Denali National Park and Preserve is Alaska's most visited attraction for many reasons. The most accessible of Alaska's national parks and one of only three connected to the state's highway system, the 6-million-acre wilderness offers views of mountains so big they seem like a wall on the horizon; endless wildlife, from cinnamon-color Toklat grizzlies to herds of caribou, to moose with antlers the size of coffee tables; glaciers with forests growing on them; autumn tundra the color of a kid's breakfast cereal.
The keystone of the park is Denali. The mountain was named Mt. McKinley from 1917 to 2015, but President Obama changed the name of this peak back to Denali, an Athabascan name meaning "the High One." It is often referred to by Alaskans simply as "the Mountain." The peak measures in at 20,310 feet, the highest point on the continent. Denali is also the tallest mountain in the world—yes, Mt. Everest is higher, but it sits on the Tibetan plateau, as if it was standing on a chair to rise above Denali, which starts barely above sea level.
Unfortunately for visitors on a tight schedule, Denali, like big mountains everywhere, makes its own weather systems, and the simple truth is that the mountain really, really likes clouds: the peaks are wreathed in clouds an average of two out of three days in summer. You can increase your odds of glimpsing Denali's peak by venturing into the heart of the park or staying at a wilderness lodge at the western park boundary. Or get really ambitious: more than 1,000 adventurers climb the mountain's slopes each summer. On average, of those who take the most common route, the West Buttress, just over half make it to the peak. The rest turn back, gasping for breath in the thin air. It’s certainly not a last-minute, might-as-well activity—the climb takes serious preparation and planning.
Although the mountain is the biggest attraction, you don't need to see it—much less climb it—to appreciate the park; in fact, few people who visit Denali National Park and Preserve will come any closer than 35 miles to the mountain's slopes—and most visitors won't even get that close.
The mountain becomes just a distant thought during the early stages of a trip along Denali Park Road, which offers sights you won't forget, including the chance to see grizzly bears, wolves, caribou, moose, and Dall sheep—the "big five" of Alaskan animals. And keep an eye (and ear) out for soaring golden eagles, clucking ptarmigans, and chattering ground squirrels. If you prefer to take in the scenery without glass between you and the wild, you can bike or hike along the park road. Or see it all from an eagle's point of view: flightseeing is one of the best ways to gain a full appreciation of the park, especially the wild spires of the Great Gorge along the flanks of Denali.
No matter how you come to the park—staying on the bus, flying over the peaks in a small plane, or hiking across the tussocks of the tundra on a route that takes you days away from the nearest person—exploring Denali offers rich rewards: wilderness solitude, a sense of discovery, amazing wildlife encounters, and a chance to truly appreciate the scale, the mystery, and the grandeur of this landscape.
The most prominent geological feature of the park is the Alaska Range, a 600-mile-long crescent of mountains that separates Southcentral Alaska from the Interior. Mt. Hunter (14,573 feet), Mt. Foraker (17,400 feet), and Denali (20,310 feet) are the mammoths of the group. Glaciers flow from the entire Alaska Range.
Another, smaller group of mountains—the Outer Range, north of Denali's park road—is a mix of volcanics and heavily metamorphosed sediments. Though not as breathtaking as the Alaska Range, the Outer Range is popular with hikers and backpackers because its summits and ridges are not as technically difficult to reach.
Several of Denali's most spectacular landforms are deep in the park, but are still visible from the park road. The multicolor volcanic rocks at Cathedral Mountain and Polychrome Pass reflect the vivid hues of the American Southwest. The braided channels of glacially fed streams such as the Teklanika, Toklat, and McKinley rivers serve as highway routes for both animals and hikers. The debris- and tundra-covered ice of the Muldrow Glacier, one of the largest glaciers to flow out of Denali National Park's high mountains, is visible from Eielson Visitor Center, at Mile 66 of the park road. Wonder Lake, a narrow kettle pond that's a remnant from Alaska's ice ages, lies at Mile 85, just a few miles from the former gold-boom camp of Kantishna.