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 Mt. McKinley. More commonly called by its Athabascan name, Denali, meaning "the High One," or often referred to by Alaskans simply as "the Mountain," the peak measures in at 20,320 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, like 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 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 Mt. McKinley.
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.