|Map modified from NPS AK Region map
First, you should know where it is. See map above. It’s kind of in the middle of the state, but the entrance is on the north side, closer to Fairbanks. Most of its 6 million acres are designated or eligible wilderness, meaning that the land is mostly untouched and undeveloped, is accessible only on foot or by non-motorized vehicles, and with back country permits. That is to say, it’s pretty wild.
Despite being pretty wild, it does happen to be the only wilderness area in the country with a road running through it. But just one road, and vehicle traffic is restricted to tour buses through most of it. The Alaska Railroad has a train station near headquarters, so its nearly 400,000 annual visitors can arrive to the park via train, personal vehicle, or bus. I suppose this is pretty standard for most big national parks, but this being the first big national park I will have worked at, I’m interested to see how the visitor demographic will differ from what I’ve experienced in the past.
|Photo stolen from nps.gov/dena
But let’s get on to the sweet stuff. Denali National Park and Preserve is known for a lot of things: epic wildlife sightings, highest mountains in North America, glaciers, archaeological sites, and world class mountaineering and backpacking opportunities.
|I WANNA GO :,)
Mt. McKinley, its highest peak, graces the sky 20,327 feet from sea level, and was in fact named for President McKinley by a gold prospector in 1896. It was originally (and is still sometimes) referred to simply as Denali, the park’s namesake, which means “the high one” or “the great one” in Koyukon Athabaskan. To this day, less than 60% of climbers reach the top.
While I won’t be attempting to summit Mt. McKinley this summer, I do plan on taking advantage of the park’s incredible backcountry opportunities. With 2.5 million acres of the land open for backcountry travel, divided into 87 units with detailed descriptions, I can’t think of any better place to develop my skills. And although it’s often criticized for being a bit overdone, you can bet I’ll be attempting the 40 mile round trip Stampede Trail to reach Bus 142, the final resting place of Chris McCandless.
Just because Denali is mostly wilderness doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to get around in it. In fact, it is famous for being the only national park with working sled dog kennels, a legacy that goes all the way back to the park’s first ranger in 1921.
That ranger was one Harry Karstens, a veteran Alaskan dog musher who worked to mitigate wildlife poaching in the early years of the park’s establishment. Over time, more rangers were hired to help him out, and each was assigned their own team of 7 dogs to go on patrols throughout the park during the winter months. Today, the establishment of working sled dogs has been written into the park’s legislation, and they continue to provide transportation for rangers in the winter and educational opportunities for visitors in the summer.
|Photo stolen from denali101.com
Many of these summer visitors are also coming to the park for a chance to witness some of Denali’s great diversity of wildlife. According to their nature page, there are “39 documented species of mammals, 169 species of birds, 14 species of fish, and one species of amphibian.” Some of the cool ones (in my opinion) include Dall’s sheep, grizzlies, black bears, moose, caribou, wolves, wolverines, foxes, hares, marmots, and pikas among others. I’m pretty stoked for the birdwatching there as well — hawk owls, ptarmigan, boreal chickadees, golden eagles, and white-fronted geese are just a few of the exciting species that make Denali their summer home.
I’m not sure if you’re any more excited about Denali now after reading this, but I, for one, am super stoked to be able to call Denali my home this coming summer. I can’t wait to have my own photos to post, and stories to tell, and adventures to live, and to be able to share it with you.
More updates to come, stay tuned.