Denali National Park & Preserve

Denali National Park & Preserve

Mt McKinley

While mist often veils this magnificent peak, visitors can rest assured it is always up there! Mount McKinley is the highest mountain on the North American continent, one that reaches a towering 20,320 feet. Measured from the 2,000-foot lowlands near Wonder Lake to its summit, it might even be called the tallest in the world. Its vertical relief of 18,000 feet is even greater than that of Mount Everest.

The Name

Although the official name is Mount McKinley, Denali—the High One— is what most Alaskans called the mountain. Denali is the name originally given to the massive peak by Athabascan people. The name Mount McKinley was initially coined in 1896—the brainchild of a gold prospector who took his inspiration from Republican presidential candidate William McKinley of Ohio. The prospector, William Dickey, had just returned to town from his claim near the mountain and was filled with enthusiasm for both the politician McKinley and the 20,320-foot mountain. His choice of name caught on in much of the United States, but, ironically, never in Alaska. In fact, Denali is the official name in Alaska, though not on federal maps. Each year, a congressman from Ohio files legislation to prevent the name from being changed to Denali. The park itself was known as Mount McKinley National Park after its creation in 1917, but the name was changed to Denali National Park and Preserve in 1980.


Mount McKinley may be high, but it is actually still growing at a rate of about one millimeter per year! Active plate tectonics (the Pacific plate is plunging beneath Alaska, or the North American plate) continually compress and fold land surfaces in Alaska. These tectonic forces are ultimately what push Mount McKinley—as well as the mountains in the Alaska Range—up higher. Although it is surrounded by many glacier-clad mountains of similar grandeur, Mount McKinley is primarily made of granite, an extremely weather-resistant rock. Its neighbors, however, are composed of sedimentary rocks that are much less durable, such as shale, limestone and sandstone. As Denali is pushed up, it remains above others in the area like a resistant sentinel, while nearby mountains erode away in the continual onslaught of freezing, thawing and glacial scouring. At 56 million years old, Denali rock is also much younger than most of its sedimentary neighbors which vary in age from 100 million to more than 400 million years old.


Mount McKinley is significant to the worldwide mountaineering community. Numerous peaks in the Alaskan Range are climbed each year, but none has the appeal and drawing power of this towering peak. Compared to other high profile mountains, Mount McKinley is relatively easy and logistically simple to ascend. The mountain offers other significant challenges with glacier travel, severe temperatures and extreme environmental conditions. The number of mountaineers attempting to scale the peak has increased substantially in the last 30 years. The south summit is the highest point on Mount McKinley and, therefore, becomes the goal for many mountaineers. The most popular route to the south summit is the West Buttress. Expeditions are lengthy, averaging around 17 days long. Despite this considerable investment of time on the part of climbers, however, their success rate hovers only in the 50 percent range.