One of Alaska’s most iconic landmarks is Denali, the highest mountain peak in North America.
Formed sixty million years ago, its summit stands 20,310 feet above sea level and makes for a breathtaking view if you’re lucky enough to catch a glimpse when it's not shielded by clouds. The awe-inspiring landscape of Denali’s snow-capped ridges is by far the main feature and biggest attraction of Denali National Park and Preserve.
While many of the roughly 400,000 annual visitors come just for the mountain views alone, Alaska’s third-largest national park has another special attraction: the “Denali Slam.”
Africa’s Big Five are famous worldwide when it comes to wildlife, but many people don’t realize that Alaska has its own version of five remarkable creatures. With over 6 million acres to roam, wildlife is at home here and many species have flourished in this vast and undeveloped part of the globe. The NPS reports that there are 39 species of mammals ranging in size from ground squirrels to moose, as well as 169 different bird species, 1 species of amphibian, and 14 species of fish in Denali National Park.
With habitats ranging from boreal forest to arctic tundra, this park supports life of all kinds that has learned to adapt to Alaska’s challenging weather and terrain. There are a few that stand out, though, and their hardiness has earned them special rank among visitors. As the NPS says, "Five mammals in particular capture visitors' imaginations and are so popular they are now referred to as the big five."
So which animals comprise the “Denali Slam?” Read on to find out.
The Western Arctic Herd, one of the largest caribou herds in Alaska and in the world, routinely travels an average of 2,000 miles per year during their annual migration from the high arctic to the south. This is the longest migration of any land mammal on earth! Denali also has its own herd. Caribou are always on the move, continually grazing as they make their way across the Arctic tundra.
Arctic wolves are the caribou’s biggest enemy. These pack animals are extremely intelligent and use elements like surprise, strategy, and group hunting to survive and thrive inside park boundaries. Alaska Wildlife Alliance says "Denali National Park is recognized as one of the best places in the world for people to see wolves in the wild," but these animals are being hunted and trapped outside park boundaries, causing their numbers to decline and viewings to become less likely.
Of all the park's large mammals, its bears are typically what visitors are most excited to see—especially grizzly bears. May to September is the best time to see both black bears and grizzly bears as they forage for food before retreating back to their dens to hibernate for another winter. While grizzlies are often seen more in the open tundra or along riverbanks and streams, black bears tend to prefer forested areas.
Their white coats make them easy to spot along dark mountain ridges, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy for predators to catch! One of their best defenses is their ability to perch themselves high above the valley, out of the reach of predators. They are incredibly sure-footed and agile, but life atop Alaska’s mountain ranges is a challenge, even for them.
Surprisingly, moose are actually one of the most dangerous animals for humans to come in contact with in North America, according to adventurer Les Stroud. Their large size helps explain why: an adult bull can grow up to 6.5 feet tall and weigh nearly 1,500 pounds. But despite their size, they’re incredibly adept at moving gracefully through the marshlands of the Alaskan interior, and their ability to blend in with their surroundings can make them difficult to spot.
All five of these animals have their own strategies for surviving in Alaska’s wilderness, and they’ve each adapted to thrive in this challenging atmosphere.
If you’d like to try your luck at seeing these Alaska icons for yourself on your next visit, a bus ride along Denali Park Road may be your best bet, but a number of wildlife viewing excursions are also available. Check out Travel Alaska or TripAdvisor to start your search.