More Than a Mountain
Congress created this park in 1917 specifically to protect the wildlife living along the slopes and in the valleys of the Alaska Range. Only as an addition in 1980, when Congress tripled the park in size, did the entire massif of Mt. McKinley get squeezed into the boundaries of Denali National Park and Preserve.
When you visit, you will follow in the eager footsteps of over 90 years of fellow travelers, many of whom sought glimpses of the far north's inspiring wildlife, roaming an undeveloped wilderness.
Wild animals in Denali are not caged or trained - sightings of wildlife can never be guaranteed like in a zoo. However, the more time you devote to exploring Denali, the ever-greater your chances of seeing wildlife will be.
nps photo / kent miller
What Animals Live in Denali?
In simple numbers, many animals live in this beautiful and remote place:
1 species of amphibian
39 species of mammals
169 species of birds
14 species of fish
0 species of reptiles
Some of the most iconic, large mammals, such as grizzly and black bears, wolves, caribou, moose and Dall's sheep, can be seen by lucky visitors. Some of the more-often seen small mammals include arctic ground squirrels, red squirrels, foxes and marmots.
The bird life of Denali is varied and impressive. Golden eagles and the rare, often transitory bald eagles, are among the largest avifauna in the park. The most commonly seen birds include ravens, mew gulls, gray jays and ptarmigan.
With no reptiles and only one type of amphibian, you are unlikely to see many cold-blooded animals in the park. Fish, too, are rarely found, as the rivers and creeks within easy reach of the Park Road are poor habitat - most fish in Denali live in the far western portions, where rivers deepen and sediment carried off the mountainsides has had a chance to settle, rather than clouding the water.
Learn more about animals in Denali
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Where Can I see Wildlife?
Generally speaking, your best chances to see wildlife will be while riding a bus ride on the Park Road.
A bus offers numerous advantages for the wildlife seeker. You sit much higher than in a normal vehicle, enabling you to see over roadside brush. The bus will have dozens more eyes on it, allowing folks to look in all directions. A trained and experienced driver will take care of navigating you along the windy, serpentine Park Road, which at points travels along the sides of mountains, letting you relax and focus on the scenery and trying to spot animals.
At numerous points the road rises above treeline, offering unimpeded views for miles around. Such areas are most likely to yield views of animals, although sometimes at a distance - bringing binoculars will help you enjoy viewing wildlife even at a distance.
You may encounter wildlife while hiking, although sightings are less common than while riding a bus. Visibility is often much reduced when hiking in or near brush, while animals accustomed to the nonthreatening noise of buses traveling the road may be easily spooked by your presence. If you plan to hike in Denali, you should learn the appropriate, safe behaviors in the event that you encounter a wild animal.
Learn more about wildlife safety, bus services or day-hiking
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What Time of Day is Best to See Wildlife?
Life in the far north is one of extremes, and one of the most immediately noticeable summer extreme is the length of daylight in Denali. On the summer solstice, around June 21 every year, sunrise is about 3:40 am, and sunset is 12:30 am - for roughly 21 hours, the sun is above the horizon.
So much daylight can cause some of we humans to sleep poorly, but it is a boon to wildlife. Extensive daylight allows vegetation to flourish, sustaining herbivores and, by extension, carnivores. Whether the animal in question is a seasonal migrant or a year-round denizen, wildlife must be active and make the most of the short, intense summer.
Some animals are less active in midday, particularly if skies are clear and temperatures are warm - which means in the 70 degree F range here. However, since bus trips in Denali take anywhere from 4 to 13 hours, almost every bus travels partly during the warm midday hours, and partly during the cooler morning or evening hours. Therefore, the best time of day to try seeing wildlife is any time you are on a bus.
Learn more about the seasons of Denali
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On any bus ride, your party will want at least one camera and one pair of binoculars to share.
Occasionally, bus riders are lucky enough for animals to appear near, or even on, the Park Road. Such opportunities offer fantastic views to the naked eye, and even a disposable camera can capture great photos.
More often, however, you will see wildlife at a distance, particularly in areas where the road travels above treeline. In such cases, binoculars will be useful to truly observe animals, and a stronger camera may be necessary to take worthwhile photos.
However, many visitors find their tried-and-true, pocket sized digital camera sufficient. Not every long-range shot of wildlife will turn out perfect with such devices, of course, but binoculars will still allow you to enjoy the sighting as it happens.
Learn more about photography in Denali