9 Things You Didn’t Know about Denali National Park and Preserve


Sitting at the foothills of the Alaska Range, Denali National Park and Preserve is as wild and wonderful as it was when hunter and naturalist Charles Sheldon first visited the area more than a century ago. It was Sheldon’s drive and determination to protect this American treasure that led to the creation of Denali National Park and Preserve on February 26, 1917. 

Today, visitors can participate in plenty of activities, including ranger-led discovery hikes, cycling along Denali Park Road, sightseeing on a bus tour, backcountry camping or photographing the grandeur, diversity and raw beauty of one of the nation’s most spectacular national parks.

As we celebrate the creation of this national park, check out nine things you might not know about Denali.

1. Denali is a true wilderness with only one road bisecting the park. Construction on Denali Park Road began in 1923, and the 92-mile long road was completed in 1938. Spanning the park’s vast terrains, the road is the main access point for hikers, bikers and bus tours. While private vehicles are only allowed on the road up to mile 15, the park hosts a road lottery for four days every year, allowing winners of single day-long permits to drive as much of Denali Park Road as weather permits.

Purple flowers and green grass line a dirt road leading up to snow covered peaks.
Fireweed can be found along the rustic Denali Park Road. Photo by Kent Miller, National Park Service.

2. Visitors often come to Denali to see the big five of wildlife. For many visitors adventuring to the park, a major goal is to see wildlife. Scientists have documented 39 species of mammals in Denali, but it is the five largest mammals that capture visitors’ imaginations: moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves and grizzly bears. Visitors can also see 169 species of birds and over 1,500 species of plants. Check out these wildlife viewing tips to ensure you have a fun, safe visit.

Three large grizzly bears sniff through fields of bright red, yellow, and orange flowers.
Grizzly bears can often be seen eating blueberries in late summer. Be sure to carry bear spray and stay at least 300 yards away. Photo by Jacob W. Frank, National Park Service.

3. Mountaineering is a favorite activity at this national park. Measuring 20,310 feet, Denali is the tallest peak in North America. The first climb to the top was accomplished in 1913. A member of the party, Harry Karstens, would later become the first superintendent of Denali. Today, mountaineers from around the world take on the challenge. Expert climbers also test their skills on countless peaks and ice walls throughout the park. For adventure seekers and wilderness junkies, there’s no better place than Denali. 

A large clear pond shows the reflection of a white mountain and a bright blue, clouded sky.
The average expedition to the top of Denali and back takes 17-21 days. However, years of training and prior expedition experience is vital before attempting this climb. Photo by National Park Service.

4. Denali has a rich history and remains an important place for Alaska Natives. For thousands of years, Alaska Natives have lived on the land surrounding the Denali area and used the resources of the land for food, shelter, clothing, transportation, handicrafts and trade. The name Denali stems from native Athabaskan languages, and can mean “the tall one” or “mountain-big.” Today the park preserves a diverse tapestry of plant life and intact ecosystems where animals can roam as they have for thousands of years. Learn more about the human history of Denali by attending a ranger talk or exploring the exhibits at the Denali Visitor Center. 

A woman wearing bright orange hangs fish on a wooden drying rack.
June Tracy, of Nondalton, Alaska, hangs fish to dry for winter, a traditional curing method for Alaska Natives. Photo by National Park Service.

5. Some of Denali’s park rangers walk on four legs. Sled dogs have been helping rangers patrol the park since it opened in the 1920s. They are the only sled dogs in the United States that work in a national park. Visitors can see sled dog demonstrations in the summer, view the dogs at work in the winter or visit their kennels year round. Can’t make it to the park? Check out the park’s puppy cam or follow the park on Facebook for the latest updates on Denali’s sled dogs.

Three sled dog puppies sit on top of a red and blue boxes in a large kennel.
Meet Cupcake, Piñata and Party. These siblings were born in 2016 and have party-themed names to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. Photo by National Park Service.

6. Denali is one of the best places in the U.S. to watch the Aurora Borealis. You’ll need careful planning and a bit of luck to see the Northern Lights in Denali. While Auroras occur year round, only in fall, winter and early spring is the night sky dark enough to view these fantastical displays of light and color after a strong solar storm. If you don’t catch this hard-to-predict phenomenon, clear, cold nights at Denali can still provide incredible stargazing.

Bright green lights line the starry dark sky and illuminate the snow covered road below.
The vibrant colors of an Aurora can be seen throughout the park when the phenomenon is occurring. Photo of the Aurora from 2015 by Kent Miller, National Park Service.

7. Visitors can explore what Denali was like millions of years ago. Dinosaur fossils are abundant in Denali’s 70 million-year-old Cantwell Formation. Discovered in 2005, a three-toed carnivore called a theropod was the first fossil found in interior Alaska. Thousands of trace fossils have been discovered since. Park goers can see (and even touch) many of these fossils at Denali’s Murie Science and Learning Center.

A fossil of a three toed dinosaur is cast in black rock.
This cast of a theropod’s right foot was found by geology students from University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2005. Photo by Jacob W. Frank, National Park Service.

8. Only one species of amphibian has adapted to life in the cold at Denali. While there are no reptiles found this far north, the wood frog is the lone amphibian in Denali that can survive the harsh winter temperatures of Alaska. Wood frogs’ bodies freeze solid throughout the duration of the winter. Their hearts don’t beat and they don’t breathe, but cryoprotectant chemicals protect the frogs’ cells as they hibernate. As spring rolls around, the frogs thaw and return to the ponds to being the breeding process. Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to spot this creature while exploring Denali.

A tiny brown frog sits in the palm of a person's hand, spanning about the width of a finger.
Wood frogs only grow to be about 7 centimeters long. They can survive temperatures as low as -12 degrees Celsius. Photo by Dan Young, National Park Service. 

9. Glaciers cover one million acres of Denali -- that’s one-sixth of the park. Glaciers flow away from mountains, and flow from as high as 19,000 feet above sea level. The Kahiltna glacier is the longest glacier not only in the park, but in the entire Alaska Range. It spans 44 miles down the southwestern side of Denali.

A sunset glows on the side of snow covered brown mountains.
The Muldrow glacier carries ice and snow more than 30 miles down the northeastern side of Denali. Photo by Tim Rains, National Park Service.

There are endless ways to explore Denali National Park and Preserve. Start planning your adventure today at https://www.nps.gov/dena.

Secretary Zinke and a park ranger smile as they take a sled dog for a walk down a path surrounded by green grass.
Secretary Zinke walking one of Denali's sled dogs during a visit in May 2017. Photo by Tami Heilemann, Interior.