Located in Alaska’s interior, the Denali National Park and Preserve encompasses over six million acres of land. The park itself is slightly larger than the US state of Massachusetts and plays host to a fascinating variety of animal and plants. Denali National Park is also home to the tallest mountain in North America, Mount McKinley, known by some as Denali (meaning “The High One”). The park’s towering, snow-capped centrepiece measures an incredible 20,237 feet (6,168 meters) at its summit. Unsurprisingly, both mountain climbing and backpacking are extremely popular all year round, whilst during the winter months when the parks winding paths are blanketed with snow, cross country skiers flock to the area.
History of Denali National Park
The story of the park’s establishment begins in the first half of the 20th century, with Charles Alexander Sheldon, a conservationist possessing a particular passion for sheep. Sheldon’s interest in sheep brought him to the Denali Mountain region, where horned Dall sheep roam freely. Sheldon worried that the animals were not adequately protected by law.
Having gained support among those resident in the mountain region, Sheldon petitioned the US Congress, and in 1917, the park was established. Initially, the park covered a smaller area and was called Mount McKinley National Park. In 1980, the park was expanded and renamed. Today, Denali National Park is managed as 3 individual units: Denali Wilderness and Denali National Preserve – which encompasses two separate swathes of parkland.
Interesting facts about Denali National Park
The lowest point in the park (at the Yenta River boundary) is 200 feet (61 meters) above sea level.
Denali National Park features approximately 12,200 lakes/ponds and 18,700 miles (30,000 km) of streams.
There are 169 different bird species, 39 mammal species, 14 fish species, and one species of amphibian known in Denali, whilst the park is also home to 1,500 species of vascular plants, lichens and mosses.
Denali National park is home to moose and grizzly bears. Limited hunting is permitted.
There is a peculiar species of wood frog resident to the park, which freezes solid during the harsh winter months. The frog’s heart ceases to beat and it stops breathing during the winter. Amazingly, when spring arrives, the frog thaws and hops away unharmed.
Denali National Park attracts approximately 40,000 people on an annual basis.
Visiting Denali National Park
The cost of entry to Denali National Park is just $10, which allows unlimited access for 7 days. For those wishing to bring a vehicle, a further $20 charge is levied. The main road through Denali National Park terminates at Savage River; beyond this point, shuttle buses ferry passengers through the park. Frequent visitors generally purchase what’s known as a Federal Lands Annual Pass ($80). If you are in possession of such a pass, all entry fees are waived.
Once inside Denali National Park, there is much to see and do. Since private vehicles are only permitted on the first 15 miles of park road, most visitors explore by bus and on foot. Although there are only a handful of trails, visitors are encouraged to find their own routes through the park, though less experienced walkers may wish to stroll along the park road.
Everyone who drives through Denali will stop at Savage River. Here, there are car parking facilities and the starting points of several trails. Mount Margaret is within view of the parking lot and remains a popular hiking destination.
Polychrome Pass, famed for its multi-coloured bluffs, can be reached by shuttle bus. A single bus departs once daily, usually in the early evening. Visitors to Polychrome Overlook enjoy astounding views of the mountainous countryside.
If you’re looking for ranger-led trail walks, take a trip to the Denali Visitors Center; only a short walk from the railroad depot. During the summer months, sled dog demonstrations run at regular intervals, with frequent buses ferrying vacationers between Denali Visitors Center and the demonstration site.
The Eielson Visitors Center is also serviced by regular buses. The view from Eielson Visitors Center is thought to be among the finest in the park, particularly on clear days, when you can expect a gorgeous panoramic vista of Mt. McKinley and the Alaska Range. There’s also a small art gallery inspired by Denali’s natural wonders, and regular ranger-led offerings.
If you wish to learn about the park’s animal inhabitants, as well as its flora and history, a guided bus tour is recommended. Tours are a fantastic way to see large areas of parkland in a small amount of time, but note that they are more costly than the shuttles.
White water rafting on the Nenana River can be booked in advance. The river reaches near-freezing temperatures, so be advised not to fall in! A number of operators provide white water rafting in the area.
Be aware that Denali National Park is not the place to go if you do not like insects. Hordes of mosquitoes and black flies will do their best to drive you insane. Bug repellent is a necessity but will not suffice. It is recommended that you wear some sort of netted head cover, and do not leave any skin exposed. Be smart; do not let the bugs ruin your trip.
Since there are few marked trails within the park, you need to be particularly aware of the danger of park wildlife. Animals such as the grizzly bear, caribou, moose and wolves can be unpredictable and dangerous, particularly if they are with their young. The best thing to do is keep a safe distance from any animals, and do not provoke them if they are at a distance. If they are close, make as much noise as you possibly can. Ensure that all food and garbage is kept stored away and sealed.
How to get to Denali National Park
Denali National Park can be reached either by road or rail. The George Parks Highway (Alaska Route 3) runs between Anchorage and Fairbanks. There is only one road into the park.
During high season (May – October), the Alaska Railroad provides a daily train into the park. Trains can be boarded at Anchorage and Fairbanks. Rates and fares vary.
When to visit Denali National Park
Most people visit the park during the more temperate summer months. However, Denali is open all year round. If you wish to ski, visit between November and March.
Where to stay in Denali National Park
There are a number of accommodation options (hotels, lodges, camping) both inside and outside the park. You are spoilt for choice, so shop around in order to find the best package for you.
If you are looking to embrace the great outdoors, then you could choose to stay in one of the many campsites speckling the landscape. Reservations are highly recommended during the summer months, as spaces are filled rapidly.
For backcountry camping, a permit and some experience of wild camping is required. It should be stressed that this is not recommended, as should you find yourself in need of assistance, there will be no one around for miles.