Tallest of Them All

America’s tallest mountain, seated within millions of acres of wilderness, with just a single road in, can be found in Alaska’s Denali National Park. Animals have free range of the lands, as they have had for eons, in amongst the taiga forest that stretches 1/3 of the way around the globe.

The lands within the park have been visited and inhabited by people for over 11,000 years. The park’s high elevations limited human settlements here, but within the park can be found 84 documented archaeological sites, with evidence of habitation going back to 7130BC. Many different cultures have called this region home, including, in the last 500 years, the Dena'ina, Koyukon, and Tanana people. More recently, conservationist Charles Alexander Sheldon, after spending time here, developed the idea of designating the area a national park as early as 1906.

Containing over six million acres of untouched Alaskan wilderness, the area was established as Mt. McKinley National Park in 1917, the first national park set up specifically to protect the animal inhabitants. The park was later combined with the Denali National Monument and officially redesignated Denali National Park and Preserve in 1980. After almost 40 years of trying, just as it comes to celebrate its centenary, the mountain around which the park lies was rechristened with its original name Denali, which means "the high one" in the native Athabaskan language.

Features of the Park

The lands of the park contain a range of habitats catering to a wide array of plant and animal inhabitants, including what has become known as the ‘big 5’ mammals of the park, Grizzlies, moose, caribou, Dall sheep, and wolves. Grizzly bears are omnivorous creatures that make do with whatever food they can find. In the lands of the park, when not munching on grasses and especially berries, they can be found near the rich salmon spawning areas. Roaming moose hang out in the wooded areas, marshes and lakes.

Massively-antlered caribou traverse the lands of the park, the numbers of their herds recovering to sizes prior to human hunting cut them down. Large-horned Dall sheep make their home up high on the ridges and cliffs of the mountainous areas of the park. And behind many of these animals, packs of wild wolves wander the wilderness, always on the hunt for something to sustain their large family groups.

Another 34 species of mammal can be found within the park, along with 169 types of bird, and the lonesome wood frog, the park’s only amphibian. It’s a tiny little frog, growing up to only 7cm in length, and it’s song heralds the arrival of spring to the mountains of Alaska.

The Science Behind the Scenery

Denali is the tallest mountain in the park, the tallest mountain in the Alaska Range, and the tallest mountain in North America. By some measures, it’s even the tallest in the world: from base to summit, it is taller than Everest. The highest section of the range lies within Denali National Park, with Denali itself dominating the surrounding landscape.

The Alaska Range was created from the power of plate tectonics. The Pacific Plate is a giant slab of the earth’s crust, that forms the floor of the Pacific Ocean. As the Pacific Plate moved northwards, it collided with the North American Plate, on which Alaska sits. Because the Pacific plate is the more dense of the two plates, its subducts, or slides beneath the North American plate, thrusting the North American plate upwards as it goes.

One of the two major fault lines that bisects the Denali area contains a bend, which caused rocks to bunch up even more, thrusting the less-dense granite of Denali to its commanding heights. This process continues to this day, growing about half a millimeter every year.