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Denali National Park

More than a mountain, Denali is six million acres of wilderness that bursts with wildlife

A short two-hour drive south of Fairbanks leads one into the heart of the Alaska Mountain Range and Denali National Park and Preserve. Denali National Park is truly one of the last great frontiers for wilderness adventure. Mt. McKinley is the most popular feature in the park. Called Denali or the "Great One" by the Athabascan Indians, its peak rises 20,320 feet above sea level, making it the highest point on the North American continent. Denali's northern peak is the second highest peak in North America with an elevation of 19,470.

There is a vast array of activities and learning experiences for visitors of all ages in Denali National Park. Visitors almost always want to stay longer because there is so much to see and do in the area. For the adventuresome, there are flightseeing trips via plane or helicopter through the mountain passes or around Denali's peak. Mountaineering is popular during the spring and early summer. Try river rafting in the nearby Nenana River on a warm afternoon. Camping, backcountry hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding are all enjoyable activities in the park also.

Most people visit the park via the park service's buses that travel the lone access road into the park. Because the National Park Service wants to preserve the park as naturally as possible, these buses are used along the access road past the Savage River check station, 15 miles into the park. However, these buses provide excellent opportunities to view the variety of wildlife that resides in the park. Grizzly and black bears, moose, caribou, wolves, red fox, lynx, wolverine, snowshoe hare, marmots and Dall sheep can all be seen while traveling the park road.

Along with wildlife viewing, there are naturalist programs led by park rangers that include walks, hikes, campfire programs and sled dog demonstrations. Many people enjoy learning about Denali's unusual terrain and geological features. The area consists of taiga, or northern evergreen forests, with sparse, thin spruce and tundra. The tundra areas consist of dwarfed shrubs and wildflowers. Denali's unique subarctic region is home to over 650 species of flowering plants, along with mosses, lichens and algae. These plants are hardy and have had to adapt to the cold harsh winter. In the valleys, birch, poplar and aspen turn the area green in summer and golden in fall. Open areas are filled with blueberries, which the bears enjoy, and willows, which the moose feed on year-round.

Geologically, the Alaska Mountain Range, including Denali was formed millions of years ago when two tectonic plates collided causing the Denali Fault. This 1,300-mile fault stretches from the Yukon border down the Aleutian Chain and includes many volcanoes. Glaciers are common throughout the Alaska Range because cold temperatures prevent snow and ice from melting. Over fifty percent of Denali itself is covered with permanent snowfields and glaciers that surround its base.

Some people like to bus to the end of the park road at Mile 89 and explore the old mining town of Kantishna. Gold was discovered in the Kantishna area in 1903 and within two years more claims were found and staked. Once word spread to Fairbanks about the new find, thousands came to the area and mining towns grew overnight. Eureka, which was the original town, is now called Kantishna.

During the winter, Denali is still officially open, though many facilities are closed. A road lottery in the fall allows people to drive the length of the park road and see the beautiful golden hills and red groundcover. By April, the road is open to Mile 15 and, as crews work, the road is again open to private vehicles until mid-May.

Winter in Denali is a beautiful, quiet, serene time to visit. Although the road is closed to cars in the winter, the park remains open for those who might like to try cross-country skiing, dog mushing or snowshoeing. Snowmachines are allowed in most park areas throughout the winter.

Denali's Wildlife
Denali was originally created as Mt. McKinley National Park in 1917 mainly due to its diversity of wildlife. There are 39 species of mammals, 169 species of birds, 14 species of fish and one species of amphibian, the wood frog, known in Denali. There are no reptiles recorded in Denali.

Animal life and activity in Denali is dictated by the seasons. Winter is the longest season and the animals that are year-round residents are well-adapted to life in the subarctic. The brief spring season brings the return of 80 percent of Denali's bird life, the waking of hibernating bears and an increase in activity levels of wildlife. Summer is a time for raising young and preparing for migration, hibernation or survival during the winter. Summer also brings hordes of insects, including mosquitoes. In late summer, king and chum salmon run in the multitude of streams and rivers. In autumn, migrating birds fill the skies and bull moose gather their harems of cows for the mating season.

Mammals survive the long subarctic winters in many ways. Some species like grizzly bears and arctic ground squirrels hibernate. Other species like mice and voles live under the snow in tunnels and burrows. Caribou, Dall sheep and moose are active throughout the winter and are constantly on the move searching for food and evading predators.

For More Information:
Denali National Park
907-683-9532
nps.gov/dena

Alaska Travel Industry Association
800-862-5275
travelalaska.com

 

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