Like a trick of perception, measurable distances become distorted in Denali National Park & Preserve. With few points of reference, except the highest peak in North America (when the mountain is visible), a 10-mile vista across a massive braided river can easily be mistaken for two miles. The height of the 20,310-foot peak seems unfathomable next to the stunted alpine conifers and rolling tundra. At that height, the massive peak creates its own weather, and, every year, more than 600,000 visitors to the national park keep their fingers crossed that the mountain will banish the cloud cover and dazzle them with an appearance.
Statistically, Denali is visible only 30 percent of the time in any given year. I have visited Denali National Park & Preserve twice, and both times the mountain showed itself in its full glory. I’m pushing the odds, and chances are I won’t be as lucky on a third visit. Regardless of whether the mountain is visible, there’s plenty to see and experience in the park and preserve’s 9,492 square miles, an area slightly larger than New Hampshire.
In 1917, the federal government created the park to protect wildlife in the Alaska Range, and in 1980 they expanded the park, tripling its acreage. Today, in Denali, wildlife abounds, and I have never had to venture off road to spot them. Brown bears forage in the tundra along the roadside and sometimes even stop traffic as they lumber along. Herds of caribou seek refuge from mosquitos in retreating patches of snow. Moose stand in ponds, munching on new aquatic plant growth. Dall sheep perch on high, steep slopes, white dots on rock faces. Ground squirrels (aka bear burritos), scold buses and cyclists as they defend their burrows. And heads up, birders: More than 160 species of birds live and breed in the park.
Before embarking on the Denali Park Road, I always check out the Denali National Park Visitor Center a short distance inside the park entrance. There, exhibits cover the cultural and natural history of the area and lend important insights into this amazing wilderness just up the road.