Denali National Park
Denali National Park in Alaska was created as a sanctuary to protect graceful little Dall mountain sheep from overhunting. It has become world-renowned home for what may be North America’s most diverse and highly visible subarctic ecosystem, recognized as a U.N. World Biosphere Reserve.
Caribou, grizzly bears, wolves, golden eagles, and others coexist in this huge, largely undisturbed wilderness at the foot of snowy Mount McKinley, or “Denali” as the native Athabascan Indians call it—“the high one”—highest mountain on the North American continent.
So vast are uninterrupted viewing distances and so clear the fresh northern air that under ideal conditions a dozen or more species and many individuals may appear in one sweeping vista— a scene of unsurpassed natural beauty and drama within hours from Anchorage and Fairbanks.
Caribou, visible a half-mile (0.8 km) away on the permafrost- underlaid tundra, ramble along with ankle bones clicking. They feed on nutritious mosses and lichens, matlike plants designed to survive harsh northern winters. Males and females both grow showy antlers.
Tall scarlet-crowned sandhill cranes stop en route to and from farther north nesting grounds, dancing in anticipation of mating in spring with high bugling cries heard for miles, conversing with new families in lower mutterings in fall.
Golden eagles soar on seven-foot (2+ m) wings over mountain ridgelines striped with well-worn wildlife trails, chittering to one another when bringing food to nestlings with bright chirps more suggestive of small songbirds than our mightiest avian predators. But arctic ground squirrels know the difference and stop munching grass seeds to tear for cover at the first sign of eagles overhead.
Largest known breeding population of golden eagles in Alaska is here, handy for gyrfalcons which often use old eagle nests rather than build their own. Both they and peregrines are here— no soaring for them, just a breathtaking “what was that?” as they streak across the sky with speed only falcons command.
Nesting sandpipers are invisible among tiny alpine azaleas, Lapland rosebays, and bog rosemarys until, startled, they jump up and run about with anxious musical cheeps. But brightlypatterned harlequin ducks are never unnoticed, bouncing in stream riffles probing for small edible organisms caught there.
Loons summon one another with haunting calls day and night. Boreal and northern hawkowls whistle in the dark until northern nights grow short or disappear entirely, when they may whistle and hunt any time (the hawk-owl’s long slender tail gives it a falcon-like appearance, especially when it hovers).
Dall sheep, the only wild white sheep, snowy cousins to similar Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, come to drink at brooks but feel more secure on higher slopes. There they nimbly negotiate places less accessible to their predators (but not inaccessible to long-range rifles; their creamy fur and handsome curled horns made them a popular trophy before park establishment).
Shy, half-ton moose, world’s largest deer, nibble on alders and pondside willow shoots, wading neck-deep when mosquitoes are fierce, which is at least until mid-July. (Caribou may lose a quart of blood a week to these biting pests.)
Grizzlies nose around for blueberries and bearberries and dig for roots or for an arctic ground squirrel if they can find its hole. A favorite spot for the big bears is Sable Pass.
Beaver dams create ponds where waterfowl gather—though divers like mergansers prefer deep Wonder Lake. White-crowned sparrows sing “Three Blind Mice” and red foxes and occasional tri-colored cross foxes appear anywhere on this national park, bigger than the state of Massachusetts, just 200 miles (320 km) south of the Arctic circle.
Towering over all is majestic Mount McKinley, at 20,320 feet (6,194 m) crown of the 600-mile (965-km) Alaska Range which divides south-central Alaska from the interior plateau. Named after U.S. President William McKinley, it is a mountain so large it creates its own weather systems with storm winds that can gust up to 150 mph (240 kph). Temperatures down to –95°F (–70.5°C) have been recorded, and that not on the summit. Permanent snowfields cover more than half of the mountain and feed still-moving glaciers up to 40 miles (64 km) long at its base.
By one measurement McKinley is the highest mountain in the world: its vertical relief of 18,000 feet (6,200 m) is greater even than Mount Everest.
Best times are June–mid-September. June and post-Labor Day visits avoid bulk of 340,000 yearly visitors. There’s comfortable lodging at Denali Park Hotel, just outside park entrance; also lodges at Kantishna, 95 miles (153 km) inside park; seven campgrounds. Reserve ahead. Limited backcountry camping by permit. Other accommodations available just outside park.
Commercial airlines go to Anchorage and Fairbanks. Thence by car the park is 240 miles (386 km) north of Anchorage, 120 miles (193 km) south of Fairbanks, both on Alaska Highway 3. Regular busses, trains go in summer, weekend trains only in winter—or air charter to park airstrip. In the park, shuttle-busses and guided tour busses travel the 87-mile (140 km) park road, mostly closed to private vehicles except briefly after Labor Day. Mountain-climbers need permits.
Problems include merlin nest failures from thinning eggshells and tests showing pesticide residues believed from Latin American wintering grounds. Still controversial are recreational snowmobiling, hunting and trapping rights granted to non-natives, both with/without snowmobiles; active mining claims and recreational gold panning.