by Lee Foster
In both the height of its mountains and the abundance of its wildlife Denali National Park is unsurpassed.
The old name for Denali National Park was McKinley National Park. Alaskans favored renaming the park after the Athabascan Indian word for the mountain, denali, meaning “the high or great one.” The park now does bear that name. Technically, the peak itself retains the name Mt. McKinley, after the American president, William McKinley.
Mt. McKinley, at 20,320 feet, is the tallest mountain in North America. Both the height of the mountain and its northerly position account for a perpetual snow and glacial appearance. Only about a third of the summer visitors are fortunate enough to see the mountain, due to the prevalence of overcast skies.
Seeing McKinley is a moving experience, partly because of its height and partly because it rises so abruptly from the surrounding land. The classic view is from Wonder Lake, which requires a four-hour shuttle bus ride, plus the good fortune of weather conditions that permit visibility.
The mountain is only the second major attraction of the park, however. The original rationale for creating the park was for the preservation of wildlife. Viewing wildlife in a preserved natural environment is the primary special experience the park offers. A typical visitor who takes the Wildlife Tour, operated in buses by the Park Service, will on a given day see the Big Four: grizzly bears, moose, Dall sheep, and caribou. If you are fortunate, you may see even more spectacular sights, such as wolves.
For exploring within the park, cars can’t be used. Shuttle buses and Wildlife Tours operated by the Park Service control transportation within the park. Note that this is exactly the opposite approach from Yellowstone, our other great park for wildlife viewing. Denali will never allow a tradition of garbage-fed bears, as Yellowstone once encouraged but does not condone today. The emphasis here is on minimum impact. Controlling people by preventing the use of private autos is the main approach.
A primary mission of the park, as the park superintendent once expressed it to me, is to make such wildlife sighting available for the present and future generations.
Denali Wildlife Tours
The Wildlife Tours amount to six hours on a bus with a competent naturalist as driver. The driver interprets the park and assists in wildlife sighting. When wildlife is sighted, you view it from the bus or, if it will not disturb the wildlife, from near the bus. The tour includes a box lunch. Roads are bumpy, so come prepared for a rigorous trip. Tours leave early in the morning and in mid-afternoon to catch the best animal viewing. For every traveler, this tour is highly recommended.
Denali was created after considerable lobbying by groups interested in preserving the wilderness wildlife habitat. Naturalist Charles Sheldon first traveled here in 1906. His guide was Harry Karstens, who became first superintendent of the park, in 1917.
In 1980 the park was substantially enlarged to its present acreage. Each year more than 400,000 people visit the park.
Free shuttle buses make trips in and out of the park, allowing you to get off at designated points for a hike. The shuttle buses move quickly and don’t stop to view the animals or offer naturalist interpretation. If you have only one day, take the guided Wildlife Tour, which costs a moderate fee, rather than the free shuttle.
The Park Service’s estimates the number of big game in Denali Park as follows: 200 grizzly bears, 1,700 caribou, 2,500 moose, 2,500 Dall sheep, and 140 wolves.
Distances in the park are vast and there is only one road in and out. It takes four hours to go from the park entrance to the final stop, at Wonder Lake, deep in the park.
Wildflowers and other flora in the park are appealing to see. On the wildlife tour a short wildflower walk occurs at Polychrome Pass, which is also a prime wildlife overlook. The spruce, willow, and birch trees of the park, the tundra environment of stunted growth, and the huckleberries that feed the bears are all part of the floral spectrum here. Jaeger birds, a predator that lives on mew gull eggs, among other things, can be seen in this vegetation. Ptarmigan, whose white heads stand out like those of bald eagles, sit on the tops of spruce trees. Overall, the scenery is stunning, emphasizing a vastness of space that one can encounter in few other regions.
The geological story is a major part of your experience at Denali. Glacier-fed rivers pour forth and twist across sediment beds in a braided pattern through the valleys. In summer the rivers turn grey because of the ground rock, called “rock flour,” created by the weight and friction movement of the glaciers. Downstream, when the rock flour settles out, salmon and grayling flourish.
People at Denali
A superintendent once told me how he planned to control carefully the number of people allowed into the park. He also hoped to emphasize high quality adventure trips as well as the standard Wildlife Tour and shuttle bus.
