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Denali National Park and Preserve is located in the heart of the state of Alaska. This 6 million acre park protects a wide range of ecosystems. The park covers lowland deciduous taiga to tundra to the snowcapped peaks of the Alaska Mountain Range. This popular park is a featured stop on many an Alaskan adventure. A visit to Denali is a unique experience. Here are 11 things to know before visiting Denali National Park and Preserve.
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Things to Know Before Visiting Denali National Park and Preserve
Denali National Park is open year-round
It might not seem like it but Denali National and Preserve is actually open year-round. Almost all of the parks, half million-plus visitors will visit the park between mid-May and mid-September. Only about 3% of park visitors come during the winter months.
While the park is open year-round, the majority of park services are only open from mid-May to mid-September. The Murie Science and Learning Center is the only building open year-round. Only the first 15 miles of the 92 mile Denali Park Road is open to passenger vehicles. The remained of the road is only open from mid-May to mid-September for bus and bicycle traffic.
The best time to visit Denali National Park are the months of May and September. The park visitation is low and the majority of services are still open. The weather is also milder at this time.
Denali National Park and Preserve is actually two National Park Service units.
There is Denali National Park which is about 4.7 million acres and Denali National Preserve is about 1.3 million acres. For most visitors, it doesn’t actually matter that the units are two separate units.
The distinction matters in how the resources are managed. The National Park is meant to keep the wilderness wild and untamed with minimal human impact. The National Preserve does much the same thing but allows for human use of specific resources. That is a nicer way of saying, the preserve allows sport while the national park does not allow sport hunting. The park does allow Alaskan Natives the ability to subsistence hunt in specific parts of the national park. This gives them the opportunity to maintain their traditional way of life.
Denali is the name of both the park and the mountain.
Denali is both the name of the park and the tallest mountain in North America.
Denali hasn’t always been Denali. The mountain has had many names. Just about every group of people have developed their own name for the mountain. The Koyukon Athabaskan who lived on the flanks of the mountain called it: Deenaalee or Dinale. The terms loosely translate to “the high one” The Dene’ina people of the Susitna River called it Dghelay Ka’a which means “the big mountain.” The Russians called the mountain – Bolshaya Gora. Unsurprisingly Bolshaya Gora is Russian for big mountain. The first English speaking settlers named the mountain Densmore’s Mountain after Frank Densmore who loved the mountain.
In almost a purely political move, William Dickey suggested naming the mountain after William McKinley in a 1897 article written in the New York Sun. Dickey was a gold miner and McKinley support putting the United States on a gold standard. This name was used occasionally in government reports until 1917. In 1917, the United States government officially adopted the name Mount McKinley and created the Mount McKinley National Park. The official name didn’t stop most Alaskans, Alaskan Natives, and many mountaineers from using Denali.
It wasn’t until the 1970’s that a movement started to return Mount McKinley to her traditional Athabaskan name. Alaska Board of Geographic Names returned the mountain to her proper name. They requested that the United States Board on Geographic Names change the name as well. There were some political hold-ups. In 1980, President Carter tried to make a compromise by adding to the park and changing the name to Denali National Park and Preserve but still calling the mountain Mount McKinley. Alaska pressed on to return the official name of the mountain to Denali
For the next 30 years Ohio congressman Ralph Regula used a procedural maneuver to prevent the United States Board on Geographic Names from return the name to Denali. President McKinley is from Ohio and Regula wanted to keep the name honoring his fellow Ohioan (Boo, on him for not wanted to return the name the mountain has had for hundreds of years just to honor a president from his state).
The argument over Denali’s name didn’t end until 2015 when Sally Jewell, United States Secretary of the Interior used her authority to circumvent the Board and return the name of Mount McKinley to Denali.
Access to Denali National Park and Preserve is limited
There is 65,708 acres of park per mile of road in the park. That is a lot of land to be accessed by a 92 mile road. If you want to explore a landscape that has hardly been touched by humans, if ever. Denali is one of the places to do it (this is the case with many national parks in Alaska).
In addition to the single road in the park, access to that road past the 15-mile mark is restricted. Only park service buses, Kantishna lodges, and Professional Photographer with the Special Road Travel Permit can access all 92 miles. If you camp in Teklanika River Campground, you can drive to mile 29.1 but you can drive there and back to the main entrance and that is all.
Vehicle traffic is limited in the park due to the road and maintenance costs. Much of the road is built on permafrost and very remote. Permafrost is very difficult to build on and when permafrost starts to melt it becomes slushy and moves. If the road was paved this would mean the road would be under constant repair and every May would basically need to be re-paved. Keeping the road as gravel prevents this issue. Even still the road requires a fair amount of work. If you added visitor’s personal vehicles, the road would just be unmanageable. Personal vehicles are allowed only during the Denali Road Lottery.
The park runs tour and shuttle buses into the park. The tours make stops in the park but don’t offer any long hiking opportunities. The best option is the shuttle buses. The shuttle buses are green and each has a specific destination on the park but you are free to get on or off a will. When you are ready to head out of the park, just flag down a bus, cross your fingers it has room and it will take you out of the park.
The last option for accessing the park is by air. Several companies in Healy and Talkeetna have been approved to run air tours and shuttle flights to the handful of lodges in Denali. Some of the tours have the ability to land on some of the Denali glaciers or at the Denali Climbing Base Camp.
There is a Denali Road Lottery
Every June 15, thousands of people check their emails. They have their fingers crossed when they open “Lottery Results – Denali National Park – Road Lottery.” Everyone is hoping for that email that reads “Congratulations! You were successful in securing a reservation for the DENALI NATIONAL PARK – ROAD LOTTERY from the Denali National Park – Road Lottery.” Only 1,600 people will get that lucky email.
