Denali National Park and Preserve sits roughly in the geographic center of Alaska. The peak itself — known officially as Mount McKinley, but called Denali, “The High One,” by native Athabaskan people — sits higher than any other mountain in North America, at 20,320 feet. The first human inhabitants of the region were likely hunters that crossed over the Bering land bridge from Asia during the last ice age, about 11,000 years ago. The fossil record suggests that they hunted giant Pleistocene beasts like mammoths in the region.
The interior of Alaska, where the descendants of those hunter-gatherers settled, was devoid of the resources needed for pastoral or horticultural society — no large animals to herd, poor soil that froze most or all of the year. Thus, with some regional deviation, the native lifeways remained similar to that of their forebears until the 19th century, when Europeans made contact.
The waters of costal Alaska were first exploited for sea otter pelts by Russian trappers in the early 1800s. Later, British trading posts were established by the Hudson Bay Company along rivers like the Yukon in the interior. These passed into American hands with the Alaska Purchase of 1867. Settlers enjoyed a good trading relationship with the native peoples of the interior, who brought pelts and other animal goods to the posts and precluded the need to push further into the interior.
The Klondike Gold Rush in 1897 would change that, as more than 100,000 prospectors from San Francisco, Seattle, Canada and beyond stampeded into the region. A later gold rush in 1905 would draw additional interest to the Denali area. This era would see the first extensive non-native exploration of the Alaskan interior. Early explorers were almost always on practical missions — the USGS made topographical maps, the army made reconnaissance excursions. Soon enough, the region’s natural majesty won it more casual admirers, especially mountaineers and hunters in search of Dall sheep.
The Denali region was first protected as the Mount McKinley National Monument in 1917. Road construction in the mid-20th century made the region more accessible, connecting George Parks Highway to the old mining camp of Kantishna. Only small sections of the 92-mile artery are paved, due to the high costs and difficulty of building and maintaining a road on ground that is prone to freezing or nearly always frozen. The name of the park was changed to Denali when its lands were expanded in 1980. The combined park and wilderness preserve are larger than the state of Massachusetts.