Denali, the “Great One”: Getting a glimpse of our most majestic mountain

Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska

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This is one in a series of articles about our trip to Denali National Park.



You’d think it would be easy to spot Denali, North America’s tallest peak.  It is, after all, over 20,000 feet tall.  In reality, the mountain formerly known as Mount McKinley is notoriously elusive.  It makes its own, constantly changing weather and is usually cloud-covered, so the odds of seeing it are fairly low.  In a single day, there’s about a 33% chance of seeing the mountain in its entirety, and odds aren’t that much better that you’ll even get a glimpse of it.

That’s why Dale and I spent ten nights camping in Denali National Park and Preserve, a long time to spend in a single campground.

Did our time investment pay off?  Yes, it did.

We couldn’t see Denali from our campground and therefore had to access viewpoints via the shuttle bus (the park road is closed to private vehicles).  We rode the shuttle on six of our ten days.  This afforded endless opportunities to see wildlife and meet interesting people, and it also increased our chances of glimpsing the mountain.

On bus rides one and two, we saw only clouds where Denali should’ve been.

At some point on day three, the shuttle came to a halt, and the bus driver said, “You see those mountains over there?  What you’re looking at is the base of Denali.”  Yes!  A piece of the mountain!  He remarked that we were lucky; the weather had been so bad the past few days that this was the first time the view had opened up at all.

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Let your eyes follow the road, and you will come to the base of Denali. Our first view of the mountain

Bus ride four was just as good.  Denali is so big that it has two peaks, a north and a south, and on this particular day, we caught glimpses of both of them.

The North Peak of Denali
The North Peak of Denali

 

And then on our fifth bus ride, we saw Denali unencumbered.  There were no clouds or haze to obstruct our view.  It was nothing but big rocks and blue sky.

We got pictures from afar:

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And from the road:

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And closer up:

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And with caribou antlers as a prop.

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Not to sound mushy or hokey, but we both cried.  Multiple times.

On our sixth and final ride, the main reason we opted to hop on the shuttle was because it was so very cold, and, mercifully, the busses have heat.  The low-lying mountains near our campground were now dusted with snow, while higher peaks that were bare a week ago now had a healthy layer on top.  Winter was close, and we were feeling it, and we rode the bus all day as much to escape the cold as anything.  We’d already seen the mountain and lots of animals (more on that in an upcoming post), and anything that we saw on today’s bus ride would be gravy.

The day started off cloudy and rainy, but the weather here can change instantly.  Unexpectedly, the clouds cleared enough so that we got some iconic views of the mountain:

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Denali as seen at Eielson Visitors Center, with the American flag in front of it
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Denali and the Alaska Range reflected in Mirror Lake

Gravy, indeed.

 

Now, rather than just show off pictures from our trip, I should probably tell you a little bit more about Denali, a mountain so majestic that we named our favorite dog after it.  Here’s some vital information about the mountain:

Why the name change?

“Mount McKinley” is no more.  The mountain’s name was officially changed from McKinley to Denali in 2015.  Here’s why:

Denali was the name given the mountain by the Athabascan people, one of the indigenous tribes that have lived in the area for thousands of years.  “Denali” means “the great one” or “the tall one.”

“Mount McKinley” only entered into the American vocabulary in 1897, when an Alaskan gold prospector named William Dickey used the term in a newspaper article.  Dickey was an admirer of the newly elected President, William McKinley.  McKinley actually had no connection to Alaska–he was from Ohio and had never been to the Alaskan territory–but “Mount McKinley” stuck, especially after the President was assassinated in 1901.

When, in the early 20th century, the idea of creating a national park around the mountain came to fruition, several of the park’s strongest proponents advocated that the mountain’s name be the one that had long been used by the locals, and a debate ensued, but “Mount McKinley National Park” became the official title of the park in February 1917.¹

Regardless of the “official” title, most Alaskans had always referred to the mountain by its Native name, and this didn’t change after the national park was created.  Starting in 1975, the State of Alaska began petitioning the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (USBGN) to officially change the mountain’s name to Denali.  The Ohio congressional delegation, however, wanting to defend President McKinley’s legacy, blocked not only this particular petition, but every successive request over the next four decades.

It wasn’t until 2015, when Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, citing a 1947 law, stated that it was within her powers to officially change the name, and that same year, President Obama announced that North America’s greatest mountain would be restored to its original name, Denali.  You can read the full story from the National Park Service here.

Facts about the Great One

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  • Like I mentioned above, Denali has two peaks, the North, which is 19,470 feet above sea level, and the South, which, at 20,310 feet, holds the record.  It is a full 680 feet taller than the second-tallest North American mountain, Canada’s Mount Logan.
  • Denali is part of the Alaska Range, a 600-mile-long mountain chain that runs from the Alaska-Canada border into the Alaskan interior.
  • Denali is actually much bigger than Mt. Everest.  Measured from base to peak, Denali is the tallest land-based mountain in the world.  Mt. Everest is only taller because its base sits at higher elevation (17,000 feet above see level).  Denali, which rises about 18,000 feet from its base to its peak, is a much taller rock than Everest.²

If you don’t have ten days to spend in the area, should you still visit Denali National Park ?

I would argue yes, if only to see the fantastic tundra landscape and the abundant wildlife (grizzles!).  Of course, Denali, like the rest of the natural world, does as it pleases without concern for the humans in its midst, so it’s always good to go into the wilderness with no expectations whatsoever.

But there are ways to increase your chances of seeing Denali.  First, the odds of seeing the mountain are better in the winter and spring, when the skies are more consistently clear.  Also, you don’t necessarily have to go to the national park to see Denali; there are numerous vantage points throughout the area, and on clear days the mountain can even be seen from Fairbanks and Anchorage.  I found two articles that are chock-full of suggestions for how, where, and when to see Denali: this one from CBS News, and another from an Alaskan blogger.

 

 


Notes:

¹ The name of the national park actually changed in 1980.  Jimmy Carter’s last act as President was to create the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which increased the amount of protected land around the mountain significantly, and the name of the park also changed, to “Denali National Park and Preserve.”  The mountain, however, continued to be Mount McKinley until 2015.

² If we’re going to get into the topic of biggest mountains on the planet, Mauna Kea in Hawaii is biggest of all.  From its base at the ocean floor to its summit, it’s 33,476 feet tall.  Unfortunately, it’s not in competition for the title of “Earth’s tallest mountain” because only 13,800 of its mass is above sea level.