When an Alaskan says “the mountain is out” there is no doubt which mountain is filling the horizon. It is the tallest mountain in North America —Denali— a magnificent sight when it emerges from the cover of clouds.
The mountain is not the reason Denali National Park and Preserve was created, though. In 1917, the park was formed to protect the wildlife. Eventually expanded to 6 million acres, the park is home to moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves and grizzly bears.
More than 650 species of flowering plants eke out a living in the park, along with a variety of mosses and lichens. Only plants adapted to long, cold winters and short growing seasons can survive in Denali’s subarctic climate.
In addition, Denali is home to 39 species of mammals, 167 species of birds, 10 species of fish and one amphibian, the wood frog. There are no reptiles in Denali National Park.
Dinosaur tracks, discovered in 2005, revealed for the first time that prehistoric creatures also lived there.
Get to the park by train, bus, car or even charter a small airplane.
The Denali Park Road is a narrow, primarily gravel road that winds through the mountains and across rivers. It continues for about 92 miles to the old mining community of Kantishna, now a visitors’ haven.
Private vehicles are not permitted, though anyone can drive the first 15 miles to Savage River. After that, traffic is limited — except during the few days annually when winners of the Denali Road Lottery head into the park in their personal vehicles.
The National Park Service allows as many as 400 permit winners per day to drive vehicles the entire length of the park road at the end of the tourist season, in mid-September. See the Denali National Park website for information on how to apply for this lottery. In 2019, Road Lottery weekend is Sept. 13, 15, 16 and 17, with Military Appreciation Day on Sept. 14. The non-refundable application fee for the road lottery is $15. Apply online at www.recreation.gov from May 1-31. Winners must also pay a $25 permit fee to drive the park road.
Limiting traffic on the park road is deliberate. This park is managed for the wildlife, not the people.
Enjoying and appreciating the wilderness of Denali National Park is easy. The Denali Visitor Center is the central location to pick up a trail map, acquire a backcountry permit, and to check schedules of guided walks and other programs.
There are trails in the entrance area that are free for hiking anytime. They range in difficulty from easy to challenging. The park also offers hiking, bicycling and backcountry camping. Experienced park rangers lead special hikes, as well.
Photography is encouraged in the park, but take care when photographing wildlife. There are guidelines on how close you should approach bears, eagles, caribou and other animals.
There also are guidelines for hiking, to help preserve fragile tundra plants that cling to life during the short season. Take special measures to enjoy wildlife from afar and to avoid chance encounters with bears.
For a close-up view of how the park operates, visit the Denali Kennels, where a team of sled dogs lives year round. During the summer, these working dogs welcome visitors and their handlers provide an informative program. The dogs patrol the Denali wilderness during winter months.
IF YOU GO
What: Denali National Park and Preserve
When: Park bus service begins May 20 each year (and runs through the second week after Labor Day. However, the entire road is not accessible by bus until June 8.
Where: The park entrance is about 120 miles south of Fairbanks on the Parks Highway.
Cost: $15 per person. No fee for children age 15 and younger. This provides a seven-day entrance permit. Denali annual pass: $45. Annual military pass is free.
More info: www.nps.gov/dena