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What is Denali National Park?

Updated on January 24, 2014
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A photograph of DenaliA view from within Denali National ParkOne of many glacial rivers located within Denali National Park
A photograph of Denali
A photograph of Denali | Source
A view from within Denali National Park
A view from within Denali National Park | Source
One of many glacial rivers located within Denali National Park
One of many glacial rivers located within Denali National Park | Source

Denali National Park: A Natural Wonder

Denali National Park is located in the Alaskan Interior about 125 miles south of Fairbanks and 240 miles north of Anchorage. With an area of a little over six million acres, it is the third largest national park in America. Mt. McKinley, or as it is known by its Alaskan name, Denali, stands at an impressive 20,320 feet and is located within the park. Denali National Park has various species of wildlife within its diverse ecosystem of taiga forest, tundra, and glaciers. With men such as Charles Sheldon fighting to set aside this breathtaking panorama of valleys, mountain ranges, and glaciers over 100 years ago, Denali National Park will mesmerize visitors for generations to come.

Charles Sheldon at his cabin on the Tolkat River
Charles Sheldon at his cabin on the Tolkat River

What is the History of Denali National Park

America purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867 for about 2.5 cents an acre. After that time, a few settlers from the lower states had migrated to Alaska, but settlements were very sparse. The Klondike Gold Rush of 1896 brought thousands of gold seekers from all over the world to the wild unknown of Alaska. A few of these gold seekers came to the area of what is now known as Denali National Park in search of their fortune. They built many mining camps in the area, but only the camp known as Kantishna remains.

In 1906, a man named Charles Sheldon came to the Denali region in order to study and hunt Dall sheep. He hired a packer for the expedition named Harry Karstens. These two men would be instrumental in establishing what we now know as Denali National Park.

Charles Sheldon, along with his guide, Karstens, returned in 1907 and built a cabin on the Tolkat River. Sheldon spent a year collecting, studying, and recording his findings about the wilderness and wildlife of Denali. He was concerned about the level of hunting of Dall sheep by hunters and wanted to somehow preserve this land so it could be enjoyed by naturalists such as himself.

Charles Sheldon, along with other like-minded men, lobbied hard to have the area set aside as a national park. In 1917, Congress passed a bill to establish Mt. McKinley National Park. It was signed into law on February 24, 1917, by President Wilson. In 1980, the name of the park was changed to Denali National Park and Preserve.

It took five years after the park's creation for the first tourist to arrive by railroad. Now Denali National Park receives more than 400,000 visitors every year that marvel at this land of majestic beauty that was Sheldon's dream.

Charles Sheldon's Beloved Dall Sheep

Dall sheep on a path in Denali National Park
Dall sheep on a path in Denali National Park | Source

Fun Fact:

The Wood Frog lives year round in the park. It freezes solid in winter and thaws in the spring when it then searches for a mate.

What Wildlife Live in Denali National Park

Charles Sheldon came to the area known as Denali in search of Dall sheep. He found there were many species of wildlife living in this rugged landscape. According to the National Park Service, there are 39 species of mammals, 169 species of birds, 14 species of fish and one amphibian, called a wood frog.

Wildlife such as the merlin, showshoe hare, arctic ground squirrels, and the moose call the Taiga forest home. Other animals such as gray wolves, caribou, and grizzly bears are constantly on the move and roam the park. Dall sheep can be found at the top of mountain ridges and steep, rugged slopes. Eighty percent of Denali's species of birds migrate south for the winter. These are the only animals that migrate from the park for the winter.

Denali, also known as Mt. McKinley, is located within Denali National Park
Denali, also known as Mt. McKinley, is located within Denali National Park | Source

Fun Fact:

The coldest recorded temperature in Denali National Park is -55°F!

What is the Weather Like in Denali National Park

Denali National Park sits between two climatic zones in Alaska. The massive mountain ranges block moisture which comes from Southern Alaska, which has warmer winters and cooler summers. This phenomena makes the northern interior side of the park very dry and very cold. The average yearly rainfall is around 10 inches. However, it can receive up to 70 inches of snow a year. It can get as cold as -40 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter. Summers are very mild with temperatures rising to the mid seventies.

Denali, or Mt. McKinley, is so large it makes its own weather. It is covered by clouds the majority of the time and is only visible about 20 percent of the time.

Mt. McKinley or Denali?

The naming of the highest peak in the park has been a controversy essentially since its inception. In 1897, a prospector named William Dickey named the mountain McKinley after the then President William McKinley. For generations before that, the native people, the Athabaskans, had called this mountain Denali, which means "The High One".

In 1975, a request was made by the Alaskan Legislature to change the name McKinley back to its original name Denali. This request was struck down. The Alaska State Board of Geographic Names has changed the name of the mountain to Denali. The U.S. Board of Geographic Names maintains the use of Mt. McKinley. Use of either name is considered correct, however Alaskans do use the name Denali.

Denali Princess Lodge. One of many hotels near the entrance of Denali National Park
Denali Princess Lodge. One of many hotels near the entrance of Denali National Park | Source

How To Get There

Denali National Park is located near Healy, Alaska, on the George Parks Highway. The Alaska Railroad also stops at a depot at the entrance of the park. The interior of the park is only accessible by one road. Tourists can see the park a number of different ways. Personal vehicles are only allowed for the first 15 miles. There are shuttle buses that will take hikers deeper into the park. Hikers are welcome to get off at any time to explore the park. Shuttle buses will stop and pick up the hikers when flagged. The cost of riding the shuttle bus is included in the entrance fee.

There are also two paid tours that operate within the park. The Natural History Tour takes tourists 17 miles into the park on a four hour tour. The Tundra Wilderness Tour takes tourists 53 miles into the park and is a five to seven hour tour. Those wishing to go even further into Denali can travel 92 miles to where the road ends in the old mining town of Kantishna.

Where To Stay

Despite being so remote, there are a few hotels located near the park. Hotels such as Denali Princess Lodge and McKinley Chalet Lodge have regular shuttle buses to the entrance of the park. A few restaurants and souvenir shops are also located nearby the entrance to the park. There are also a few lodges located within the park in Kantishna.


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