The Debate Over the Name of America's Tallest Mountain

Learn the History Behind the Famed Alaskan Peak Mount Denali

Morning Fog Over The Calm Waters Of Wonder Lake At Sunrise, Mt Mckinley Looms In The Distance
Getty Images/Patrick Endres/Design Pics

On August 31, 2015, President Obama declared a winner in a long-running fight between Alaska and Ohio. The cause of the 40-year dispute? The name of the highest mountain in North America.

It all began in 1896 when a gold prospector passing through central Alaska decided to name the 20,237-foot mountain he “discovered” Mount McKinley, after the Ohio governor who had just been elected President. The name stuck, even though the Athabaskan people native to the area had been calling it Denali, which in their language means “High One,” for hundreds of years.

In the decades that followed, the thousands of tourists who began pouring into the area around the mountain, which in 1917 became a national park, had no idea that it had ever been known by another name.

Alaskans, however, would never forget, and continued to use to what they considered to be its true name. In 1975, the Alaska Legislature requested that the United States Board on Geographic Names change the name to Mount Denali. Ohio politicians immediately acted to block the proposal, and over the next 40 years used a series of legislative tricks and intimidation tactics to prevent the name from being changed.

Finally, in January 2015 Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski reopened the debate by submitting a new bill calling for the name to be changed, which caught the attention of the President. The battle is far from over, though, as former House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and other powerful figures have slammed the change. Even Sarah Palin, Alaska’s notorious former governor, announced her disapproval. However, she did acknowledge the divide that still exists by saying that she has one niece named McKinley and another named Denali.

Planning Your Trip

No matter its name, the mountain is one of the most breathtaking sites in the United States, and, as a bonus, is surrounded on all sides by even more natural beauty. Visiting Alaska without taking a cruise may sound daunting, but reaching Denali National Park and Preserve, which surrounds the mountain, is surprisingly easy. The park is a five-hour drive from Anchorage, the state’s largest city, and two hours from Fairbanks, the second largest. The drive itself is part of the adventure, as no less than six scenic highways pass by the park.

If driving yourself doesn’t sound like much of a vacation, think about taking the world-famous Alaska Railroad, which stops at the park on its way from Anchorage to Fairbanks and has domed glass cars to allow you to view the stunning scenery from all angles. Another alternative is to travel with one of the many companies offering package tours that leave from both cities and include activities and lodging in and around the Park.

When it comes to planning your trip, the National Park Service website is your one-stop-shop for all things Denali. From the best activities for kids to Wi-Fi connectivity in the wilderness, you will never have a question that this site can’t answer. The Park Service also publishes a newspaper, which is so extensive and well organized that you can save money by printing it out and using it instead of a guidebook while on your travels.

The Park Service also runs Facebook and Twitter pages for Denali, which provide information on special events and highlight top attractions, and also has YouTube and Flickr accounts that feature Pinterest-worthy photos and clips of animals so cute they could go viral. The state of Alaska also has a fantastic app that uses your location to recommend nearby food, attractions, lodging, and services, and also features suggestions made by fellow travelers. The app even contains an entire library of guides, photos, and videos, allowing you to have all the information you might need right at your fingertips wherever you are.

Getting There

Mount Denali has the highest base-to-peak rise of any mountain completely above sea level, making it visible almost anywhere within the park. The most common way people get their perfect view (and photo op) is by taking a shuttle bus. The busses, which have a retro look and are used by nearly all visitors since most of the Park’s only road is closed to private vehicles, are one of the hallmarks of any trip to Denali. One of the stops, Stony Hill Overlook, offers breathtaking views of the entire height of the Mountain which will make you understand why the word Denali can also mean “Great One.” The very best way to see the Mountain is to get up close and personal in a small plane on a flightseeing tour.

These excursions are pricey, but the only other way you’ll get anywhere near the top is if you climb there yourself.

Around and just outside of the park are hundreds of other opportunities for exhilarating outdoor fun. The shuttle bus, which runs along hop-on-hop-off routes to four different sections, is great not only for seeing the mountain, but also offers picture-perfect views of the tundra landscape and wildlife most people will only ever see in a zoo. If you are interested in a particular part of the Denali experience, the Park Service also offers guided bus tours, which focus specifically on themes such as natural history or gold mining.


An Alaskan Adventure

There are dozens of easily accessible marked hiking trails, and if you’re looking for a real Alaska experience you are also allowed to venture off-trail nearly wherever your curiosity takes you. The park ​website and newspaper list everything from family-friendly paved loops to multi-day mountain climbs, ensuring that everyone can find a hike that fits their preferences perfectly.

The on-site sled dog kennels are a favorite attraction for all ages. Park rangers give free demonstrations and allow you to interact with the dogs, who actually pull the rangers around on sleds as they check up on remote sections in the winter! There are also a number of companies offering adventure-packed day trips, such as whitewater rafting on the wild Nenana River. The Park Service provides a list of recommended outfitters, who offer glacier landings, sled dog tours, and more.