Denali National Park & Preserve

Denali National Park & Preserve


Throughout its dynamic history, the wilderness that is now Denali National Park and Preserve has always been an awe-inspiring place to behold for visitors that include prehistoric Athabaskans, adventurous mountaineers, hardscrabble miners and modern-day sightseers.


Imagine this scenario: Roughly 20,000 years ago, during the height of the Wisconsin Ice Age, sheets of ice crept as far south as Rhode Island and central Illinois. Yet the Alaskan interior was free of ice, covered instead by steppe tundra vegetation and inhabited by woolly mammoth and other large megafauna. The rugged environment still proved suitable for North America's first human residents, who likely crossed into this continent on a land bridge from Asia some 25,000 years ago.

Archeological evidence suggests that nomadic bands of Athabaskans hunted the lowland hills of Denali's northern reaches from the spring through the fall, probably in search of caribou, sheep and moose. These early bands netted fish, gathered edible plants and preserved berries to last them through the cold winter months. It is quite possible they picked blueberries at Wonder Lake, just as visitors to the park do today. As snow began to fall, these early settlers migrated to lower elevations, closer to the river valleys, to avail themselves of better protection from winter's severe weather.

This was pretty much the way native groups were living at Denali when Europeans first arrived in the area in the late 18th century. In 1794, Captain George Vancouver sailed into upper Cook Inlet, which serves as Mount McKinley's drainage basin; and noted, "...distant, stupendous mountains covered with snow and apparently detached from one another." Vancouver was likely the first westerner to lay eyes on Mount McKinley and its smaller cousin, Mount Foraker. Near the turn of that century, the American topographer Robert Muldrow calculated McKinley's towering height using the primitive tools of his time, missing by only 144 feet. The mountaineering community took notice. For anyone with a yen for adventure, an opportunity to climb the continent's tallest peak could not be overlooked.

The first person to attempt the summit was Judge James Wickersham of Alaska. In 1902, he scaled nearly 10,000 feet, but was turned back by a steep north-facing precipice. Seven years later, four miners dubbed the Sourdough Party scrambled 19,470 feet to the mountain's north peak, only to discover—much to their chagrin—that the mountain's south peak was actually taller! These explorers had been inadvertently deceived because from Fairbanks, the north peak appears higher and obstructs the view of what lies to the south.

The Parker-Brown expedition nearly succeeded in 1912, but failed after a blizzard struck the group just 600 feet below the summit. Finally, in 1913, Archdeacon Hudson Stuck and Harry P. Karstens, along with two companions, reached the roof of North America. (Walter Harper, a young native Alaskan, was actually the first on the summit.) The ascent took 53 days and required the group to carve a three-mile staircase into sheets of ice. Nearly 19 years later, the Lindley-Liek Expedition accomplished the same feat and two days later they climbed the north peak, thus achieving the distinction of becoming the first expedition to ascend both peaks forming the summit of the great mountain.

While Mount McKinley's snowy slopes sparked the adventurous spirit of mountaineers, the discovery of gold in the Kantishna Hills in 1905 brought large numbers of prospectors and miners to the area. Settlements such as Diamond, Glacier City and Kantishna sprang up to support a burgeoning mining industry. In addition to gold, placer, silver, lead, zinc and antimony have all been mined in the region. In 1976, a federal law terminated any additional mining in the park; today, only a minimal amount of this industry persists. There is also very little that remains at the sites of the old towns that flourished nearly 100 years ago.

In 1908, Charles Sheldon, a naturalist and hunter, spent the winter in a cabin on the Toklat River. On countless mushing trips and winter tramps, he fell in love with the land and its bounty of wildlife. When Sheldon left in the spring, he was utterly devoted to the area's beauty and determined to save it. After nine years of work, his dream came true on February 26, 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson created Mount McKinley National Park.

McKinley Park grew as boundary changes added more land and resources to the park. In an effort to provide additional wildlife protection and conservation, the park boundaries were extended in 1922, 1932 and again in 1980. These extensions also added important natural features such as Wonder Lake and the south slopes of the Alaska Range.

The 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act expanded the park by 4 million acres; the law also provided the critical range necessary to support populations of moose, wolf and caribou as part of an integral ecosystem and to include the entire McKinley massif into the park's boundaries. The newly-expanded 6-million-acre park was renamed Denali National Park and Preserve. Denali National Park and Preserve contains resources of international significance—the highest mountain on the North American continent and the largest protected ecosystem in the world. For these reasons, Denali National Park and Preserve was named an International Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations in 1976.

Today, more than 400,000 people visit Denali National Park and Preserve each year to enjoy its pristine wilderness. The auspices of the National Park System help ensure this beautiful area will continue to prosper and thrive for future generations.