“I have to wrestle every day with the number of buses we’ll allow into the park,” he said. “I know we are doing some damage to the number of animals and to their closeness to the road, for viewing. But we are doing a fairly good job of maintaining the environment and providing a high quality experience for visitors. The bottom line is that the public knows this: Denali is a place where the average citizen can see the critters.”
Using some European park experiences as a model, the superintendent hoped to emphasize more adventure trips and a strategy that focuses human impact more on the south side of the park, taking some pressure off the prime wildlife habitat of the north. He hoped to allow helicopter companies to take visitors into the McKinley glaciers, where the visitors would be dropped in to camp.
“There are places on the south side where you can see 12,000 vertical feet of ice. The experience is profound. I feel we can bring people to this experience in economical ways and with only a fraction of the detrimental impact of more roads,” he said. “We plan to offer the adventuresome traveler an experience special to this national park.”
Naturalists all over the world in the higher levels of resource management see Denali as “an international biosphere reserve.”
“Worldwide, people recognize this is a one-of-a-kind park,” said the superintendent. “I aim to maintain that quality environment, despite our annual increase in visitations. Those of us who manage the parks must realize we are just passing through, we are managing the park as a legacy for the future. If the wilderness is destroyed, you can’t recreate it.”
Two intriguing side trips are possible at Denali because they don’t require roads. The first amounts to flying around the mountain in a small plane or helicopter. The second involves rafting the Nenana River.
From an airplane or helicopter you can get superb views of Mt. McKinley. If clouds obscure the mountain, it is often possible to climb above them. Flights originate near Park Headquarters.
The airplane ride also introduces you to a prominent mode of transportation in Alaska, that of the small bush planes. These planes are not confined to the legendary bush pilots who carry fishermen into wilderness lakes. A surprising number of prosperous Alaskans own airplanes. Wasilla, a town on the road between Anchorage and Denali, even has a fly-in shopping mall. A quarter of all the small planes in the US are located in Alaska, which has more pilots per capita than any other state. The two-airplane garage is like the two-car garage in the lower 48 states. For many areas of the state the airplane is the only mode of transport possible because there either are no roads or the distances are too great. Bush planes may have wheels, pontoons, or both for maximum versatility.
Nenana River raft trips amount to two-hour floats through the area. These trips provide good chances at seeing wildlife, especially eagles. One of the two offered trips is a white-water experience and the other is a more sedate float.
Sled Dogs at Denali
One of the Park Service interpretive efforts is the daily sled dog demonstration, which takes place late in the afternoon near the park entrance. Historically and today, sled dogs play an important role in park management. Before the snowmobile became generally available in Alaska, sled dogs were the only means of winter transportation off the road. At Denali, sled dogs have always been one of the most important means of patrolling the outer reaches of the park, looking for poachers and managing the subsistence hunting allowed in some park areas. For many Alaskans and for the Park Service, sled dogs are superior to the snowmobile. They never break down. They eat local salmon rather than less accessible gasoline. They need no spare parts. And the lead dog can become the navigator, finding the trail below freshly falling snow. In the event of a storm, the driver can curl up with the sled dogs to keep from freezing to death.
Your mode of transport and your lodging at Denali National Park should be planned carefully. There is little room here at support facilities for the casual, drop-in visitor in the peak summer season. You are far, far from the relative civilization of Anchorage.
There are several basic approaches to solving these travel issues when exploring Denali.
For most visitors, the best plan is generally to use a travel agent or booking website. The main operators include Westours and Princess, both for a dome-car train ride from Anchorage and lodging in one of the few hotels (such as the McKinley Chalets or Denali Princess Lodge). Trains with vistadome viewing cars can provide luxurious transportation for visitors traveling between Anchorage and Denali.
If you’ve driven to Alaska in your own car/RV or if you rent a car, you can drive yourself to Denali. The road is paved, but rough, due to the damage from frost heaving the road in winter. Alaskans debate whether a gravel road or a paved road is better under these conditions. Your speed on the road will be slow. Arrange lodging in advance.
If you wish to camp or backpack, you can do so near the park or within the park. A few cars are allowed to drive deep into the park to car campsites at Wonder Lake. Backpackers have many options within the park.
Denali National Park: If You Go
For further information on Denali National Park, see the Park Service website at www.nps.gov/dena.
For tourism information on Alaska, a major source is the Alaska Travel Industry Association, www.travelalaska.com.