The Glory of “The High One”: Denali National Park

Sunrise on Denali / NPS Photo by Tim Rains

Many travelers venturing to Alaska include on their itineraries Denali National Park, and rightly so. It provides breathtaking vistas in a rugged land to etch in your mind a memorable trip. Within Alaska alone, there are 24 parks and sites managed by the National Park Service, however Denali usually comes to mind when people think of Alaska. Denali is  Alaska’s most well-known national park and is actually more readily accessible than some of the other remote parks.  Denali averages over  400,000 visitors annually. The flag ship feature of the park is the 20,320 feet high mountain peak known for thousands of years by the Athabascans as Denali, or “The High One”.

So What’s in a Name?  The park we know today as Denali National Park was founded in 1917 by Woodrow Wilson as Mount McKinley National Park. The name of the Park has been a controversy since it’s inception.  There are certain ironies that one can’t help but ponder on. First, the name McKinley was taken from our 25th President William McKinley. McKinley himself had never traveled to Alaska.  Perhaps he would have gone to see the majestic mountain and park, but sadly he was assassinated in September of 1901. Charles Sheldon, a naturalist and conservationist, advocated from the start the name of Denali for both the park and the mountain. The locals called it Denali, and the debate continued for decades. Finally in 1980, many continued to favor the name Denali after the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act changed the park’s name to Denali National Park and Preserve. But the official name of the mountain remained Mount McKinley.  Then just prior to the National Park Service centennial year in 2016, the mountain was reverted to the name Denali. While visiting Alaska in September of 2015, President Barack Obama announced the official name change of the mountain.

Bull Moose~NPS photo

Keeping the “wild” in Alaskan wilderness.  The vastness and diverse ecosystems of the park are beautifully preserved and presented to visitors by virtue of how the park is operated and maintained.  Unlike other National Parks, access into the park is restricted and controlled by only one road, 90 miles long into the park.  Personal vehicles are not allowed beyond the 15 mile mark on the park road; only the shuttle buses taking visitors back and forth from several destinations. This may seem odd at first, but when you take a bus trip into the park it helps you to understand  how this system helps to minimize car travel and reduce the carbon footprint on this wilderness. Riders are free to get on and off the bus as they please.  Another distinct advantage is that you are much more likely to view an abundance of wildlife.  The animals have become accustomed to the big tan buses along the road and are more likely to view them as just a part of the landscape. When we went, we observed, from the safety of the bus, a mama Grizzly helping her two cubs to hunt a ground squirrel. That was an experience I will never forget.

Horseshoe Lake~Denali National Park

In addition to the park road, the trails allow foot traffic within the park for both the casual hiker and the seasoned veteran. Some of the more seasoned hikers are encouraged to “make their own trail”, but for the casual hikers there are several trails starting closer to the Visitors Center.  An easy hike, 1.5 miles, to the beautiful plateau above Horseshoe Lake provides ample opportunities for stunning photographs.  You can see why they call it Horseshoe Lake as evidenced by this photo. Wildlife thrives in the vastness of the park and the “big five” have been designated as: grizzly bears, wolves, moose, caribou and Dall sheep.  It may be a personal goal to view all five, but don’t be too disappointed if you don’t view them all. You can always pick up a coffee mug or t-shirt with all of them on it; sounds a bit touristy but a great way to remember your visit.  My family and I saw a grizzly and her cubs from quite a distance and also a mother moose and her cubs, but sometimes it’s very cool to also capture them on a souvenir. Not quite the same as seeing them in real life, but it’s so neat to bring back the memories of your trip and be able to say you’ve been to Denali. Wolves and grizzlies are not as easily seen, but the abundance of Moose in the park makes it almost a sure bet you will see them at some point. Depending on the year, the moose population within the park fluctuates of course, but the National Park Service estimates about 1,800 Moose at Denali.  That’s alot of Moose!  Just FYI, the plural of Moose is Moose…good to know.

Visiting with one of the Sled Dogs of Denali

“Mush, Doggies! Mush!” You can’t get up close and personal with a grizzly, but at Denali you can get close and cuddly with the sled dogs.  In the winter months, the best way to get around from here to there within the park is still by sled dog team.  One of the must see attractions at Denali is the sled dog demos and a visit to the kennels.   Even if you are visiting in the summer, they have to keep the dog’s training going year round, so they add small wheels to the sleds to run them on all terrains.  During the summer tourist season, they have 3 daily dog sled demonstrations.  The Park Service runs several shuttles to the kennels.  When I was there I was amazed to find out the importance of the use of dog sleds withing the park and also within the state of Alaska.  The most famous, well -known sled dog race, the Idiatrod, has a colorful and intriguing history.  Portions of the Iditarod trail were used as early as the 1880’s, However the most famous event in the history of Alaskan mushing is the 1925 serum run to Nome; also known as the “Great Race of Mercy.” A large diptheria epidemic threatened Nome. The only way to get the antitoxin to Nome was by sled dog, due to unusable planes and ships in the worst of winter.  So on January 27, the port at Seward had received the serum where it was passed to the first of twenty mushers and more than 100 dogs who relayed the package 674 miles from Nenana to Nome. The dogs ran in relays, with no dog running over 100 miles. Wow, I hear that story and am amazed of the courage and tenacity of those mushers and their dogs. No wonder it has become an inspiring tale; both for those that participate in the Iditarod and those that watch on the sidelines.  All an amazing part of the Alaska experience. Put your traveling shoes on. JES

For more information on Denali National Park, check out: Discovering Denali, A Complete Reference Guide to Denali National Park by Dow Scoggins  and also the National Park Service has great details about the Park including information on park habitats and wildlife.  Check out their web-site at:http://NPS.gov

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