For centuries, the Athabascans of central Alaska looked up at this 20,320-foot mountain and called it Denali, ‘the Great One’. Then, in 1896, businessman-turned-prospector William Dickey rechristened it in honor of President William McKinley, who hailed from Ohio and had never set foot in Alaska. That’s never sat well with a lot of Alaskans. But whatever you call the mountain, its grandeur transcends any language.
The tallest peak in North America, Denali is the primary attraction of Denali National Park and Preserve, but it’s not the only draw. Visitors return from the six-million-acre park with tales of the grizzlies, wolves, caribou, moose and golden eagles they sighted. And then there are the views, sweeping vistas of subarctic tundra and taiga, glaciers and deeply gouged valleys, and a good number of massive mountain peaks that almost compete with the Great One.
Touring and tent camping are controlled to protect the park’s fragile ecology. There’s only one 90-mile road, of which only the first 15 miles are paved, and traffic past the 15-mile point is limited to buses and official vehicles. Summer brings long northern days, with 16 to 20 hours of light in which to take in the scenery. For an upstairs view, a number of operators offer plane or helicopter ‘flightseeing’ excursions.
For a more in-depth, active experience, you can stay at the sylvan Camp Denali, founded in 1951 by homesteaders on the not-yet-designated national parkland. Located in the heart of the park, the camp’s 17 cabins offer views of the mountain and other peaks in the Alaska Range. Naturalist guides lead hikes to explore the backcountry and offer evening educational programmes.
Right outside the northwest border of the park, family-owned Denali West Lodge has room for just ten guests in private, rustic log cabins overlooking Lake Minchumina. There are wood stoves for heat, saunas and bathhouses made from birch and cedar, and family-style meals served in the main lodge, but the biggest draw is the wintertime dog-mushing expeditions: six-day trips that explore historic gold-mining and trapping trails each day and return to the lodge at night, and nine-day expeditions to Mount McKinley, staying in walled tents along the way. In summer, activities focus on hiking, kayaking and learning about regional plant, bird and animal life.
Visit the Denali National Park and Preserve website