Most mountains have “Mount” in their names (Mount Whitney, Mount Rainier) not so with Denali. Denali has no use for such petty titles, it is an awesome sight rising out of the landscape, a mammoth snow covered monolith. We marvel at its grandeur and its aloofness from everything else that surrounds us in the hectic confines of our everyday lives.
“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing views. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.” – Edward Abby
Early Russian explorers spoke of Bulshaia Gora, the “Great Mountain”. The Koyukon Athabaskans had it right as they called the mountain Deenaalee, the “Tall One” without even knowing that she was the tallest mountain in North America.
Certainly you would think that a mountain like this magnificent could take care of itself. But it’s not just about the mountain (although that is what captures many of our hearts) it’s also about the ecosystem surrounding the mountain – the animals and resources that could so easily be exploited.
Congress established Mount McKinley National Park on February 26, 1917, this year the park celebrates its 100 year anniversary. At that time the park was 1.5 million acres. Another 600,000 acres were added in 1922 and 32 but it was President Carter’s final act in 1980 with only weeks left in his presidency that made the park what it is today when he added another 4 million acres and changed the official name to Denali National Park and Preserve.
It is said that only 30% of the visitors to this park get to see the mountain, 70% of the time it is shrouded in clouds, one of those mountains that make its own weather. Luck was shining on my visit as the three different days that I headed into the park I was able to see Denali, at times peeking out from its cloud blanket and at other times in full view against a light blue sky. When you get to see the mountain it is not a sight you will ever forget. Photos do it no justice at all, so put this wonderful park on your list and make the effort to get here someday – you will never regret it.
While staying at Denali I camped at the Riley Creek Campground near the park entrance. With 145 campsites it is the largest campground in the park. Within walking distance of the parks major facilities you can easily get to the Visitor Center, Wilderness Access Center and concession run convenience stores. It is also only a couple miles to hike to the commercial area outside the park entrance where souvenir shops, hotels and eating places are plentiful and the trail is one of the very few places in the park where Cory was allowed to hike with me. Besides the many park visitors gathering in this location the female moose like to use this area to have and raise their young calves as it is safer from the parks larger predators.
Cory was first to spot a mama mouse with her two calves as she made her way through the campground and right through our campsite. Add to that a rainy day and a rainbow and you have a real sight to see!
Also near the entrance area you will find the Sled Dog Kennels. Denali is the only national park with a working sled dog kennel. Sled dogs and winter travels by dog team are a large part of the history and tradition of Denali, but they are also an important part of the modern park operations. Denali’s first Superintendent, Harry Karstens, was first and foremost a dog musher. He acquired the park’s first seven sled dogs in 1922 and the park has been using sled dog teams ever since. Several times a day Rangers and kennel managers give presentations and demonstrations showing the use of these dogs in the park. It is a great testament to the parks commitment to history and preservation of the wilderness ethic that these dogs continue their work even today.
The best way to see the park during the summer (and pretty much the only way on the ground except hiking) is to take one of the parks busses into the interior. There is only one road that turns to gravel and bans private vehicles at mile 15 into the interior of the park. The park shuttle buses travel the 90 mile gravel road carrying thousands of park visitors eager to see what the mountain has to offer. It takes nearly 12 hours to make the trip out to Wonder Lake at mile 85 and that was how I spent my first full day in the park. The bus drivers (they actually work for Aramark the parks concessionaire) were awesome. Many of them seem to come back year after year and all of the ones I met were not only professional drivers but full of park knowledge and a tremendous amount of patience.
Our driver that first trip was Kat – and as I had selected the front seat in the bus not only did I have the very best views but I got to have some great conversations with her on the 12 hour trip. There are several stops along the way including two at visitor centers with good displays. There are also numerous stops for large and small wildlife along the road as well as views of the mountain (weather permitting of course).
“I like animals. I like natural history. The travel bit is not the important bit. The travel bit is what you have to do in order to go and look at animals.” – David Attenborough
At Teklanika River (mile 29) we picked up Sue (a friend from the Loosey Goosey group) who was camping out at the remote campground and it was fun to have a friend to share the journey.
