Park Number: 50/59
First Visited: August 28, 2015
When people consider Alaska’s national parks, though there are eight in total, they think of one in particular: Denali. This isn’t without reason: Denali was one of the first national parks introduced in to the system, being established as Mount McKinley National Park in 1917. The two biggest draws are the mountains (one being the tallest peak in all of North America) and the abundance of wildlife, ranging from grizzly bears to caribou to Dall sheep (my favorite was a beaver dragging a freshly-gnawed branch across the road).
As for North America’s highest summit, standing at a staggering 20,310 feet, the mountain isn’t without controversy. It all has to do with titles.
One of the first recognized place names was Denali, an Athabaskan word meaning “the high one.” However, when the national park was designated, the United States renamed the mountain Mount McKinley, honoring a president who had never even stepped foot in Alaska. The park was later renamed in 1980 as Denali National Park, but the actual summit remained McKinley. It wasn’t until August 30, 2015 (the weekend that I was in the park) that the mountain’s name was restored to Denali.
Nearly 400,000 people visit Denali each year to see the mountain, but, unfortunately, only 30% are given such an opportunity; the summit is often shrouded in clouds. I got to see the peak from afar (from Denali State Park) but when trying to make the 85-mile journey to Wonder Lake, one of the best places to feel the mountain’s magnitude, we got turned around at mile 53 (at Toklat River) because we’d caught the first snowstorm of the impending winter.
This, however, gives me reason to return.
As for the park itself, there are a couple of things that Denali is truly doing right. One is that, in order to enter the park’s interior, you have to use the designated bus system. This cuts down on park traffic, wildlife disruption, pollution/emissions, and infrastructure erosion. Other parks need to start adopting this system; it’s gotten to the point that I don’t even visit Yellowstone in the summer because of the chaotic traffic and parking conditions.
Secondly, I love that Denali adheres to a true wilderness system of exploration, meaning there are few established trails and the rangers actually encourage you to blaze your own routes, bushwhacking through the thick taiga and hopping along riverbeds. This is what I liked best about Alaska in general—the hands-off approach of trusting visitors to respect the land and utilize it without unnecessary fees and regulations.
This is all to say: Alaska is the fading vestige of a frontier long-since lifeless in the Lower Forty-Eight; I’d advise going before it’s gone.