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Denali National Park & Preserve, Alaska

denalipark-alaska rangeHow do you describe this place? Denali National Park & Preserve, six million acres of spectacular scenery and incredible wildlife that often can be viewed from the road. The jewel of Denali National Park & Preserve is the highest mountain in North America, Mt. McKinley at 20,320 feet tall (and it continues to grow about two inches a yea). An overwhelming sight, Mt. McKinley rises up to nearly four miles high from the park floor at only 2000 feet above sea level—the greatest vertical rise of any mountain on earth.

Location / Coordinates: Denali National Park & Preserve is about 237 miles north of Anchorage and 120 miles south of Fairbanks on the Alaskan Highway 3 (the Parks Highway).

Coordinates: Latitude 63.63 & Longitude 150.90.

History: Early Athapascan Indians hunted in this region now called Denali National Park & Preserve, following the Caribou herds through the foothills of the Alaska Range during the summer months. The nomads hunted the lowland hills and mountains for caribou, sheep, moose, bear, and small animals. They preserved berries, gathered edible plants, and harvested fish then moved on.

The first established settlement in Denali National Park & Preserve area was Kantishna, in what is now the heart of the park, in 1905 when gold was discovered. Like many others, Kantishna sprang up over night as a tent city and then a boom town, littered with wanton hunting and general destruction of the area.

Another traveler to this area at that time was a naturalist, conservationist, and noted hunter, Charles Sheldon. He realized what a treasure the Denali area was and that it should be preserved for future generations. He enlisted the help of guide Harry Karstens to stake out what are now the boundaries of the park. Sheldon then lobbied Congress to make this area a national park, the Denali National Park & Preserve. In 1917, Alaska’s first national park was created in the heart of the Alaska Range. It was designated as McKinley National Park with Karstens to be its first superintendent. He is also the first to make the ascent of Mt. McKinley.

William Dickey, a Princeton graduate and businessman visiting Alaska as a prospector, named the mountain Mt. McKinley for personal reasons. He published an account of his travels up the Susitna River in The New York Sunin January 1897. In the article Dickey mentions that the first news he heard after leaving the wilderness was McKinlely’s nomination as the Republican candidate from Ohio for president. McKinley’s assassination in 1901 added fuel to the fire for keeping the name. Mt. McKinley has been and still is in dispute. Every year, an Ohio representative introduces a one-sentence fill making Mount McKinley the permanent name for the highest peak in North America. Every year it is referred to committee but receives no hearing, it will not be voted on and when Congress adjournes, it dies. Its very existence as a pending piece of Congressional business continues to cause a stalemated in the federal agency that holds the power to change the name to “Denali,” a request made by Alaskans 30 years ago.

How to get there: By road; the main Denali National Park & Preserve entrance is 237 miles north of Anchorage and 120 miles south of Fairbanks on Alaska Highway 3. This road is open year-round. In the winter, be careful to keep you gas tank at at least half full. Gas stations are few and far between and many are not open in the winter or at night.

Commercial bus service to Denali National Park & Preserve is available during the summer season for service from Fairbanks and Anchorage.

The Alaska Railroad has daily summer season passenger service to Denali National Park & Preserve from Anchorage and Fairbanks.

What to do: Be prepared. Denali National Park & Preserve is a true wilderness, and the summer season is cool, wet, and windy and it’s not uncommon to occasionally have snow. Bring clothing for temperatures from 35°F to 75°F. A hat, mittens or gloves, and raingear are essential. Sturdy footgear, insect repellent, binoculars, and a camera should be on your list. If you like to paint, bring your brushes! Keep in mind the weather is unpredictable and it can change openings and closings of park roads and facilities.

Get acquainted with Denali National Park & Preserve. In the summer season stop first at the visitor center near the park entrance to get a copy of the Denali Alpenglow and camping and backcountry permits and to purchase / pick-up bus tickets. Reserve your tickets by phone or up to two days in advance in person at the visitor center. Seats are in heavy demand, and wait of up to two days are normal for walk-in reservations. (Denali National Park & Preserve does hold back about 20% of tickets for last minute walk-ins, so everyone can enjoy the park.)

There is an entrance fee at Denali National Park & Preserve during the summer season; 16 and younger are free. Seniors (62 and older) and persons with disabilities can get Golden Age and Golden Access passes that waive entrance fees. The Denali annual Pass and the Golden Eagle Pass are also available. Write to the park for information about access for visitors with disabilities.

Many of the larger animals that you may encounter in Denali National Park & Preserve (bears, moose, caribou, wolves) are unpredictable and potentially dangerous, especially when protecting their young or their territories. If you’re hiking, make noise so you don’t surprise animals, especially bears. Do not walk towards bears, moose, or other animals. They may feel threatened and react aggressively. Photograph wild animals with a telephoto lens. Close approaches disturb them and endanger you. Keep you campsite clean. Store food in your vehicle (in a bear-resistant container), not in your tent. Never feed any wild animals, including squirrels and gulls that frequent campgrounds—this only encourages the animal to become unafraid of humans and potentially may harm them and you.

Private vehicles are restricted beyond Savage River in Denali National Park & Preserve (mile 14), but hikers, and cyclists are allowed beyond this point. If you do drive this stretch, the speed limit is 35 MPH, maximum. If you want to see wildlife, drive much slower—20 to 25 MPH—and let the other vehicles pass you. Keep your eyes open and you’ll be able to spot Arctic Ground Squirrels, Caribou, Wolves, Moose, Grizzly Bears, Dall Sheep, Ptarmigan, and more.

