It’s easy to picture Denali as it is in winter: stark, windswept and frozen. But while that realm is famously harsh, it’s not the totality of this northern refuge. While the subarctic tundra isn’t everyone’s idea of a diverse and flourishing habitat, a wide array of specially adapted plants and animals call it home. On your visit, see if you can spot the “Big Five” animals — moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves and grizzly bears.
Dall rams are notable for their large, curling horns. These high-mountain dwellers can be found on crags and ridges on the park’s eastern and western-most edges. When they are about to bear lambs, ewes will retreat to the most inaccessible ledges to isolate themselves from potential predators. Rams vie for mating dominance by butting heads. The sheep are named for William Healey Dall, an American naturalist and preeminent authority on living and fossil mollusks.
Grizzly bears are generally loners that can be spotted near food sources such as salmon runs, but a female bear will keep her cubs with her for about three and a half years. During mating season, which occurs for bears in Denali during June and July, a male will follow a female around for a period of up to two weeks. Grizzly bears can be distinguished from black bears (which also live in Denali) by a hump of muscle at the shoulders and a dish-shaped face.
While there as never been a grizzly bear-related fatality in the history of Denali National Park, there are rules that the park asks visitors to respect to keep it that way. Visitors are commonly asked to put a minimum distance of 25 yards between themselves and a wild animal. For grizzly bears, the minimum distance is 300 yards.
The range of the Denali caribou herd is almost exclusively within the park and preserve. Caribou roam wild north of the Alaska Range and east of the Foraker River. Sometimes, caribou can be found south of the mountains during calving season. Like all of Denali’s year-round residents, caribou have special biological adaptions that have helped them thrive in the harsh subarctic tundra. For example, the caribou’s large hooves leave wide, almost circular tracks that keep them from sinking into snow, much like snowshoes.