800-622-7275.
Visiting Denali National Park
A cold wind rattled through the tundra valley, letting everyone know this was the rooftop of the world. Suddenly there was the sound of hooves, of lungs breathing hard, of animals grunting from exertion. On the hill across the river there was one caribou, then three, then a dozen, then 50, and then still more. In a continual mass the caribou moved steadily down the hill and toward the river. When they reached it, the herd did not pause but jumped in and began swimming across until the river seemed not a river of water but a river of caribou.
It is scenes like this -- of vast herds of migratory animals living in absolute freedom and natural abundance -- that make Denali National Park such a unique wildlife sanctuary in the modern world. One of the largest national parks anywhere in the world, Denali stretches more than 100 miles along the Alaska range and protects an area approximately the size of the state of Massachusetts.
Alaska's most popular park, Denali seems unusually civilized and accessible compared with other Alaskan parks, especially Kobuk Valley and Gates of the Arctic. The Anchorage-Fairbanks Highway (also known as the George Parks Highway) leads directly to Riley Creek Information Center on the park's eastern border, and the Alaska Railroad has a passenger station here. From this eastern gateway, a gravel road leads deep into the park's subarctic landscape.
Because it is one of the most accessible national parks in Alaska, Denali is frequented by hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. For details on sightseeing highlights at Denali, turn to the next page.
Sightseeing at Denali National Park
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.
The History of Denali National Park
Denali National Park is comprised of two worlds: the raw alpine region of the high mountains and the tundra-covered lowlands. Connecting one to the other are the great glaciers that flow down from the summits of McKinley and the other peaks. For decades the main travel route into the mountains has been the Muldrow Glacier, an immense river of ice fed by the Harper, Brooks, and Taleika glaciers. Each originates in cirques (glacier-gouged rock basins) high on the mountain.
The ice that becomes the Muldrow Glacier begins just below Mount McKinley's summit and flows northeastward 35 miles through a granite gorge on the side of the mountain to its leading edge, or snout. On the tundra far below the summit, the ice melts, feeding the McKinley River.
Twice in the past century, for reasons not fully understood, the glacier has surged forward. The last time was during the winter of 1956-57, when the Muldrow's snout suddenly advanced 2.5 miles across the tundra. Its movement was accompanied by the constant sound of breaking ice and rushing water. Despite the debris and jumbled ice left by the Muldrow's last leap forward, the glacier is still used as a major climbing route up the mountain.
The Establishment of Denali National Park
Denali was the first national park to be established in Alaska (in 1917), and it was originally called Mount McKinley. The park was renamed in 1980, the same year the other seven national parks in the state were established by the Alaska National Interest Lands Act. Together, the eight Alaskan parks and associated preserves contain a staggering 41 and a half million acres, more than all the other national parks combined.
Denali is the most popular of the national parks in Alaska, and a trip there will explain why that is. Whether you're interested in watching the caribou migration, hiking the trails to Horseshoe Lake, or climbing Mount McKinley, you'll have an unforgettable experience at Denali National Park.