If you’re headed to the Last Frontier, one of the best places for viewing Alaska’s wildlife is the vast, six-million-acre Denali National Park. Covering an area larger than the state of New Jersey, Denali is home to thousands of Alaska’s iconic wild creatures – think grizzlies, Dall sheep and moose. But those are just a few of the creatures you’ve got a chance to see while visiting this wilderness landscape – don’t forget the many birds and small mammals that are key components of this complex tundra ecosystem.
When you go, be sure to check out the National Park Service’s downloadable wildlife checklists to help you spend your vacation “collecting” these amazing species. And remember, always observe wildlife safety rules to protect both you and the wildlife.
The Big Five
The “Big Five,” as they’re locally known, are the large mammals that are often the main attractions to Denali National Park – there aren’t many places you can view grizzly bears, moose, gray wolves, caribou and Dall sheep coexisting naturally (if not peaceably).
Some bull moose get as large as 1,600 pounds, and during rutting season, their neck muscles swell to twice their normal size. Wolves and bears will prey on young moose, caribou and Dall sheep. Populations of each of the Big Five fluctuate depending on conditions such as winter severity. You’ve got a good chance to see at least a few of these large mammals even from the park road. Denali tour buses provide an opportunity to see these creatures without disturbing them. You also can drive yourself or take other excursions, such as a tundra wilderness tour.
Yep, we know they’re part of the Big Five, but his majestic beast is so awesome it deserves its own category. Chances are high that you’ll see these ursine quadrupeds even along the roadside, (but don’t get out of the car, as tempting as it is) and there are prime viewing opportunities in the back country as well, especially near salmon spawning areas and berry patches. If you’re backpacking, make sure you use bear-resistant food storage containers and please, do not feed the bears. Keep in mind that bears get stressed out by close proximity to people. (The park service recommends keeping a 300-yard distance. That’s three football fields, folks.) Bears might lose their natural fear of humans, leading to property damage or dangerous encounters. Remember the “wild” in wildlife.
Learn how National Park ecologists have helped regulate and protect grizzly populations in Denali through aerial darting and radio tracking, and check out these other great places for bear watching.
Denali is home to 169 species of birds during the summer months, including the peregrine falcon, which reaches speeds of well over 200 miles per hour mid-dive, making it the fastest creature on Earth. The species was listed as endangered in the 1970s, but reducing environmental pollutants like DDT has helped the species to recover. The peregrine was removed from the list in 1999. Look closely at Denali’s cliffs and bluffs for these fierce raptors.
Visiting Denali also provides a chance to see species such as willow ptarmigans, trumpeter swans, northern hawk owls, gray jays and golden eagles. Try a guided birding tour to get the most checkmarks on your birding list.
What you won’t see
You probably won’t see any mountain lions in the park – Alaska is generally outside of mountain lion range, though some have wandered into the state’s Southeast. Polar bears only live along Alaska’s north coast – no worries of encountering one in Denali. The gorgeous Arctic fox lives in only the coastal areas, too. Coyotes live in Alaska, but they’re generally elusive and rarely seen.
There also aren’t any reptiles in Denali, so you don’t have to worry about hearing that scary rattling noise as you hike the park trails. For more on the best places in Alaska to view particular wildlife, check out this wildlife viewing advice.
Beyond the Big Five, remember to keep your eyes open for the park’s 34 other mammal species. You might catch a glimpse of wolverines, arctic ground squirrels, hoary marmots, collared pika, snowshoe hares and red foxes. The park has just one species of frog: The wood frog, which makes its home in forests and wetlands in the park.
If you want to learn more about the history and ecology of Denali while keeping an eye on the tundra, a guided hiking tour can be a great way to experience this national park and its wildlife. And be sure to check the National Park Service page on the Denali Visitor Center for park alerts for road closures due to snow or for delays due to construction. Stop at the center to learn about the best places and best practices for your Alaska wildlife viewing trip.
Featured image from flickr.