But it's not just the mountain that makes Denali National Park a special place. The park is also home to 37 species of mammals, ranging from lynx, marmots and Dall sheep, to foxes and snowshoe hares, while 130 different bird species have been spotted here, including the impressive golden eagle. Most visitors, however, want to see four animals in particular: moose, caribou, wolf and everybody's favorite: the brown, or grizzly, bear. Here at Denali, unlike most wilderness areas in the country, you don't have to be a backpacker to see this wildlife - people who never sleep in a tent have excellent once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to get a close look at these magnificent creatures roaming free in their natural habitat.
Not surprisingly then, visitors come here in droves; the park is a popular place, attracting 432,000 visitors annually. Over the years the National Park Service (NPS) has developed unique visitor-management strategies, including closing its only road to most vehicles. As a result Denali National Park is still the great wilderness it was 20 years ago. The entrance has changed, but the park itself hasn't, and a brown bear meandering on a tundra ridge still provides the same quiet thrill as it did when the park first opened in 1917.
Although generations of Athabascans had wandered through what is now the park, the first permanent settlement was established in 1905, when a gold miners' rush gave birth to the town of Kantishna. A year later, naturalist and noted hunter Charles Sheldon was stunned by the beauty of the land and horrified at the reckless abandon of the miners and big-game hunters. Sheldon returned in 1907 and traveled the area with guide Harry Karstens in an effort to set up boundaries for a proposed national park. Sheldon was successful as the area was established as Mount McKinley National Park in 1917 with Karstens serving as the park's first superintendent. As a result of the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the park was enlarged to more than 6 million acres and renamed Denali National Park and Preserve. Denali now comprises an area slightly larger than the state of Massachusetts and is generally ranked as one of Alaska's top attractions.
Denali is reached at Mile 237 of the George Parks and at its entrance area is Riley Creek Campground, the Alaska Railroad station, the Denali Visitor Center, the interesting Murie Science and Learning Center and Wilderness Access Center (WAC), which serves as the park's transport hub and campground-reservation center. From the entrance the 92-mile Park Road heads west through the heart of Denali, passing Eielson Visitor Center and five backcountry campgrounds including Wonder Lake Campground where on a clear day campers enjoy a reflection of Mount McKinley on the mirrored surface of the lake. The road ends at the old mining settlement of Kantishna, now the site of several wilderness lodges. Visitors with vehicles can only drive to a parking area along the Savage River at Mile 14 of the Park Road. The rest of the Denali is reached by the park's wonderful shuttle bus system. Buses begin leaving the WAC at 5:30 a.m. with many making the run out to Wonder Lake, providing one of the best wildlife viewing experiences in Alaska. Day hikers can get off the bus anywhere along the Park Road and at the end of their trek can flag down any bus for a ride back to the park entrance. Campers have their own bus.
For many visitors Denali is the opportunity to escape into the backcountry for a truly Alaskan experience. Thanks to Denali's rigid restrictions and permits, backpackers can trek and camp in a slice of the wilderness all their own, even if it's just for a few days. The park has few trails; most hiking is cross-country over open terrain such as gravel river beds and tundra ridges.
Other activities at Denali or just outside of it include sled dog demonstration, even during the summer, rafting the Nenana River, mountain biking on the Park Road and flight seeing. In Talkeetna the National Park Service maintains its Mountaineering Ranger Station (907-733-2231) for climbers from around the world who arrive to scale North America's highest peak. In the winter activities include dog mushing, cross-country skiing, snow machining and Northern Lights viewing.
Denali has entrance fee, charged either per person or per vehicle, and is good for seven days. Camping, shuttle bus transportation and mountaineering permits require additional fees.
Denali is accessible by car on the George Parks Highway or via the Alaska Railroad from either Anchorage or Fairbanks. Gateway communities to the park are Healy, Cantwell and Talkeetna. In summer a variety of private bus and van services and the railroad operate daily from Anchorage and Fairbanks.
Alaska is great for kids
Located in Alaska’s Interior, Denali National Park and Preserve is easily accessible via road, rail or chartered airplane. Once visitors arrive at the expansive park – it’s larger than Massachusetts – they’ll face a host of options, including many tailored for children.
The Denali Visitor Center is stocked with kid-friendly exhibits and is also a great access point for some of the park’s short and scenic hiking trails. At the visitor center, travelers can also hop on the park’s free shuttles. One goes to the sled dog demonstration, a 30-minute program that features a tour of the park’s husky kennels and a chance to see the dogs pull a musher. Another shuttle takes riders to the Savage River, a perfect starting point for a wildlife-spotting hike on Savage River Loop or a chance to take in the view of Savage Rock.
The Denali National Park & Preserve Junior Ranger Program helps children learn about wilderness, wildlife and national parks and is designed as a collaborative project for parents and children. To get started, visitors stop by the Denali Visitor Center, Toklat Contact Station, Murie Science and Learning Center or Talkeetna Ranger Station and pick up a free activity guide designed for children ages 4-8 or 9-14. After completing activities that include lessons on safety and wildlife, children turn in their books and are awarded Junior Ranger badges. The National Park Service also has online Junior Ranger programs and 50 games to help kids learn about national parks.
If your kid has an affinity for dinosaurs, they’ll be excited to hear prehistoric creatures once roamed Denali. The dinosaurs left behind fossilized footprints that can still be observed, especially in an area of the park known as the Cantwell Formation. Denali was home to several different types of dinosaurs: meat-eating theropods, beaked ceratopsians, flying pterosaurs and duck-billed hadrosaurs. A fun activity guide gives kids an overview of the dinosaurs and has quizzes about their footprints and behaviors.
The park is also home to the Murie Science and Learning Center, a facility focused on research and education. The center is open all year and features adult programs such as research fellowships, teacher trainings and field seminars along with a range of options for families with children. Families can pick up free discovery packs, which are stocked with tools and activities to guide learning experiences around the park. By special arrangement, groups can take guided excursions into the park or short hikes with hands-on learning.