Photo: Climbers on mountain summit

Climbing Mount McKinley, North America’s highest peak, is a daunting task for even the most experienced mountaineers at Denali National Park in Alaska.

Photograph by Alaska Stock Images

Location: Alaska

Established: February 26, 1917

Size: 6,075,029 acres

On any summer day in Denali, Alaska's most well known national park, hundreds of people see sights that will stay with them the rest of their lives. Perhaps a golden eagle will soar off the cliffs at Polychrome Pass, or 20 Dall's sheep will rest on a green shoulder of Primrose Ridge, or a grizzly will ramble over the tundra at Sable Pass. Maybe a caribou will pause on a ridgetop, silhouetted by the warm light of day's end, or a loon will call across Wonder Lake, or clouds will part to reveal the great massif of Mount McKinley, 20,320 feet high, the roof of North America.

The drama is always there. To see it, all you need to do is travel the 92-mile park road. The farther you go, the more you'll see, for the subarctic landscape will open up as big as the sky and the animals will move through it with wild, ancient poetry.

Other North American parks have their wildlife, but none has animals so visible or diverse as Denali. And other parks have their mountains, but none with a stature so stunning, a summit so towering as McKinley.

Denali's visitors have increased almost 200 percent in 30 years. Accommodating them without eroding the park's wilderness has been a struggle. A bus system that permits maximum wildlife viewing while holding down traffic has been designed. Campgrounds are modest and unobtrusive. And the wilderness areas have strict overnight camping ceilings to prevent overcrowding and damage to the flora and fauna. Unless you plan ahead by using the park's easy-to-use reservation system, you may have to wait a day or two to get your preferred campsite or bus reservation.

Did You Know?

Inspired by the beauty of the Toklat River, naturalist Charles Sheldon spent nine years lobbying for legislation to create the park—the first national park in Alaska. Originally established in 1917 with the name Mount McKinley, 63 years later it would be renamed Denali or "the High One," the native Athabaskan name for the majestic peak. That same year, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) enlarged the boundaries by four million acres (almost two million hectares), regrouping the land into Denali National Park and Preserve.

Copy for this series includes excerpts from the National Geographic Guide to the National Parks of the United States, Seventh Edition, 2012, and the National Parks articles featured in "Cutting Loose" in National Geographic Traveler.

National Parks Photos

  • Photo: Road through green grass leading to mountain

    Denali Photos

    Denali’s paths all lead visitors through its majestic valleys toward the towering Mount McKinley, the crown jewel of the park. On clear days, McKinley can be seen 70 miles to the southwest.

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