Denali National Park
Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time photographing in Alaska’s Denali National Park. All the photos here are available for license as stock images or for purchase as fine art display pictures for home or office decor.
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Denali National Park and Preserve covers 6 million acres. It is larger than the State of Massachusetts and exemplifies Interior Alaska’s character as one of the world’s last great frontiers for wilderness adventure. By a long measure, it is the most popularly visited National Park in the state. Thousands come every year to see North America’s largest mountain (Mount Denali) and the wildlife that lives in its shadow.
Paradoxically this expansive landscape, the habitat of large caribou, moose, and grizzly bears, lies adorned with miniaturized plants. Their diminutive size contrasts with their large importance as food to the animals that live or migrate through here. These plants have long been adapted to survive life in a cold climate, but the changing landscape is also young. The rivers, laden with pulverized rock called rock flour, can set new channels in a matter of days. The delicate beauty of the tundra points to the lofty, isolated, and often cloud-covered grandeur of the Mount Denali massif.
More than 650 species of flowering plants, as well as many species of mosses, lichens, fungi, algae, and others, adorn the slopes and valleys of Denali. Only plants adapted to long, bitterly cold winters can survive in this sub-Arctic wilderness. Deep beds of intermittent permafrost – ground frozen for thousands of years – underlie portions of the park and preserve. Only the thinnest layer of the topsoil thaws each summer to support life.
After the continental glaciers retreated 10,000 to 14,000 years ago, hundreds of years were required to begin building new soils and to begin the slow process of re-vegetation. Denali’s lowlands and slopes consist of two major plant associations, taiga, and tundra. Taiga, a Russian word for northern evergreen forest, describes the scant tree growth here near the Arctic Circle. Much of the park and preserve’s taiga lies in valleys along the rivers.
White and black spruce, the most common trees, are interspersed with quaking aspen, paper birch, larch, and balsam poplar. Strands of deciduous trees occur along streamside gravel bars or where soils have been disturbed by fire or other action. Woods are frequently carpeted with mosses and lichens. Many open areas are filled with shrubs such as dwarf birch, blueberry, and a variety of willow species. The limit of tree growth occurs at about 2,700 feet in the park and preserve. For comparison, the elevation at the park hotel is 1,750 feet. Above the tree limit, taiga gives way to tundra.
Tundra is a fascinating world of dwarfed shrubs and miniaturized wildflowers adapted to a short growing season. There are also two types, moist tundra, and dry tundra, with myriad gradations in between. Moist tundra varies in composition: some areas contain tussocks of sedges and cotton grass; others contain dwarfed shrubs, particularly willows and alders. Plants of the dry tundra occur above shrub line. There, meadows abound. Higher up the mountain slopes close to 7,000 feet, complete plant cover yields to scattered patches amidst barren rock. These tiny highland plants grow closely matted to the ground, creating their own livable microclimate. Mountain avens, dwarf fireweed, moss campion, dwarf rhododendron, and forget-me-not (Alaska’s state flower) dot the rocky landscape offering stunning summer displays of delicate blossoms. Although small in stature they loom large in importance because their nutrients provide food that sustains even the largest species of park wildlife.
Wildlife of Taiga and Tundra
Spring, summer, and fall provide a compressed respite from the sub-arctic’s long season of deep cold. For most animals, it is a busy time during which they must garner most of their annual food supplies. Dall sheep, relatives of the bighorn sheep, graze the alpine tundra for the young shoots of mountain avens. Ewes and rams live apart in summer, while the lambs are getting their start.
Caribou, like the Dall sheep, travel in groups. Both sexes sport antlers, the only deer family members to do so. Caribou migrate great distances from their calving grounds south of the Alaska Range and northwest of Denali to their winter range in the northern reaches of the park and preserve. The Denali Herd has fluctuated greatly in number over the last 30 years. Today groups of 20 or more may be seen from the park road, quite different from the thousands seen many years ago.
Moose are a popular and commonly viewed animal through the park region, with densities increasing around the forested regions of the park. This includes the areas near the park entrance and wonder lake area. Bull moose are huge animals and become active in sparring and fighting other competing males as the breeding season begins in late August to early October. Cow moose generally give birth to twin calves in late May, but predation by wolves and bears takes a heavy toll on the calf survival rate.
