History of Denali Park

Creation of Denali National Park and Preserve

Charles Sheldon was a hunter and naturalist attracted to Denali specifically by Dall sheep. He had traveled the world hunting sheep and was drawn here by the world’s only while, white mountain sheep.

In the winter of 1907-8, Sheldon observed over 2000 Dall sheep taken from the Denali area by commercial meat hunters who sold the carcasses to Alaska railroad workers and gold miners in Kantishna. These two occurrences brought the first significant numbers o white men to Interior Alaska. Sheldon was astute enough to realize the hunting of wildlife and the fragile ecosystem would vanish under these kinds of pressures.

Sheldon returned to Washington, D. C. and with the help of the Boone and Crockett Club, lobbied Congress to establish Mount McKinley National Park to protect the wildlife within. On February 26, 1917, President Wilson signed into law the bill establishing Mount McKinley National Park as a 2 million acre wildlife preserve.

Considering that at the time most people’s impression of Alaska was “Seward’s Folly, and the fact we did not reach statehood until 1959, it was a courageous act to protect such vast lands in what was then considered by many to be a remote and frozen wasteland. With time and the result of a series of wildlife studies, particularly by the Muries, it was a recognized that the established park was not large enough to protect habitat for such magnificent animals as Dall sheep, grizzly bears, wolves, moose and nomadic caribou. Also, the shape of the Park as an elongated rectangle was not a natural boundary. It did not reflect river drainages or ridgelines, animal movements and seasonal migration routes or birding requirements.

In 1939, the Park Road was completed to Wonder Lake. The Denali Highway was completed in 1958, permitting summer travel to the Park by auto. In 1971, the Alaska Highway, connecting Anchorage to Fairbanks increased public usage significantly.

Fortunately, through the foresight of President Jimmy Carter and other promoters of wilderness preservation, the Park boundaries were expanded to 6 million acres when Carter signed into law the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) and the name of the Park was changed to Denali National Park and Preserve.

Even at a size larger than the State of Massachusetts, Denali National Park and Preserve is only the bare minimum in size in attempting to protect an intact ecosystem and its wildlife populations within.

In 1976 Denali was designated as an International Biosphere Reserve. Biosphere reserves have been designed as tools for reconciling and integrating the conflicting interests and pressures that characterize land-use planning today. The origin of Biosphere Reserves goes back to the “Biosphere Conference” organized by UNESCO in 1968, the first intergovernmental conference to seek to reconcile the conservation and use of natural resources. The early foundations of the Biosphere Reserve Concept derived from this conference. This designation allows Denali to conduct research and operate in an in-tact ecosystem.

The park attracts research biologists and botanists from all over the world to study an intact ecosystem.


Adolph Murie was the foremost researcher of the Denali ecology. With his brother Olaus, they studied predator/prey relationships. They were the first to prove the beneficial effect of predators (wolves) on their prey in keeping a natural balance in the animal community. Their books, Wolves of Mount McKinley, Grizzlies of Mount McKinley and Mammals of Denali are the best science writings on wildlife in Denali. The cabin they used, still standing and used, is near the East Fork River and can be seen from the Park road en route to Polychrome Pass.


As a hunter/naturalist, Charles Sheldon came to the Denali area in 1906 to hunt Dall sheep, the only wild, white mountain sheep in the world. His arrival coincided with the discovery of gold in Kantishna and the planning of the Alaska Railroad which he feared would bring additional hunters and pressure on the wildlife populations. For the first time, a considerable number of white men came into the Interior and communities like Nenana and Fairbanks were growing. Market hunters were shooting caribou and Dall sheep in large numbers to provide food for this new influx of people. Sheldon realized the impact this hunting pressure would have especially on Dall sheep. Sheldon returned to New York and campaigned for the creation of a wildlife refuge at Denali. His efforts paid off in 1917 when President Woodrow Wilson established Mount McKinley National Park. Sheldon wanted it called Denali, the original Athabascan name meaning the High One or the Great One. The original Park was 1.9 million Acres.

In 1980, Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). This act created additional acreage, the Preserve, to bring the total acreage to 6.2 million acres.

Denali National Park Notes:

  • Dall Sheep (ovis dalli) is named after William Dall, an American naturalist who died in 1927.
  • Mt. McKinley National Park is named after William McKinley who, at the time of the founding of the Park in 1917, was a candidate for the office of President of the US. He supported the Gold Standard. The gold miners of Kantishna strongly supported him.
  • William Dickey influenced the naming of the Peak and the Park. He published an article in a New York newspaper, The Sun, titled “Discoveries in Alaska” and was published in January 1897. He espoused the greatness of the mountain which he called Mt. McKinley. The name stuck. Dickey had come to Alaska seeking his fortune in gold.
  • Early Russian explorers referred to Denali as Bulshaia Gora (Great Mountain), and a party of American prospectors called it Densmores’ Mountain in 1898 after one of the prospectors. The native people called it Deenaalee (the great one or the high one).

7 thoughts on “History of Denali Park”

  1. Actually, the state of massacheusetts is bigger than Denali National park. Massacheusetts is 10,554 miles squared, while Denali is only around 9,500 miles squared.

    1. I think there’s only one hill high enough to use for some basic downhill skiing in MA. So it’s flat except for some gentle hills in the western part of the state. If Denali Park was squashed flat, it would be far larger than Massachusetts.

  2. stated above:
    n 1939, the Park Road was completed to Wonder Lake. The Denali Highway was completed in 1958, permitting summer travel to the Park by auto. In 1971, the Alaska Highway, connecting Anchorage to Fairbanks increased public usage significantly.

    Should read George Parks Highway (numbered Interstate A-4 and signed Alaska Route 3) instead of Alaska Highway.

    The Alaska Highway (also known as the Alaskan Highway, Alaska-Canadian Highway, or ALCAN Highway) was completed in 1942 and was part of the World War II effort. Starting in Dawson Creek, British Columbia, the road ends at Delta Junction, Alaska.

    enjoyed this article

    1. Thanks for the information. I moved to Fairbanks in 1969 and had to leave a few years later, but love Alaska and it’s wildness. I was there when the pipe line was being put in. Alaska is my most favorite place on earth because of it’s wildlife and natural beauty. I didn’t get to visit the Denali region, but would love to do so one day.

  3. When I was a little girl. My Dad was stationed at Fort Richardson Alaska. We visited ” MT McKinley” National Park. I remember driving through the park and camping at Wonder Lake. Is this possible or is it just my child s memory gone array! It wood have been between 1964/1968 . My grandparents came to visit and also went there. We had pictures but unfortunately they were destroyed in a fire.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top

The Denali Park Road is closed at Mile 43 and beyond. Due to this road closure, Kantishna Wilderness Trails is not in operation. To learn more about our fly-in backcountry lodge deep in Denali National Park and Preserve, please visit kantishnaroadhouse.com.

Sign up below to get an alert when Kantishna Wilderness Trails is operating again.

*Required field

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.