Denali National Park Celebrates 100 Years
Denali National Park and Preserve was originally established as Mount McKinley National Park in 1917, to preserve 1.9 million acres of wilderness from Talkeetna to Fairbanks surrounding North America’s highest mountain peak.
The park has since expanded to encompass 6.2 million acres in Alaska, and is bisected by the solitary 92-mile Denali Park Road paralleling the Alaska Range. The area is home to Alaska’s Big Five—moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves and grizzly bears—which can roam free.
As a dedicated land protecting present wildlife and wildlands for future generations to enjoy, all eyes are on Denali in 2017, and throughout the year, events are set in varying Alaskan towns ranging from Denali’s birthday festivities in February to National Park Week celebrations in April, culminating in Sheldon's grandson’s donation of his grandfather’s rifle, a tool certainly used to traverse Alaska’s wilds in the park’s formative years.
After 100 years of preservation, Alaska is commemorating its thriving adventurer’s paradise that Charles Sheldon worked to preserve.
Originally attracted to the land to hunt its abundant Dall sheep population in the early 1900s, Sheldon recognized the influx of communities arriving to Alaska following the Klondike gold rush threatened the Dall sheep’s existence, and he saw a need to protect the area as a wildlife refuge.
Sheldon’s lobbying efforts proved fruitful when the area was signed into existence by President Woodrow Wilson on Feb. 26, 1917, as Mount McKinley National Park to commemorate President William McKinley.
In 1980, the park tripled in size when it was combined with Denali National Monument and Denali Preserve by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act signed into law by President Jimmy Carter, and in 2015, President Barack Obama approved the U.S. Department of the Interior to officially rename Mount McKinley to Denali.
The name change was under dispute for years—President McKinley never ventured to Alaska during his lifetime, while the name Denali means “the high one” from the native Athabaskan language, a moniker Sheldon initially fought for and a more appropriate and lineal title for the 20,310-foot peak.
Denali's raw and rugged terrain, harboring abundant glaciers and prodigious tree lines, attracts mountaineers, trekkers, skiers, and dog mushers.
Superintendent of Denali National Park and Preserve Don Striker sees the 100th celebration of Denali as a benchmark for successful planning across non-traditional partner categories where frustrations usually brim. Hunters, fisherman, transportation and industry executives, public agencies, and non-governmental organizations have all worked together to create a prosperous area where humans and the native flora and fauna coexist.
“I see protecting places like Denali National Park and Preserve as an investment,” says Striker. “We must remember that we don't know what we don't know, and conserving places that can serve as a baseline for future scientific inquiry is critical.”
Striker believes Denali will continue to be a living laboratory for scientific research and education, and he also views tourism as a cornerstone for the park’s development.
“People protect what they love, and it’s absolutely critical that folks visit and have transformative experiences like those that ultimately influenced our founders to create Denali,” said Striker. “We want to ensure our grandchildren's grandchildren have the opportunity we’ve had, and our 100th birthday means our long-term goal of preservation is possible.”
While some travel to the park for wildlife, others dream of a successful Denali summit: As one of the world’s Seven Summits—the highest mountains on each of the seven continents—and the third highest mountain in the world, Denali is only surpassed by Mount Everest in Nepal and Aconcagua in Argentina.
Most Denali climbs begin deep in the heart of the Alaska Mountain Range on the Kahiltna Glacier, where sporadic high winds abound, and famous mountaineers throughout history have attempted, failed, and triumphed on the summit’s slopes. The first successful ascent was completed on June 7, 1913, on the south summit by Hudson Stuck, Walter Harper, Harry Karstens, and Robert Tatum.
In 2013, a centennial Denali expedition led by four Alaska Mountaineering School guides set out to commemorate the climb, with most of the mountaineers being direct descendants of the 1913 summit team.
“When I first had the idea to climb Denali in 2013, an old ranger took one look at me and declared I would never make it to the top,” said Ken Karstens, Harry Karstens’ great-grandson and of the lineage of the climb’s Karstens Ridge. “He told me to forget about the whole thing, but I found motivation in the old Ranger’s words, which was his intention, and, now, I can’t think of a better time to remember Charles Sheldon and what one man was able to do for Denali.”
Denali contains a largely intact arctic ecosystem where present wildlife populations flourish, and the park’s importance also spans archeological and paleontological realms with the recent discovery of dinosaur bones found in July, 2016, by a team from the University of Alaska Museum of the North in Fairbanks.
Earth Sciences Curator at the University of Alaska Museum of the North Dr. Patrick Druckenmiller believes Alaska was still taking shape during the age of dinosaurs. Through his research, he discovered the area that is now Denali once included verdant forested valleys, and plant fossils found in the Cantwell Formation prove the climate was once much warmer than it is today.
Prior to 2016’s discovery, Denali was known to harbor thousands of dinosaur tracks, the highest documented number out of any park in the state, offering a rare glimpse into the life and times of dinosaurs that lived at high latitudes above the Arctic Circle.
“We have an opportunity to more specifically identify the kinds of dinosaur that left their tracks all over the park and even study other aspects of their biology, such as how old an individual was at the time of death, and even how it grew,” said Druckenmiller. “The discovery of dinosaur bones adds much more depth to Denali’s story – the park is not only home to an amazing modern ecosystem of plants and animals, but also a preserved and extinct ecosystem from 70 million years ago.”
A longtime Denali mountaineering ranger for the National Park Service Tucker Chenoweth believes it’s important to protect Denali for 100 more years to come, conserving a unique place where explorers can traverse an ecosystem free of human influence.
Chenoweth sets out for 15 to 30 day stints in the park, allowing him to adapt and work comfortably in an otherwise inhospitable environment where the Alaska Range arcs through the park like a frozen wave, splitting the state into different climatic zones—the southerly Alaskan jungle and the northern glaciated mountains and Arctic tundra.
“Denali has always been a place of ultimate and absolute adventure and inspiring beauty,” said Chenoweth. “I love this place and the people who are also inspired by its beauty and challenges. It’s important to travel through wilderness as it was before people—or, at the very least, to know that a place like this still exists.”
With 2017’s centennial celebration, the park’s visitor rates are likely to increase, bringing deserved attention to Denali National Park and Preserve’s importance.