Wolves are rarely seen, but they plan an important role in the natural scheme. In winter, wolves generally hunt in packs. Individuals, however, can be sighted as well. Pack organization is strongest during the whelping (pupping) season in spring. The presence of wolves in Denali is an indication of the quality of this wilderness. If you are lucky enough to see a wolf, consider it a rare and privileged experience.
Grizzly bears are omnivores, eating small plants, berries, ground squirrels, moose or caribou calves, and occasional carrion. They are seen throughout the park. Sows generally bear two cubs, sometimes one and rarely three. They too are fiercely protective of their offspring. Wolves and grizzly bears play an important role as predators. Ever ready to take advantage of an opportunity, they cull old, newborn, and sick animals from the caribou, moose and sheep population.
Smaller mammals abound within the limits of this harsh, northern environment: fox, weasel, wolverine, lynx, marten, snowshoe hare, hoary marmot, red squirrel, ground squirrel, pika, porcupine, beaver, shrew, vole and the lemming. There are 37 mammal species recorded in the park and preserve.
Bird life is varied and interesting. Most birds migrate long distances between their nesting grounds here in the park and their wintering areas. Wheatears winter in Africa; arctic terns in Antarctica and southern South America; jaegers take to life at sea in the southern oceans. On the open tundra, you may easily see ptarmigan, Lapland longspurs, and various shorebirds.
Short-eared owls and northern harriers can be seen soaring low in search of rodents. Golden eagles patrol the higher elevations and ridge tops. Raptors – birds of prey – of the spruce forest are the hawk owl and goshawk. In these forests, you may also see the spruce grouse and varied thrush. Plovers, gyrfalcons, mew gulls, and snow buntings are among the 156 species of birds recorded at Denali. Raven, ptarmigan, magpie, and gray jay are some of the species that winter in the park and preserve.
Winter challenges wildlife with frigid temperatures and the cessation of plant growth. Food is scarce. Grizzlies fatten up in the summer and remain in a torpor or deep sleep most of the winter. Adult males, on the other hand, appear to enter dens later and emerge earlier than most other bears. Ground squirrels and marmots hibernate, their body functions virtually halted. Beavers and red squirrels hole up and subsist on food caches. Weasels, snowshoe hare, and ptarmigan, however, turn white and continue the struggle to survive above ground against extreme conditions.
Charles Sheldon conceived the plan to conserve the region as a national park. Naturalist, hunter, and conservationist, Sheldon first traveled here in 1906 and again in 1907 with a packer and guide named Harry Karstens. (Karstens later made the first ascent of Mt. Denali’s south peak and would serve as the park’s first superintendent.) Sheldon devoted much of his 1907 travels to studying boundaries for the proposed national park that would include territories suitable for a game refuge. When Sheldon returned to the East in 1908, the Game Committee of the Boone and Crockett Club, of which he was chairman, launched the campaign to establish a national park. Largely due to these efforts, Mount Denali National Park was established in 1917. Its population of Dall sheep and other wildlife were now legislatively protected. However, Mount Denali itself was not wholly included within the boundaries.
Sheldon wanted to call the park Denali, but his suggestion would not be followed until 1980. The changes in names and boundaries that have occurred over the years can be confusing, as they indicate the way various parts of the park and preserve may be used today. In 1917 Mount McKinley National Park was established as a wildlife refuge. The park and massif including North America’s highest peak were named for a former senator – later President – William McKinley. In 1980, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) enlarged the boundary by 4 million acres and redesigned it as Denali National Park and Preserve. At 6 million acres or 7,370 square miles, the park is larger than Massachusetts. It exemplifies interior Alaska’s character as one of the world’s last great frontiers for wilderness adventure. It remains largely wild and unspoiled, as the Athabascans knew it. On 02 December 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the bill establishing Denali National Park.
McKinley or Denali?
A January 2015 bill submitted by Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski re-proposed renaming North America’s highest peak as Denali. On August 30, 2015, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced that the mountain would be renamed Denali. Donald Trump called the name change from Mt. McKinley to its original Athabaskan name a “great insult to Ohio” and vowed to reverse the decision if elected.
Text adapted from the Denali National Park information website
Text: John William Uhler