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,
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.
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?
Best time to visit
The park is open throughout the year, but
even in summer- between June and August- average temperatures are about 20°C, while in
winter averages range between -18 to -22°C, although freezingly low temperatures of less
than -40°C 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.
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: