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Denali National Park

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Denali is one of America's most famous national parks, probably best known for the mountain it is named after (Denali is the native Athapaskan name for Mount McKinley). At 20,320 feet (6,177 metres) McKinley/Denali is the tallest mountain in North America and on a clear day it is visible almost in its entirety from 70 miles away. Denali however also has many attractions for the wildlife enthusiast with its own version of the "Big 5": Moose, Caribou, Dall Sheep, Grizzly Bear, and Gray Wolf. It is also home to a wide variety of other commonly sighted species including Red Fox, Snowshoe Hare, Pika, Arctic Ground Squirrel, Willow Ptarmigan, Spruce Grouse, and Golden Eagle, as well as more elusive predators like the Lynx and Gyrfalcon.

Viewing grizzly bears in Denali offers an interesting contrast to viewing coastal brown bears on Kodiak Island and in Katmai National Park. The alpine grizzlies are smaller, shaggier, and look quite different from the coastal cousins, and lead a very different lifestyle. With no salmon run to feast on, their only source of protein is carrion, arctic ground squirrels, and the occasion spring moose or caribou calf. There is a very interesting dynamic between the park's bears and wolves with competition between the two for the same carcass, irrespective of who actually killed it. However berries form the most important part of the grizzlies' diet and a typical Denali bear sighting is of a grizzly stripping berries from low lying alpine shrubbery.

Denali is a huge wilderness area of mountains, valleys, and alpine tundra, and unlike many national parks in the lower 48 states, at 6 million acres (2.4 million hectares) it is large enough to encompass complete ecosystems. Much of the park is accessible only to hikers and dog sled teams, with only a single 90 mile access road that leads from the entrance on the east side of the park to a historic gold mining community deep inside the park. The access road is not surfaced to maintain the integrity of the wilderness surroundings and clings to the hillsides affording spectacular if sometimes dizzying panoramic views of the valley floor below.

Denali attracts a huge number of visitors each year and a result the park authorities have to carefully regulate the flow of traffic to avoid the summer traffic jams that have blighted so many of the world famous national parks in the lower 48 states, and to ensure that all visitors can enjoy a true "get away from it all" wilderness experience. Hikers are still encouraged to go wherever they please, and there are no marked trails in the park, with the park authorities preferring to spread the load over what is after all, a vast wilderness area. All but the first 5 miles of the access road are however closed to private vehicles, and all visitors not wishing to walk in, have to do so on one of the park's official tour or shuttle buses. While this means that Denali tours are more social affairs, it does ensure that you don't encounter too many vehicles in the park, and negotiating the unmade, twisting road is best left to the experts.

Denali is open to visitors from late May through to mid September with late August/early September perhaps offering the best wildlife viewing. This is the beginning of the moose rut and is also normally a very productive time of year for grizzly and wolf sightings. The tundra also comes alive with vibrant fall colour which makes a spectacular backdrop against which to view and photograph grizzlies and other wildlife.

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