One of the many reasons you want to travel to Alaska is to see the wild, wild wildlife up close and personal.
Well, at a safe distance, perhaps.
After all, how close to a grizzly bear do you really want to be?
One of the best places to see the diverse Alaska wildlife in Denali National Park & Preserve, about a five-hour car trip from Anchorage (if the weather is good). The park is named for its 20,000-ft. landmark, Mt. Denali, the former Mt. McKinley. Mt. Denali, as you may recall, is North America’s highest peak and is a wonderful sight on its own. The six-million-acre Denali National Park surrounding the peak is packed with wild beasts. These large animals are beautiful, and some are even dangerous (We’re talking about you, Mr. Grizzly Bear)
According to the National Park Service, 39 different species of mammals wander Denali, including the aforementioned grizzly bear, black bears, wolves, moose, Dall sheep, and caribou
In addition, there are 169 species of birds and 14 species of fish.
Don’t worry, those of you who have herpetophobia, or fear of reptiles. You won’t see any snakes in Denali. Reptiles are nowhere to be found there. Even amphibians are represented only by the wood frog, a little guy who lives in the forested wetlands of this spectacular wildlife habitat.
Denali National Park is a great place to view all kinds of other critters, though, and no doubt you’ll see lots of different birds. But let’s consider the National Park Services’ top five mammals you’ll likely see during your visit to Denali National Park.
The grizzly, also known as the brown bear, is definitely the star of the show. The legendary grizzly bear is the stuff of nightmares. You’ve seen them in the movies and on television. But from a distance, these magnificent ursine visages are one of the high points of your trip to Denali National Park. They can weigh up to 1,000 lbs. and they live 15 to 20 years. These omnivores will eat anything – including you if you don’t keep your distance. (Please remember: Don’t feed the bears!) The brown bear eats 80 to 90 lbs. of food each day during summer and fall, and despite their well-deserved ferocious reputation, their diet usually consists of berries and flowers. On the protein side, brown bears eat salmon, beavers, caribou, and even carcasses. The safest place to view them is from a car or bus.
Runner-up to the grizzly bear, the moose is one of the most majestic, if lumbering, creatures you’ll see. They tend to live near lakes and wetlands near forests. Moose graze on grass, underwater vegetation, and just about anything green – even coniferous needles. Adult males, known as bulls, can weigh up to 1,400 lbs., and females can weigh up to 1,000 lbs. The male moose is well-known, thanks to the cartoon character Bullwinkle, for its distinctive antlers. Females rarely grow horns. Weather and other factors, such as the rut, can make a moose ornery and aggressive, so keep your distance. Don’t be fooled by their laconic presence on the tundra. The moose has extremely long legs and is known to be a fast runner.
If you’ve ever wanted to see wolves, the eastern part of Denali is the place. They travel in packs of four or five, of course, so chances are if you see one, you’ll see several more. Females weigh about 90 lbs., with males weighing up to 130 lbs. The familiar howling of canis lupus, the sound of which is chilling, is usually heard at night or early morning and is used as a warning to other wolves to stay clear of a pack’s territory.
The male Dall Sheep, or ram, has long been made famous by the design of the National Football League Los Angeles Rams’ football helmets. OK, maybe it was the other way around. In any event, these rock climbers stay high on the landscape to avoid predators. Rams hang out together, usually avoiding female sheep, until mating season. The horn on a male ram is used for head-butting, a sort of sheep rugby, that helps establish reproductive rank. Ewes do not have distinctive horns. If the two male contestants get their horns locked during the battle, both rams usually die. (There’s probably a moral there.)
Denali National Park is almost the exclusive range for caribou in Alaska, and the eastern section of Denali is the best place to see them. Fun fact: Caribou produce a clicking sound when they walk due to the snapping of tendons in their legs. Both male and female caribou have antlers that grow up to three feet in length.
But wait! There are even more furry things in Denali!
If you find a place to quietly sit for a little while, you’ll have a chance to see some of Denali’s smaller creatures. You might view a collared pika, a rabbit-like cutie. Other sightings may include the hoary marmot, which looks like a tail-less squirrel, red foxes, arctic ground squirrels, voles, and shrews.
Wolverines also live in Denali, and even if their small, bear-like looks make them seem approachable, even comical, remember not to try to pet them as they are known to be vicious. Though they are generally about two to three ft. in length and they weigh 20-to-55 lbs., wolverines are strong and aggressive. Despite their small size, these ferocious predators can take down a moose.
If you’re planning a trip to Alaska, and we know you are, Denali National Park is a can’t-miss stop for those interested in seeing unusual and spectacular Alaska wildlife in their native habitat.
Private vehicles are not allowed past mile 15 in Denali, and there are lots of miles, so your best bet for enjoying Alaska’s wildlife is to take a tour through the park. There is a wide range of tours and activities that you can book, ranging from Jeep Excursions and Ziplining to Helicopter tours. Check out Voyij's Denali Tour Page for the tour that best suits your needs.
Buses run in the summer season only, from May 20 to mid-September. You can check the Bus schedules here.