Bigger than six states, Denali National Park and Preserve offers a big slab of Alaska wilderness. The centerpiece of the park — again, bigger than Vermont, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island or Delaware — is the tallest peak in North America. Denali, or Mount McKinley, rises 20,320 feet above sea level and last year drew 1,222 alpine climbers, 55 percent of whom reached the summit.
The vast expanse of tundra and boreal forest is busy with the comings and goings of what is called “the big five”: caribou, moose, wolves, grizzly bears and Dall sheep. Denali National Park and Preserve is the place to come for an American safari.
Big game hunter and naturalist Charles Sheldon began lobbying for the creation of the park as a wildlife preserve after exploring the area in 1906 and again in 1907. Sheldon — with the help of his buddies in the Boone and Crockett Club, a sportsmen's club in New York City — began lobbying Congress shortly before the United States entered World War I.
The Mount McKinley National Park Act, signed by President Woodrow Wilson on Feb. 26, 1917, preserved about 2,200 square miles. Congress expanded the park in 1980 and changed the name.
Things to do
Riding a bus, believe it or not, is considered the best way to explore Denali National Park and Preserve. The Denali Park Road, which parallels the Alaska Range, is the only access to the park. A system of shuttle buses and tour buses navigate the 92-mile length of paved and gravel (mostly gravel) road.
Visitors can hop off a shuttle bus and set out for a day hike or a bike ride. When the hike or ride is done, just flag down the next shuttle bus. The tour buses offer less flexibility, but they do feature a guide.
Visitors who are reasonably fit and well-equipped should sign up for a ranger-led Discovery Hike. The hikes into the wilderness may last three to five hours and involve climbs of up to 1,000 feet and river crossings.
Why you’ll want to come back
You may come all this way and never see Mount McKinley. While on cold, clear winter days the mountain can be seen from Anchorage, during the summertime the continent’s highest peak is often lost in the clouds.
Flora and fauna
You won’t find any snakes or lizards in Denali National Park and Preserve — and there's just one kind of amphibian, the wood frog. But the park is home to 39 species of mammals, including plenty of what biologists call “charismatic mega-fauna.”
Moose are found in, or near, lakes and marshes. About 1,700 caribou roam the tundra, avoiding black flies, mosquitoes and some of the roughly 100 wolves in the park. Other big mammals found in the park include grizzly bears, black bears and the snow white Dall sheep.
There are few trees that can thrive this far north. Eight kinds of trees are found in the park: black spruce, white spruce, larch, quaking aspen, balsam poplar, black cottonwood, paper birch and Alaska birch.
By the numbers:
- Website: Denali National Park and Preserve
- Park size: 6,075,030 acres or 9,492 square miles
- 2010 visitation: 378,885
- Busiest month: July; 110,592 visitors
- Slowest month: November; 173 visitors
- Funky fact: The coldest temperature recorded at park headquarters was minus 54 degrees F on Feb. 5, 1999.
Inset photo of mountains shrouded by clouds: -just-jen-/Flickr