DENALI NATIONAL PARK

Situated in south-central Alaska, Denali National Park is home to the USA's highest peak, Mt McKinley- 6,194 mt of formidable rock, snow and ice. The majestic Alaska Ranges tower over Denali- the word `denali' itself means `great one' in the native Athabascan dialect, and refers to the huge massif which makes up McKinley and its neighbouring peaks. An expanse of about 25,000 sq km, Denali offers the ultimate in the wilderness experience- whether you want to go mountaineering or dog-mushing, whether you want to see bear and moose at close quarters- this is where it is. A vast, frozen stretch of mountains and glaciers, characterised by the `taiga'- the stunted evergreen forests which border the treeless tundra, on the edge of the Arctic Circle.

Wildlife is Denali's core competence, but there's more to see. More than 430 species of flowering plants burst into bloom at the first sign of the short-lived spring, and lichens, mosses and algae thrive in what is hostile terrain to all but the hardiest. The lower altitudes of Denali's mountains are covered by woods of quaking aspen, spruce, paper birch and poplar, but higher up, where the snow begins, all that survives are cottongrass, sedge and stunted shrubs- the tundra.

Here, in the bleak, subzero temperatures of the sub-Arctic, live a surprisingly large number of species- caribou, moose, Dall sheep, wolf, fox and grizzly, along with smaller mammals. Many of these, like the squirrels and smaller rodents, lay up stocks of food for the long, bitter winters, while others, including the grizzlies, simply hibernate. Also among Denali's list of inhabitants are a wide range of birds, both endemic and migratory- ptarmigans, Lapland longspurs, terns, owls, golden eagles and goshawks being the prominent species.

Yes, you certainly can't complain that Denali is commonplace or doesn't offer much. This is definitely adventure in its rawest, wildest form.

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Entry Permits

Entry passes costing US$5 per person or family passes for US$10 have to be obtained by anyone entering Denali; both entitle you to a week's stay in the park. Annual passes worth US$20 are available too. American citizens are eligible for lifetime passes, which allow entry to all the national parks in the country. These passes are free for those with permanent disabilities, and cost a nominal amount- between US$10 and 50- for everybody else.

Denali has two visitor centres, the Eielson Visitor Centre and the Park Headquarters Visitor Centre, from where entry permits can be collected. Both centres offer maps, brochures and tourist literature regarding Denali, and are venues for slide programmes, talks, hikes and interactions with the park's rangers.

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Access

Denali is approximately 380 km from Anchorage, 194 km from Fairbanks, and 200 km from Talkeetna, along Alaska Route 3 (the George Parks Highway). During the summer, buses, vans and trains do daily trips to Denali from these three towns, and taxis as well as rented cars are available too. Anchorage and Fairbanks have airports linked to a number of destinations across the US and Canada. Talkeetna has an airport too, but with fewer connections.

The road to Denali is open usually from Memorial Day (the last Monday in May) to mid-September, depending upon weather conditions. Through the rest of the year, snowmachines, dog-sleds, cross-country skis or snowshoes may be used to get to the park

The most unforgettable views of Denali are to be obtained along the 145 km long stretch known as the Denali Park Road. It's a breathtaking slideshow of Denali's biggest attractions, and can be traversed by car, by bike or aboard the shuttle bus which does the trip from the park entrance to Kantishna. During peak season, only 400 cars a day are allowed on the Park Road; if you want to be one of these, you'll have to send an application to the park in July to participate in the `Road Lottery'- you just might strike gold, and be allowed to drive down the road.

Hiking or biking are good ways to see Denali, but you should be aware that there are virtually no marked trails in this area, and trekking here is best done only if you've at least some experience of wandering about in the wild. More adventurous options for seeing Denali and its denizens include canoeing down the Nenana river or hiring a bush plane to take a tour above the park.

Mountaineering, with a prior reservation of at least 2 months, offers adventure too- try Mt Foraker, Hunter, Cathedral Spires or Mather. The most exciting, of course, is to conquer McKinley itself- the view from the summit is stunning. Any takers?

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Best time to visit

The park is open throughout the year, but even in summer- between June and August- average temperatures are about 20C, while in winter averages range between -18 to -22C, although freezingly low temperatures of less than -40C are not unknown. Stick to summer, unless you're keen on winter sports like skiing or dog-sledding, or are hellbent on masochism. Another point to keep in mind is the fact that the road to Denali is open only between late May and mid-September. 
Whenever you do go to Denali, make sure you've got plenty of woollens and protection against rain, wind and snow- this isn't a nice place to find yourself without another jacket to put on.

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Accommodation

Denali has a number of park-run and privately-owned tourist lodges and hotels where visitors can get a room. Apart from these, there are seven campgrounds in the park: Savage River, Riley Creek, and Teklanika River- all accessible by car or bike; Igloo Creek, Sanctuary River and Wonder Lake- accessible only by bus and consisting entirely of tented accommodation. Morino Backpacker campground is especially for visitors who arrive without any vehicles of their own. All campgrounds are operated on a reservations- only basis, and stays must be limited to a fortnight or less. Backcountry camping is allowed in Denali, but only after you've obtained a free permit from the park authorities.

Nearby towns like Healy (20 km from Denali), Denali Park, Cantwell, Nenana, Clear and Wasilla offer a greater range of accommodation, stretching from budget to luxury.

Further information on Denali National Park is available from the National Park Service (Tel: 1-800-365-2267). Alternatively, you could contact the park administration directly at Denali National Park, PO Box 9, Denali National Park, Alaska or Talkeetna Ranger Station, Box 588, Talkeetna, Alaska (Tel: 907-683-2294).


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National Parks

- Acadia National Park
- Denali National Park
- Everglades National Park
- Glacier National Park
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Mammoth Cave National Park
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- Olympic National Park
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- Shenandoah National Park
- Yellowstone National Park
 
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