Denali National Park

Trumpter swan (Kennan Ward)
Feature Article
Alaskan Grizzly Watch
Five sure-fire destinations for observing
brown bears in their natural habitat.

Spring, summer, and fall provide an achingly brief respite from the subarctic's long season of deep cold. For most animals, it is a busy time during which they must garner most of their annual food supplies. And for people, it's the best time for watching them...

Dall sheep, relatives of the bighorn sheep, graze the alpine tundra for the young shoots of mountain evens. Ewes and rams live apart in summer, while the lambs are getting their start. In early summer sheep are at lower elevations, but they will follow the snowmelt higher and higher as summer progresses.

Caribou, like the Dall sheep, travel in groups. Both sexes sport antlers, the only deer family members to do so. Caribou migrate great distances from their calving grounds south of the Alaska Range and northwest of Mount McKinley to their winter range in the northern reaches of the park and preserve. The Denali herd has fluctuated greatly in number over the last 30 years. Today groups of 20 or more may be seen from the park road, quite different from the thousands seen many years ago.

Moose, the deer family's largest members, are not herd animals. Bulls may group in threes or fours or wander alone until they pursue several cow moose during the rut, or mating season. The calves are born in May and will stay with the cow one or two years. In spring, the cow and calf feed on willows and other new green vegetation. At this time of year, be cautious about traveling in willow thickets. A cow moose can be very dangerous while protecting her calf from a perceived threat.

Wolves are rarely seen, but they play an important role in the natural scheme. In winter, wolves generally hunt in packs. Individuals, however, can be sighted as well. Pack organization is strongest during the whelping (pupping) season in spring. The presence of wolves in Denali is an indication of the quality of this wilderness. If you are lucky enough to see a wolf, consider it a rare and privileged experience.

Grizzly bears are omnivores, eating small plants, berries, ground squirrels, moose or caribou calves, and occasional carrion. They are seen throughout the park. Sows generally bear two cubs, sometimes one, and rarely three. They too are fiercely protective of their offspring. Wolves and grizzly bears play an important role as predators. Ever ready to take advantage of an opportunity, they cull old, newborn, and sick animals from the caribou, moose, and sheep populations.

Smaller mammals abound within the limits of this harsh, northern environment: fox, weasel, wolverine, Lynx, marten, snowshoe hare, hoary marmot, red squirrel, ground squirrel, pike, porcupine, beaver, shrew, vole, and lemming. There are 37 mammal species recorded in the park and preserve.

is varied and interesting. Most birds migrate long distances between their nesting grounds here in the park and their wintering areas. Wheatears winter in Africa; arctic terns in Antarctica and southern South America; jaegers take to life at sea in the southern oceans. On the open tundra, you may easily see ptarmigan, Lapland longspurs, and various shorebirds. Short-eared owls and northern harriers can be seen soaring low in search of rodents.

Golden eagles patrol the higher elevations and ridgetops. Raptors—birds of prey—of the spruce forest are the hawk owl and goshawk. In these forests, you may also see the spruce grouse and varied thrush. Plovers, gyrfalcons, mew gulls, and snow buntings are among the 159 species of birds recorded at Denali. Raven, ptarmigan, magpie, and gray jay are some of the species that winter in the park and preserve.

Winter challenges wildlife with frigid temperatures and the cessation of plant growth. Food is scarce. Grizzlies fatten up in summer and remain in a torpor or deep sleep most of the winter. Ground squirrels and marmots hibernate, their body functions virtually halted. Beavers and red squirrels hole up and subsist on food caches. Weasels, snowshoe hares, and ptarmigan, however, turn white and continue the struggle to survive above ground against extreme conditions.


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »