How Can 6 Million Acres at Denali Still Not Be Enough?
The icon of Alaska’s wilderness symbolizes the tension between preservation and use at U.S. national parks.
PARK RANGERS here call the high season—from June through early September, when Denali National Park and Preserve hosts the majority of its 500,000 annual visitors—the “hundred days of chaos.” Indeed a midsummer morning at the park’s Wilderness Access Center, located at the start of Denali’s fabled 92-mile-long Park Road, can feel a bit like rush hour at Manhattan’s Port Authority Bus Terminal. Loudspeakers announce bus boarding times, and visitors from many nations crowd the ticket counter.
Most of Denali’s visitors are cruise ship passengers who see the park and its prolific wildlife largely through bus windows. “But if you’re seeking solitude, it’s not hard to find,” says ranger Sarah Hayes, who helps backpackers and hikers prepare for their adventures. “We’ve got six million acres of mostly trailless lands where wild animals roam undisturbed. And it’s accessible to anyone who hops off the bus.”
As my bus rolls out, noses press against windows, hands clutch cameras, and people speaking half a dozen different tongues excitedly speculate about wildlife sightings. I ask several passengers what’s on their wish list. “A moose!” “A grizzly!” “Caribou!” “A wolf!”
At the five-mile mark we spot our first animal. “Squirrel!” a kid yells, bringing the bus to laughter. After the 15-mile mark, the road turns to dirt and empties of cars. A few miles farther along the trees disappear. As the distant peaks of the Alaska Range come into view, the scale of this kingdom of nature becomes apparent. The driver slows down.
“It’s been hiding for two weeks now,” he says, wheeling the vehicle through a tight turn. “But there’s a pretty good chance that today …” As the towering mountain comes into hazy view, a dozen voices sing out, “Denali!”
Rising 20,310 feet above sea level, North America’s tallest peak is a stunning sight, although in warm weather its slopes are often shrouded in clouds. The mountain was a big part of the legend and lore of the Athabaskan-speaking people who gave it the name Denali, meaning Tall One. In 1896 gold prospector William Dickey renamed it Mount McKinley in honor of Ohio politician William McKinley, a staunch champion of the gold standard who one year later would become the nation’s 25th president. For decades Ohio’s congressional delegation successfully blocked attempts to rename the mountain. Then last summer the Obama Administration used its executive power to restore the original name.
Seeing the mountain, spotting a grizzly, or catching a glimpse of a wolf are the top three reasons people give for coming to Denali. As recently as 2010, a visitor stood a better chance of seeing a wolf in the wild than seeing the elusive Tall One, which is visible on just one in three summer days. But since 2010 the number of wolf sightings has plunged. According to a study of wildlife viewing opportunities along the Park Road, observers recorded wolf sightings on only 6 percent of trips in 2014—down from 45 percent in 2010. Park biologists report that the number of wolves inside the park has dropped from more than 100 a decade ago to fewer than 50 last year. I came to Denali, in part, to discover why.