Denali National Park and Preserve

Denali National Park and Preserve is located in the center of the state of Alaska in the United States. The park holds 4,740,911 acres of land, of which 1,304,242 acres comprise the reserve.  The area was once inhabited by Native Americans including the Athna, Athabaskans, and Tanana peoples, among others. The establishment of the park began in 1907, when Charles Alexander Sheldon visited the area in order to study the Dall sheep and its level of endangerment from human encroachment. In 1908, after he completed his visit, he urged the Alaskan citizens and the state to create a preserve for the sheep. It was not until 1917 that the area would receive federal protection, but under the name of Mount McKinley National Park. This area was small and did not include the summit of Mt. McKinley, but was designated as an international biosphere reserve in 1976. Denali National Monument, which was completely separated from Mount McKinley National park, was created in 1978.

The creation of Mount McKinley National Park created controversy due to its name, which many felt did not represent the area correctly. Mount McKinley was named after President William McKinley, who had no association with the area. The term “Denali,” which was used for the name of the national monument, means the high one in the Athabaskan language, and was the original name for the mountain. The monument and park were combined in 1980. Today, the mountain is geographically listed as Mount McKinley, although the Alaska Board of Geographic Names changed it back to Denali at the time of the park’s merger, and most natives to the area affectionately refer to it and the park as “Denali.”

Denali National Park and Preserve contains many features like the highest point in the Alaska Range, but the most well-known is Denali, or Mount McKinley. Other features in the park include glaciers, like Kahiltna Glacier, and valleys including the Foraker Rivers Valley and McKinley Valley. The park also contains large bodies of water including the Nenana River. The park also holds a designated wilderness known as Denali Wilderness, which encompasses an area of 2,146,580 acres. This area holds the lands that were once known as Mount McKinley National Park and land from an expansion that occurred in 1980.

Denali National Park and Preserve holds the Alaska Range, which extends over a length of six hundred miles. The range’s most popular Peak, Mount McKinley, rises to a height of 20,320 and is the tallest mountain in North America. Because the continental plates of the Pacific Ocean and North America are still converging, the mountain growing in height about 1mm each year. The mountain is mainly comprised of granite rock, so it is not greatly affected by erosion. Because of the park’s location in an area with intense tectonic occurrences, the park experiences over six hundred earthquakes a year.

About sixteen percent of the entire area of Denali National Park and Preserve holds glaciers, with more glaciers occurring on the southeastern side of the park due to higher amounts of snowfall. Some of the largest glaciers in the park include Eldrige, with a length of thirty miles, and Tokositna, with a length of twenty-three miles. The north side of the park holds the largest glacier, known as Muldrow glacier, which reaches thirty-two miles in length.

Denali National Park and Preserve is known for its long winters, during which time most of the bird species in the park reside in warmer southern climates. The summer season is short and most of the mammal species in the park are active during this time, raising young and preparing to hibernate through the long winter. The summer season brings mild weather with temperatures as high as seventy degrees Fahrenheit, but snow can occur in the late summer months.

The habitats of Denali National Park and Preserve depend greatly upon the Alaska Range, with the majority of the park holding a tundra habitat, and the tree line occurs at 2,500 feet. Lowland areas of the park hold a forested habitat, with an abundance of willows and spruces. The park contains three types of forested habitat including spruce-poplar, brush bog, and upland spruce-hardwood forests. The tundra habitat contains many plant species including mosses, grasses, fungi and ferns. Soapberry and blueberry bushes are abundant in this area and provide a stable food source for bear species in the park. The park holds over 450 species of flowering plants including lupine, goldenrod, and bluebell.

Denali National Park and Preserve is home to many species of animal including black bears, grizzly bears, caribou, lynxes, wolverines, gray wolves, and Dall sheep. The park holds many bird species including Arctic warblers, golden eagles, tundra swans, and waxwings, giving bird watchers a wide variety of species to view. There are ten fish species within the park including trout and salmon. These fish do not grow to their normal size, due to the cold temperatures of the glacier fed waters.

Park rangers in Denali National Park and Preserve strive to keep the wildlife safe from human encroachment. In order to protect humans from bears and bears from humans, tracking devices are needed to follow the movements of the bears. Visitors are well educated about the animals in park and are told never to feed any animal and educational efforts have greatly reduced the amount of hazardous encounters that have occurred in the park. Despite these efforts, the park’s first fatal bear encounter occurred in 2012, when a single visitor taking photographs of a male grizzly bear became frightened and attacked the man. After investigations were conducted, it was found that the man violated park procedures regarding back country activities, although he was aware of the procedures.

Denali National Park and Preserve receives over 400,000 visitors each year and can be accessed by a 91-mile road that extends from the George Parks Highway to Kantishna, a mining camp. This road takes visitors through the entire park, but the majority of the road is not paved due to frost conditions, which make maintenance difficult. Visitors can only drive as far as fifteen miles into the park in private vehicles, but can take a public tour bus throughout the rest of the park. Bus tours are a popular activity in the park, with the most popular tour, Tundra Wilderness Tour, taking visitors from boreal forests, through tundra habitats, to Kantishna or the Toklat River. Visitors can partake in many other activities including backpacking, mountaineering, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, and dogsledding. Some areas of the park are closed temporarily depending upon the wildlife including wolf denning sites or areas where bears have recently killed prey.

Image Caption: Down the valley towards Denali on this beautiful day, with the (one) park road wending its way. Credit: Nic McPhee/Wikipedia  (CC BY-SA 2.0)