Denali National Park & Preserve

Location: Alaska

Park Tally: 40/59

Orientation: Denali (formally Mt. McKinley) National Park and Preserve is world famous for its natural beauty, sheer size and plentiful wildlife. The park can be accessed by driving or traveling via train north from Anchorage (240-miles) or south from Fairbanks (125-miles). Denali has numerous camping and lodging options within and just outside the park, as well as an eatery, museum, visitor centers, and gift stores.

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The road system can be a little complicated in Denali, with private vehicles restricted past the first section of the park (mile 15), and concessioner-operated buses operating the entire 92-mile length of the park road. Visitors can take a variety of buses, including guided/unguided and half-day/full-day tours. The bus drivers are fantastic narrators and will stop for wildlife viewing. Bus reservations can be made ahead of time through the Reserve Denali website or at the Wilderness Access Center at the entrance of the park.

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Most iconic view: Denali is undeniably the crowning jewel of the park. Standing at 20,320 feet above sea level (and growing at the rate of a millimeter every year), Denali is on everyone’s minds as they enter the park. Unfortunately, many visitors leave without a glimpse of the mountain due to clouds shrouding its view 70% of the time. We managed to get a small glimpse of the peak but sadly did not get to witness the mountain in all its glory (just another reason to return!)

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Denali, previously known as Mt. McKinley, was restored to its native name in 2015 by President Barack Obama. The name Denali is based on the Koyukon name of the mountain, Deenaalee (“the high one”). Denali can be viewed on a bus tour along main park road, via hiking or by air. We were fortunate enough to take a flight-seeing tour with Talkeetna Air Taxi, allowing us a second view of the peak as it popped through the clouds.

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Accessible activity: Taking a ranged-led bus tour of the park is a fantastic way to see all the main views, learn about the park’s history and likely see a variety of wildlife. During our bus journey we saw grizzly bears, caribou, moose, ptarmigan and foxes. The 2-mile long Savage River Loop is an easy and enjoyable short walk within the park. Visitors can catch the bus to Savage River or drive their own vehicle (though there is limited parking).

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For the adventurous: Denali is well-known for its expansive terrain and backpacking opportunities. The National Park Service has chosen to keep the majority of Denali trail-free, allowing hikers to forge their own path and have a unique adventure. Hikers can simply ask a bus driver to stop at any point along the park road and wander off into the wilderness! Though, be sure to pick up a backcountry permit from the Wilderness Access Center before setting off.

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The biggest adventure of all in the park is climbing Denali itself. The 20,230 feet peak is not for the faint hearted or unprepared. Denali is a serious expedition usually involving a multi-week endeavor and a high level of experience. Glacial travel, route finding skills and crevasse rescue procedures are imperative prerequisites. There are various guiding services that can assist with further questions, as well as the knowledgeable Denali Park Rangers.

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Best photo opportunities: Denali is a photography lover’s dream. Overcast and cloudy days provide wonderful opportunities to photograph wildlife and clear days reveal Denali in all its splendor – just begging to be captured. We loved the views at Wonder Lake despite the overcast skies we were dealt (it must be something else when the skies are clear!)

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Quick facts

  • Denali was designated a National Park in 1917 (then Mt. McKinley), making it Alaska’s first national park. It is the only national park to be established solely for the purpose of protecting wildlife.
  • Denali is the tallest mountain in North America, standing at 20,230 feet. Denali even has its own weather system and thus the peak is blocked by clouds 70% of the time.
  • Denali is taller than Mount Everest when calculated by measuring the distance from base to summit. Denali’s summit is 18,000 feet from its base while Mount Everest’s summit is 12,000 feet from its base.
  • The year of 1910 marked the first time that Denali was reportedly summited. It was by a group of local residents who celebrated with hot chocolate and donuts!
  • Wildlife found within the park include grizzly bear, black bear, wolf, caribou, moose, dall sheep, arctic ground squirrel, fox, marmot, and more.
  • The wood frog is the only amphibian to call Denali National Park and Preserve home. Amazingly, these frogs actually freeze solid in the winter, with their hearts ceasing to beat. They do not breathe in air again until the spring thaw.
  • In 2016, Denali National Park and Preserve had approximately 587,000 visitors.

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