With that email, they will have secured entrance to the park during one of the last five days of the Denali summer season for themselves a legal vehicle and as many people as that vehicle holds to drive all 92 miles of the Denali Park Road. Lottery winners have 18 hours to explore the Denali Park Road at their own pace.
Check out Denali Road Lottery – Everything You Need to Know for more information on the park.
Anyone can summit Denali – Sort of.
Denali is 20,310 feet tall and the mountain huge. Seeing her from the ground, it is easy to see why most the names of the mountain were related to its size. She can fill the sky and still be 70 miles away. She can be see from 214 miles away in Anchorage, Alaska.
To climb to the summit of Denali, one has to have a modest climbing resume that includes several snow-capped mountains over 14,000 ft, crampon use at 30 – 50 degrees slopes, snow and ice anchors, and crevasse rescue. You have acquired $5,000 plus of mountain climbing gear. You will spend about a year pushing your fitness to the highest level possible. Unless you have a buddy who has experience on Denali, you will spend between about $6,000 to $10,000 on a guide for your climb. After all that and three weeks climbing up the 20,310 ft mountain, there is only a 50% chance you will actually make it to the summit.
Now if all that doesn’t sound like fun, there is the easy way to get to the summit. It is called a plane. A small Alaska family-owned company uses an oxygen assisted plane to fly to the summit of the mountain. It is a fly-by summit but you do get to visit the summit of Denali and you don’t have to spend years training or all your but of the mountain.
Denali is only visible about 30% of the year
Mount Denali is an elusive monster. She is so large that she creates her own weather system. In addition to the fact that the Alaska Mountain Range is where the cool arctic air mixes with the warmer air from the south. This can cause rapidly changing weather.
For much of the summer, Mount Denali is covered by low clouds which block the view of the summit from the ground. This results in most ground tours both in the park and out of the park cannot see the mountain. It is possible for people in the park to not see the mountain while those in Fairbanks or Anchorage can see the mountain above the clouds.
Bus drives and train operations report only seeing the mountain about 1 in 3 days during the summer. It is reported that between 30-40% of visitors to Alaska have the honor of seeing Denali.
The best way to increase your chances of seeing Denali is with a flightseeing tour.
The Northern Lights can be seen in Denali National Park and Preserve.
The Alaskan Aurora Borealis is something special. The shows are regularly magical. There is a big but coming. Alaska is the land of extremes. From May to August, much of Alaska has 19 plus hours of sunlight. The exact amount depends on the latitude. Denali sees about 70 days of 22 hours of sunlight and then 2 hours of twilight.
To see the Northern Lights, one needs complete darkness. SO during the summer, the sky never get’s dark enough to see the northern lights.
If you would like to see the northern lights in Alaska, you have to come sometime between September and April. The best viewing is in the heart of winter, but they can be seen at anytime the sky is dark and cloudless.
Denali has the highest job satisfaction of its park employees.
It is a sort of a running joke among Denali National Park employees that they have the highest job satisfaction. There are about 300 people and dogs employed by the park. About half are season employees during the summer.
Did you catch that Denali employees dog as well as people? Denali National Park maintains a kennel of about 30 sled dogs. These dogs are work dogs. They are a mix of the Alaskan dog breeds and are built to run. During the summer, the park service staff does a sled dog demonstration.
As the rangers start getting ready for the demonstration, the mood in the kennel changes. All 30 dogs start getting wound up. They are basically a large group of five years who just found out they are getting to go to a candy store. Every dog is praying he/she gets selected. The dogs that do get selected are so excited that they are ready to start before they have even been hooked up to the sled.
The dogs love what they do and their rangers/handlers love those dogs like their kids. The dogs have the sweetest gig. They do a bit of work during the summer than work all winter (their favorite season).
Denali doesn’t really have hiking trails.
Denali National Park is one of the last places of untouched wilderness. The park has about 40 miles of maintained trails. For a park the size of the state of Massachusetts, that doesn’t leave a lot of hiking opportunities
Or does it. Most of the hiking in Denali is off-trail. This isn’t a park for beginner hikers. Hiking in Denali requires a map, compass and experiencing reading them with that the rivers and streams do not have bridges. Hiking here is rugged and if you are not experienced in hiking consider hiring one of the firms that are authorized to provide hiking tours in the park or stick to one of the maintained trails.
The Wildlife is Beyond Epic
Most visitors come to see Denali’s “Big Five”: Caribou, Moose, Dall Sheep, Wolves, and Grizzly Bear. These five animals are amazing to watch but they are just 5 of 229 different species of wildlife one can see in the park.
Some of the most interesting animals are actually the smallest in the park. The 3-in. long wood frog is epic. This frog has an amazing way of surviving the Alaskan winters. The frog basically produces anti-freeze. This anti-freeze stops the frog’s cells from losing water while the frog freezes solid. Almost all the frog’s body functions stop or severally slow down. In the spring, the wood frog thaws and hops off to continue its life.
Over 160 different species of bird come to Denali to breed. They come from as far away as Asia, Northern Africa, South America, and Antarctica. The Arctic Tern enjoys a long distance migrant from their winter feeding grounds in the water of Antarctica to their breeding grounds in Alaska. The Tern nest along the lakes and ponds in Denali. The Blackpoll Warblers are a small songbird. They fly from South America to Alaska and Northern Canada to breed.
This post was originally on January 7, 2018. It was updated on October 12, 2019
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Get help planning your trip to Denali National Park
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- Denali Road Lottery – Everything You Need to Know
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