The bus ride is a great way to get into the park but my favorite parts of my visit to Denali were the Discovery Hikes. The “Disco” hikes are offered daily during the summer, and are limited to 11 people. The limit exists because discovery hikes take place in the wilderness, where there are no trails – the limited number helps reduce human impacts on vegetation and facilitates a small-group experience off trail with a Ranger in the heart of the park. Denali has very few trails by design. Maintained trails in busy areas protect natural qualities – but there is much more to experience by exploring areas away from trails.
You have to sign up for the discovery hikes in person up to two days in advance so that they can ensure that you will be prepared for the experience. The hikes go to different parts of the park each day with the hikes starting along the bus route. The rangers log each of their hikes with a gps unit and they are not supposed to do the same route more than twice each season to help lessen the impact on the untrammeled areas. I took part in two of the “Disco” hikes while here and very glad that I did.
The first hike started around mile 22 at the Sanctuary River.
When we picked up our Ranger it was great fun to see that Ranger Bill was the same Ranger that I joined at Organ Pipe Cactus (April in Arizona) for his “Wall” interpretive talk (check out that post here). He led another fine interpretive walk this time along the river where there was no trail helping us to discover signs of the parks wild residents.
The next days “Disco” hike started further into the park at mile 66 where we hiked with Ranger Peter out on to the tundra. The footing was not at all what I was expecting. Spongey but dry in most places that we hiked. Vegetation was low growing here but signs of animals and a surprising number of plants were represented. One of the highlights of the hike was seeing a wolverine on the slope across from where we were walking – according to Ranger Peter a very rare sight. The theme of this hike was “Wilderness” and what better place to discuss this idea than Denali where it seems that this place could be the living definition of the word.
The Wilderness Act protects around 2 million acres of Denali. The park has another four million acres of land eligible for Wilderness status, which are also protected by the Wilderness Act.
By legislation, designated wilderness areas do not have roads or trails in them. Denali’s road existed before Congress designated parts of the park as Wilderness, however, creating an interesting balance for park managers.
The Denali designated Wilderness has a 92 mile road cutting through it. This is a uniquely accessible wilderness by Alaska standards – no other park in Alaska has the same combination of designated Wilderness and road access. The Wilderness boundary is 150’ from the center line of the Denali Park Road so on our hikes we have easily traveled into the wilderness. But what exactly does that mean?
On Sept. 3, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson and the U.S. Congress signed into law the Wilderness Act. The idea was to create a higher level of protection than other public land designations provided, setting aside relatively untouched tracts so that natural processes could unfold without human interference.
Here’s how the Wilderness Act defines the sometimes problematic term in its name: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
“Wilderness is a place we leave alone. Let evolution work. Evolution takes a long time, longer than our horizon. Let nature find her way.” – Roderick Nash
From the very beginning then, wilderness has been defined by what it isn’t: humans and the mechanization we increasingly employ, particularly mechanical transport, whether car, boat or aircraft (also includes human powered such as bicycles). The Wilderness Act legislated against the American people themselves, looking to keep us out of certain places, so as to retain the “primeval” character of these places—their flora and fauna—and to reserve them for the enjoyment of fleeting human visitors. The Act represents a gesture of humility and self-restraint.
Maintaining these places is not really an environmental problem, it’s a human problem, and wilderness management is people management. In the end, wilderness is a state of mind. The natural world can only persist, as a deliberate act of human will. What needs to be conquered now is not the wilderness, but ourselves.
“I have found that people go to the wilderness for many things, but the most important of these is perspective. They may think they go for fishing or the scenery or companionship, but in reality it is something deeper. They go to the wilderness for the good of their souls.” – Sigurd Olson
It is important to note that National Parks, National Monuments and Wilderness designations don’t happen by accident. They are established and preserved by the force and character of the people. The process isn’t easy and in fact is drawn out, tedious and downright hard. But it has been proven that committed citizens can bring about change for the common good and this is one mighty example of that.
Denali National Park isn’t just about the animals and the scenery. It is about the dedication of humans to preserve the wild. No matter how many years go by, how many generations may live or die, Denali (the mountain) will be here reminding us of the importance, and the irreplaceability of wilderness. This is stewardship at its finest and this is what makes our country great.
“The long fight to save wild beauty represents democracy at its best. It requires citizens to practice the hardest of virtues – self-restraint.” – Edwin Way