A Brief History of Denali National Park

They call Denali the crown jewel of the north for a reason. There is a lot to learn about the park’s creation, why they changed the name from “Mount McKinley” to “Denali,” and more. We explore the most interesting aspects of this fabled park’s history here.

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  • Denali has quite a reputation. It’s the tallest mountain in all of North America, and the Denali National Park that surrounds the peak includes more than 6 million acres of wilderness. To many people, the word Denali is synonymous with Alaska. But there’s probably lots you don’t know about this famous mountain and the land around it!

    Geological History

    Denali National Park has been home to major tectonic shifts, extreme weather conditions, and a vast array of plant and animal life for millennia. There has been an ice age and even a period of tropicalia. Dinosaurs once roamed these lands, and we can still see their fossilized footprints alongside the relics of early cultures.

    The peak of Denali sits midway along the Alaska Range, a 600-mile stretch of mountains created by the convergence of the North American and the Pacific Plates. In fact, the peak of Denali is still growing by about 1 millimeter a year because these plates are still pressing together!

    The mountain is the centerpiece, but the whole area has a fascinating natural history. For example, Polychrome Pass is a geological wonderland, where a mixture of ash, sedimentary deposits, and heat have created a many-colored clash of rock. A whopping 16% of the park is glacier, and the “untrammeled” areas of Denali—where humans never affect the forces of nature—are constantly reshaped by wildfires, earthquakes, landslides, and more.

    Early Denali Culture

    It’s easy to imagine Denali as existing apart from mankind, but humans have been living in Denali National Park for more than 11,000 years. The harsh winters mean that only a few archeological sites or artifacts have been preserved, but we know enough to know that the story of Denali’s human inhabitants is a long one.

    In the last 500 years, the park was inhabited primarily by the Koyukon, Tanana and Dena’ina people. They all called Denali mountain by a different word in their own languages. It was the Koyukon Athabaskans who referred to the huge, towering mountain as Dinale, which means “tall one.”

    These cultures were mostly hunter-gatherers, subsisting off the land and trapping. Their trapping proficiency led to their first interactions with Russian traders. Unfortunately, many of the native peoples of Denali were exposed to smallpox and other infectious diseases to which they had no immunity through trade, and their numbers in the region were greatly reduced. Yet there is still a strong cultural presence of native communities in Denali and many opportunities for visitors to learn more about the region’s ancestral inhabitants.

    Name Controversy

    Denali was originally named Mt. McKinley in 1896 by a gold prospector who wanted to pay homage to the presidential candidate William McKinley. When the Mount McKinley National Park Act was signed into law in 1917, the name was made official, thanks in part to bolstered public sentiment for McKinley’s legacy after his 1901 assassination.

    However, local people continued to call the mountain Denali, its native name. The Alaskan Board of Geographic Names declared an official change to Denali in 1975, though the request was blocked at the federal level by the United States Board on Geographical Names and never adopted.

    It wasn’t until 2015 that the Secretary of the Interior under the Obama administration finally declared an official and final naming convention. The mountain that had been known for thousands of years as Denali is now recognized again by that word again today, both locally and nationally.

    The physical history of Denali National Park and its tallest peak is being re-written by natural forces every year, and its cultural history is changing, too. Don’t miss a chance to visit this natural landmark and learn more about its history.