Denali National Park & Preserve shuttle bus service begins Memorial Day weekend and ends after Labor Day. Buses travel regularly from the visitor center to Toklat River (6 hours round-trip), Eielson Visitor Center (8 hours round-trip) —as of this summer, this center is being remodeled, and Wonder Lake (11 hours round-trip). With your pass, you are allowed to get on or off the bus along the park road except in closed areas, and you may re-board on a space-available basis. There is no food service inside the park. Bring food, drink warm clothes and raingear.

Take a tour bus with Tundra Wildlife Tours and the Denali Natural History Tours, available through the park concessioner in the summer season. Guide and food are provided.

Aircraft can be chartered outside Denali National Park & Preserve for special tours.

A favorite activity in the Denali National Park & Preserve is the sled dog demonstration behind the park headquarters. Denali National Park & Preserve is the only park in the system that has dog sledding. These animals are “employees” of the park and probably the best public relations tool as well. The public is encouraged to visit the dogs at their kennels, take pictures, and rub bellies. Later, the dogs are harnessed to a sled for the demonstration. It’s a toss up as to who is more excited, the dogs or the audience.

Camping in Denali National Park & Preserve. Riley Creek, Savage River, and Teklanika River campgrounds are accessible by private vehicle. Sanctuary River, Igloo Creek, and Wonder Lake campgrounds (tents only) are accessible by bus. Staying in park campgrounds (one or several) are limited to a total of 14 days; checkout is 11 a.m. Campsites can be reserved by phone up to two days in advance except for Sanctuary River and Igloo Creek campgrounds, which are available by walk-in at the Denali Visitor Center.

Hiking in Denali National Park & Preserve is exciting for both the novice and the experienced hiker. Trails in the park entrance area are maintained. You may walk them alone, or go on a ranger-led walk. The best hiking routes are along river bars or ridge-tops. There are ranger-led hikes in the park as well. River crossing can be dangerous. Streams can be cold and swift, sturdy footgear and caution are essential when making these crossings. Check at the visitor center for back-country information and areas closed hiking.

Denali National Park & Preserve offers some of the world’s best mountaineering. Mount McKinley and Mount Foraker climbers must register with the Talkeetna Ranger Station 60 days prior to beginning their ascent and pay an administrative fee. Groups heading for other peaks are urged to register.

Fishing in Denali National Park & Preserve is limited to a few clear mountain streams and Wonder Lake for Arctic grayling. Most park rivers contain glacier “flour,” a milky suspension of silt or rock flour that most fish cannot tolerate. You do not need a license to fish in the Denali Wilderness., however, a state license is required in the park additions and in the preserve for sport fishing. Live bait or fish eggs may not be used.

Sport hunting is not allowed in the wilderness or Denali National Park & Preserve additions. Hunting is permitted in the preserve with a state license and proper tags.

Backcountry permits for overnight camping must be obtained in person at the Denali National Park & Preserve visitor center during the summer season and at the park headquarters in the winter. There is a quota system for backcountry units. All units require use of bear-resistant containers (free of charge). Please pack out your garbage

Campfires are not allowed in the Denali Wilderness backcountry. They are permitted in certain campgrounds, and firewood is sold at the sotre in the park entrance area.

Motorized craft are prohibited in the Denali Wilderness.

Firearems must be unloaded, cased, and stored out of view. Leave them at Denali National Park & Preserve headquarters when backpacking the wilderness area. Firearms are allowed in the Denali National Park & Preserve additions only.

Pets are allowed only on roadways and in some campgrounds in Denali National Park & Preserve; they must be on a leashed or physically restrained at all times and may not be left unattended. Pets are prohibited on buses and trails and in the backcountry. If you are traveling with pets, there are kennels in Wasilla and in Fairbanks if you’d like to drop them off for a couple of days while you travel through Denali National Park & Preserve. Make sure you pet’s medical records are up to date, and make copies for the kennel.

Food, beverages, garbage, pet food, cooking, or food storage equipment must be kept in bear-resistant food lockers (available at the campgrounds) or in closed hard-sided vehicles while visiting Denali National Park & Preserve. Try to keep your parked vehicle free from crumbs and open food—bears like snacks and they’re willing and able to break in and get it.

What to do if you have a half day:
Attend one of the sled dog demonstrations at Denali National Park & Preserve and pet the “stars” of the show (they love belly rubs). Sign up for an education program at the Murie Science and Learning Center.

Hike one of the entrance area trails near the Denali Visitors’ Center. These trails provide opportunities for exploring the boreal forest, also known as taiga, and also observing wildlife. You may go it alone, or join a ranger-guided walk. The trails rangwe in length from 1.2 miles to

Watch the feature film at the Denali Visitors’ Center. Ride the free Savage River shuttle bus to mile 1.5—keep a sharp lookout for moose, caribou, and wolves. On a clear day you can see Mount McKinley! Take a guided Natural History Tour of the park to Primrose Ridge.

Facilities: During the summer season, Denali National Park & Preserve concessionaires offers deli food services, groceries, camper supplies, souvenirs, showers, and narrated wildlife tours by bus.

RV: RVs are allowed to camp at Riley Creek, Savage River and Teklanika River campgrounds in Denali National Park & Preserve. There are no dumping facilities or power at these campsites. There is a dump station towards the park entrance at the Riley Creek store. Generators in campgrounds may only be used between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m., and 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Again, please keep food in bear-proof containers, or put away when you’re not eating, so as not to tempt the bears.