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Geography in the News: Majestic Denali

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM Denali National Park and Preserve, A North American Treasure In the fall of 2009, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns’ film The National Parks: America’s Best Idea aired on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Burns, whose film topics range from the Civil War to jazz music...

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM

Denali National Park and Preserve, A North American Treasure

In the fall of 2009, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns’ film The National Parks: America’s Best Idea aired on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Burns, whose film topics range from the Civil War to jazz music to explorers Lewis and Clark, says that his work chronicles the creation and rise in popularity of the country’s most beautiful treasures. One of those treasures is Denali National Park and Preserve.

Denali National Park and Preserve is located in interior Alaska about 140 miles (225   km.) nearly due north of Anchorage. It contains Mount McKinley (Denali), the tallest mountain in North America, rising to an elevation of 20,320 feet (6,194 m) above sea level. Together, the park and preserve cover an area of 9,942 square miles (24, 585 sq. km), five times the size of Delaware.

gitn_1003 Denali
Map by Geography in the News and
(Boundaries and names shown do not necessarily reflect the map policy of the National Geographic Society)

Many different native groups of the area historically had their own names for Mount McKinley. The local Athabaskan name for the mountain is “Denali,” meaning “the Great One.” The Athabaskan people lived mostly in the Yukon, Tanana and Kuskokwim basins and had access to the territory around most of the mountain.

In 1897, a gold prospector named William Dickey wrote an article in the New York Sun naming the mountain after President-elect William McKinley of Ohio. Oddly, McKinley had no connection with the region and never stepped foot in Alaska.

In 1917, Congress created Mount McKinley National Park. However, only a section of Mount McKinley was within the original park boundary—not even the summit was included. President Jimmy Carter proclaimed a separate Denali National Monument in 1978 that included the mountain.

The name Mount McKinley National Park has been contested locally since its inception. In 1980, the park and Denali National Monument together became Denali National Park and Preserve. At that same time, the Alaska Board of Geographic Names recommended changing the name of the mountain from McKinley to Denali. The U.S. Board of Geographic Names,, however, continues to maintain McKinley, probably to help visitors avoid confusion between the mountain and the park. Most Alaskans generally use Denali for both the mountain and the park and desire a permanent name change for the mountain to Denali.

Geologically, Mount McKinley is a granitic pluton, an intrusive igneous rock mass that formed from magma slowly cooled below the surface of the earth. Tectonic forces involving the subduction of the Pacific plate beneath the North American plate uplifted Mount McKinley as well as other southern Alaska ranges. At the same time Mount McKinley was being uplifted, erosion of the relatively softer sedimentary rock on and around it occurred, exposing its rough and angular topography.

The Alaska Range, of which Mount McKinley is part, runs the entirety of the national park and creates a range of ecosystems. Wooded areas are a small part of the park and most of total area consists of vast expanses of tundra. From lowest to highest elevations, the vegetation zones include low brush bog, areas of spruce-poplar forest, and tundra.

Many Alaskan birds and mammals are native to Denali, including healthy populations of both grizzly and black bears. Caribou herds roam freely throughout the park, while Dall sheep are often seen on mountainsides. The park also supports moose and gray wolves and smaller mammals like marmots, ground squirrels and snowshoe hares. Birds are abundant, particularly ptarmigan, which is the Alaskan state bird, golden eagles, ravens, magpies and gray jays.

Today, Denali National Park hosts approximately 400,000 visitors a year, mostly enjoying long summer days and moderate temperatures. They come to view wildlife, see the scenery or go camping, backpacking or mountaineering. In winter, the few visitors enjoy dog sledding, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling. Subzero temperatures accompanied by high winds, however, can be brutal.

Although a 91-mile (146- km) park road penetrates the wilderness, only 14 miles (23 km) are open to private vehicles. Authorized vehicles including park shuttles and maintenance and research vehicles can travel the remainder of the road. This policy reduces the number of vehicles and their impacts on the park’s natural habitat and wildlife.

What makes Mount McKinley  so spectacular is its incredible relief. Its base is about 2,000 feet (610 m.), giving it a rise of over 18,000 feet (5,500 m.) – greater than Mount Everest.  Because of its elevation, however, visitors only occasionally catch a clear view of the mountain through the clouds that often shroud it.

Whatever the reason, visitors to Denali National Park and Preserve are rarely disappointed. Most who visit and view majestic Mount McKinley forever remember it as Denali, regardless of the official name.

And that is Geography in the News.

Source: GITN 1003, Majestic Denali,, Aug. 21, 2009;

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor. Geography in the NewsTM  is solely owned and operated by Neal Lineback for the purpose of providing geographic education to readers worldwide.

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Meet the Author

Neal Lineback
Neal Lineback has written weekly Geography in the News (GITN) articles for more than 25 years (1,200 published articles) while he was Chair of Geography and Planning at Appalachian State University and since. In 2007, he brought his daughter Mandy Gritzner in as a co-author. She is also a geographer with a graduate degree from Montana State University. GITN has won national recognition and numerous awards from the Association of American Geographers, the National Council for Geographic Education and Travelocity, among others..