Hunting has never been allowed in Denali National Park since the park was established (as Mount McKinley National Park) in 1917. As a result, bear, moose, Dall sheep and caribou aren’t as skittish as in other regions of the state. Professional photographers refer to the animals here as “approachable wildlife.” Because the animals are more laid-back, and because the Park Road was built to maximize the chances of seeing wildlife by traversing high open ground, the park is an excellent place to view a variety of animals. Usually you can’t drive your own car in the park (unlike in Yellowstone, for example), but buses run frequently in Denali. Your fellow bus passengers will be armed with binoculars for scouring the terrain for animals, most of which are so accustomed to the rambling buses that they rarely run and hide. Bus drivers will pull over for viewing and picture taking. The best wildlife watching is on the first morning bus.
In the area of the park that most people visit (north of the Alaska Range), there are an estimated 300 to 350 grizzly bears and around 200 black bears. Grizzlies tend to inhabit tundra areas, while black bears stick to the forests. With most of Denali’s streams fed by glaciers, the fishing is poor and bears must rely on vegetation for 85 percent of their diet. As a result, most male grizzlies here range from around just 325 to 650 pounds, while those on the salmon-rich coasts can easily reach 1,000 pounds. There’s no guarantee of seeing a grizzly, but most park bus drivers say they spot around five to eight per day along the road.
Consider yourself lucky if you spot a wolf. Denali is home to a fluctuating population, with around 50 to 70 wolves living in the 10 packs currently being monitored. During the summer, wolves are less likely to travel in large packs because they center their activity around a den or rendezvous site, with one or more adults o¥en remaining there with the pups.
An estimated 1,800 moose roam the park.
They are almost always found in stands of spruce and willow shrubs (their favorite food). Backpackers should be wary when plowing blindly through areas of thick ground cover, especially in early September, when the bulls clash over breeding rights to the cows. Make no mistake: a moose can be just as dangerous as a bear.
The park’s caribou (pictured at le¥) belong to the Denali herd – one of 32 herds in
Alaska – which presently numbers around 1,760. The best time to spot caribou in large groups is late summer, when the animals begin to band in anticipation of the autumn migration. They’re o¥en spotted earlier in summer in small bands on the hillsides. Look for unusual patches of white that just don’t seem to belong there.
In addition to moose, caribou, wolves and bears, Denali is home to 35 other mammal species, including Dall sheep, wolverines, foxes and marmots. There are also 169 species of birds – including the golden eagle and more rarely seen bald eagle.
A bull caribou in Denali National Park