Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska, established in 1917, was high on our bucket list for this year. Dall sheep are the symbol of the park because over-hunting of the sheep and efforts to save them is the reason the park was established. Hunters were entering the park in large numbers to hunt game to feed gold miners and railroad workers. The park is six million acres of snow-capped peaks, multicolored tundra, clear lakes and rivers, alpine meadows and a multitude of wildlife. The crown jewel of the park is the 20,310 foot peak called Denali, the highest peak in North America. The peak has certainly undergone an identity crisis. It was named Denali in the Native American Athabascan language and means The Great One” or “The High One”.
President McKinley, 25th President of the U.S. was assassinated in 1901. The park and mountain were named McKinley in his honor. In 1975 an effort was undertaken by the Alaska Board of Geographic Names to change the name back to Denali which is the name preferred by Alaskans. The effort was blocked by representatives from McKinley’s home state of Ohio. In 1980 President Carter named it the Denali National Park and Preserve and increased the size from two million to six million acres. However he kept the name Mount McKinley. In 2015 President Obama changed the name of the mountain back to Mount Denali. When talking of the peak today, most people simply say Denali.
With our excitement mounting we left Fairbanks and made the three hour drive to Denali National Park and Preserve. It also happened to be June 21st, the longest day of the year, meaning we would have about 22 hours of daylight. Even once the sun set, it never got dark enough for streetlights to come on.
We headed straight to the Visitors Center to check it out and see the movie. Denali is not the easiest park to visit. In an effort to preserve the park wilderness as well as the wildlife, private vehicles are only allowed into the first 15 miles of the park or you can take a free park shuttle to this point. If you want to see anymore of the park you have to pay a rather large sum to take a Wilderness Tour. The first day we drove the 15 miles allowed, stopping at various viewpoints and hiking trails. On the way out of the park we saw a moose eating leaves from a tree.
We booked several months in advance the Tundra Wilderness Tour so the next day we had to be at the park by 6:30 A.M. The tour was on a school bus and lasted for 8 hours. There is no food service in that area of the park so we had to take snacks and drinks. Every 90 minutes we would take a bathroom break and stretch our legs.
There were no flush toilets during the day. Eight hours on a school bus and no flush toilets sounds miserable doesn’t it? Actually we had a great day and really enjoyed it. We had an entertaining bus driver/guide. Everyone on the bus kept an eye out for wildlife. The bus was equipped with TV monitors. When wildlife was spotted the driver stopped, and using a camcorder was able to zero in on the wildlife and display it on the TV monitors. What a tremendous improvement over tours where animals are so far away they look like tiny dots. We saw fox clubs playing, a full grown fox,
and jackrabbits, moose, many eagles, dall sheep,
At times the bus ride was scary as we traveled on narrow winding roads at the top of cliffs and had to pass other buses. We couldn’t take a very good picture to show how scary it was but I found this postcard which shows the road and bus.
We stopped at the Toklat rest stop where there was a National Geographic Outpost. Bill held caribou antlers on his head. He is such a good sport when I ask him to do things for pictures to entertain you!
We really really wanted to see the elusive Denali mountain. Because of the location of the Alaska Range which gets cold, dry air from the north and warm, moist air from the ocean from the south, the two systems collide and cause clouds. Denali is so high it is often hidden in the clouds. Less than 30% of people actually see Denali. The gift shops even have a T shirt that says something like “I am one of the 30%”. Unfortunately the chances of seeing it decreases in the summer which is high tourist season.
So did we see it you are probably asking? Not the first day and not the second day, not even during the Wilderness Tour. At one point our bus driver looked in his rear view mirror and said he got a peek of the top. He stopped the bus and everyone scrambled for their cameras. By this time the clouds had covered it again.
The next day we checked out of our hotel and turned the car towards Anchorage. We still had not seen Denali. The day was cloudy and overcast. We were very disappointed. Does the Denali story end there? Stay tuned for the next blog.
- By area, Alaska has more than fifty percent of the national parkland in the United States.
- More than 600,000 people visited the park in 2016, about 30% of visitors to Alaska. Of the 600,000 visitors, about 59% of them take the bus trip deep into the park.
- Archeological evidence shows people have lived in this region for over 13,000 years, migrating from Asia over the Bering Strait. No permanent settlement sites have been found in Denali. For this reason it is believed the area was used for seasonal hunting only.
- One sixth of Denali’s six million acres is covered by glaciers. Most of Denali’s glaciers have receded in length and thickness over the past 60 years.
- Today, America has almost 110 million acres of designated wilderness.
- More than a thousand climbers attempt to climb Denali each year in April and May when high pressure systems keep storms away and before warmer temperatures causes the threat of avalanches to make it unsafe. In good weather up to two thirds reach the top. During stormy or less than ideal conditions, only 40% make it.
- Denali has been described as the “coldest mountain in the world” with record temperatures of -60 degrees F, wind gusts of 100 miles per hour, and wind chills down to -100 degrees F. Only one day in three is storm free. Most of the world’s high mountains lie at lower latitudes. Denali is just 200 miles below the Arctic Circle. Even though Denali is not as high as Everest or Aconcagua, some say Denali is the hardest mountain to climb because of the Arctic conditions.
- Alaska has warmed by three degrees F in the last 60 years. Photos from the 1900’s show areas of open tundra. Today they are now thick with shrubs and young spruce trees. If this continues it is estimated the area may become a forest.