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Special Characteristic: A Snow-Clad Mountain Over 20,000 Feet High Rising from a Rolling Plateau, Inhabited by Caribou and Mountain Sheep

Mount McKinley National Park
Mount McKinley—Mount McKinley National Park

MOUNT McKinley is the highest mountain in North America. This majestic peak rears its snow-covered head high into the clouds, reaching an altitude of 20,300 feet above sea level and 17,000 above timber line. From the rolling plateau country on its north and west, one may look up 17,000 and more feet of mountain, a spectacle greater by far than greets the eyes of those who climb into the lofty valleys of the Himalayas to see the several mountains there whose heights measured from sea level exceed McKinley's.

Down the southern and eastern slopes, through a region of arctic sublimity, flow glaciers of enormous size, but north and west its sides abruptly drop to grassy valleys only 2,500 to 3,000 feet in altitude.

It is this great treeless plateau, with its rich mosses and grasses, its sudden prominences rising like islands, its sweeping ranges of low hills, its lakes, its innumerable rushing streams, its fertile flowing valleys and friendly animals, its long winding approachable glaciers, and its background of the Alaska Range and Master Mountain, that makes up the Mount McKinley National Park. It is an area unlike any other national park; its charm and inspiration are all its own.

Mount McKinley is two-headed. It is the South Peak which is the summit. From the North and the South Peaks, supporting them like ice buttresses, descend northward long ridges which merge in the foothills, and between these ridges flow from the divide between the peaks a series of great glaciers which constitute the only known passage to the summit.

All of the larger northward-flowing glaciers of the Alaska Range rise on the slopes of Mount McKinley and Mount Foraker. Of these the largest are the Herron, having its source in the neve fields of Mount Foraker; the Peters, which encircles the northwest end of Mount McKinley; and the Muldrow, whose front is about 15 miles northeast of Mount McKinley and whose source is in the unsurveyed heart of the range. The fronts of all these glaciers for a distance of one-fourth to one-half a mile are deeply buried in rock debris.

Along the crestline there are many smaller glaciers, including many of the hanging type. Both slopes of Mount McKinley and Mount Foraker are ice covered.

The greatest glaciers of the Alaska Range are on its southern slope, which is exposed to the moisture-laden winds of the Pacific. The largest of the Pacific slope glaciers, however, lie in the basin of the Yentna and Chulitna Rivers. These have their source high up in the loftiest parts of the range and extend south far beyond the boundaries of the park.


The Mount McKinley region was made a national park primarily to protect its magnificent herds of game animals from hunters as the opening up of the country by rail brought increasing numbers of people into the area.

Outstanding among these animals are the caribou, a species related to the Old World domesticated reindeer of Santa Claus fame. Caribou and reindeer are the only members of the deer family in which both sexes have horns.

Though many thousand caribou graze within McKinley Park, their roving disposition makes their whereabouts at any given time uncertain, and this feature imparts real zest to the quest of those desiring to see them. They travel singly, in pairs, or in small bands, while a herd of hundreds may be in one valley on a certain day and have vanished the next. Then, too, the search may lead anywhere from the low-lying barrens to the high steep ridges of the Alaska and Secondary Ranges.

Almost everywhere in the park the presence of caribou is indicated by the well-defined trails through the tundra or by certain battered willows which the animals have used for rubbing the velvet off their horns. Caribou also visit the licks, where their large, rounded, cowlike tracks give plain evidence of their visitations.

Vying with the caribou as a wildlife attraction are the herds of white Alaska mountain sheep which are among the handsomest game animals in the region and the most fascinating to pursue and observe.

The Alaska moose is the largest animal found in Mount McKinley Park. It is, roughly, the size of a horse, large males weighing as much as a thousand pounds. It has the distinction of being the largest member of the deer family. In addition to this, the moose reaches its maximum size in Alaska.

The tundra brown bear, belonging to a group containing the largest carnivorous animals in North America, frequently is seen within the park, Sometimes within the belt of perpetual snow.

These and many other animals and a wide range of bird species find sanctuary in the park at different seasons of the year. Particularly do many sea birds breed there, over 300 miles inland from sea water.

The surfbird is the most distinguished as well as the most elusive avian citizen of the park. For nearly 150 years, since the species was first given its scientific name, its nest and eggs remained unknown. The surfbird winters in South America as far south as the Strait of Magellan. It breeds among the mountain tops of central Alaska. Twice each year, in migration, it traverses the Pacific coasts of North and South America. The first and only nest and eggs of the surfbird known to science were found in McKinley Park in 1926, located on a barren rocky ridge, 1,000 feet above timber line.


Numerous attempts have been made to climb to the summit of Mount McKinley, but only two have been crowned with complete success. Judge James Wickersham, of Alaska, made the pioneer attempt in 1902, but failed to reach the top.

The north peak is 300 feet lower than the south peak's altitude of 20,300 feet.

In 1912 a party under Dr. Herschel Parker and Belmore Brown succeeded in getting within a few hundred feet of the summit of the south pinnacle, which is the very top of the mountain.

In 1913 Archdeacon Hudson Stuck and former Superintendent Harry P. Karstens, of the park, with two companions climbed to the summit of the south peak and were the first men ever to achieve this goal.

Nearly 19 years later, a party composed of Alfred D. Lindley, Park Superintendent Harry J. Lick, Erling Strom, and Grant Pearson accomplished the same feat and 2 days later they climbed the north peak, thus achieving the distinction of becoming the first expedition to ascend both peaks forming the summit of the great mountain.


Last Modified: Fri, Sep 1 2000 07:08:48 pm PDT

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