Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska is a huge wilderness and wildlife preserve that offers amazing scenery and opportunities to see large and small North American wildlife up close and from afar (depending on your luck). This is a place I have always wanted to go to and I am happy to say that during my recent visit I got to see all of the Denali “Big 5”: Grizzly Bear, Moose, Caribou, Wolf and Dall Sheep.
Sometimes these animals were super close, others off in the distance. Either way it was a thrill to see them all (I almost did this in one day, just falling short of seeing a Moose in the park. This was quickly rectified the next day though when I saw 6 Moose in the morning)! Most were spotted in the early morning and late afternoon from the parks shuttle buses which ferry people along the only road in and out of the park (I only ever saw some Caribou and Dall Sheep whilst hiking).
1. Grizzly Bear
Ursus arctos horribilis (what a latin name!) is a subspecies of the Brown Bear. A huge and fascinating beast to watch from a safe distance. The Grizzly Bears in Denali primarily eat plants, roots and berries but are omnivorous and can be highly dangerous (never forget they are an apex predator). They are very fast (up to 48 km/h or 30 mph!) and it is recommended to keep at least 90 metres / 300 feet away from them if on foot and do not startle or anger them (you don’t want to test that theory that they primarily eat plants)!
Grizzlies den for winter so my visit in August was perfect timing to see them stocking up on food to increase their body fat for the long winter just around the corner. The average size of a Grizzly is 1.5 to 2.5 metres tall (5 to 8 foot) and 363 kg in weight (800 lbs). The more meat they eat the bigger they are (Kodiak Bears on Kodiak Island primarily eat Salmon and can be almost twice the average weight of a Grizzly). On average I saw 7 Grizzly Bears each day I was in the park (boars, sows and cubs).
Alces alces are the largest of the Deer species. There are plenty of Moose in Denali but I saw most of them early in the morning on my second day (I also saw a number outside of the national park). Most of the ones I saw were either a cow and calf or bull and cow together. Watching Moose flirt is highly amusing!
An adult Moose can be huge, growing up to 2.1 metres / 7 feet tall at the shoulder and they can weigh as much as 820 kg / 1,800 lbs! These are another animal you want to keep a safe distance from – they can get downright nasty if you get in their way or near a calf! If its rutting season keep well away!
Rangifer tarandus are a herding mammal found in the far northern hemisphere. In summer they migrate in mass herds in search of northern tundra grasses and plants. Then in winter they head south again and feed mainly on lichen. They can travel on a round trip of up to 2,574 kilometers / 1,600 miles each year! Caribou are the only Deer species in which both the male and female can grow antlers (interestingly not all females do have them though).
An adult Caribou can stand up to 1.5 metres / 5 feet tall at the shoulder and weigh up to 318 kg / 700 lbs. They can live up to 15 years but are sadly on the endangered species list.
Canis lupus is the largest of the dog species (their head and body can measure up to 1.6 metres / 63 inches in length and they can weigh up to 79 kg / 175 lbs) and one of my favourite animals. I was very happy to spot one in a creek near Sable Pass on my first day (the only time I saw one). Previously I had only ever seen Wolves from the distance in Yellowstone and Jasper National Parks.
Grey Wolves are the most common and generally they live and hunt in packs but it is not uncommon to see a lone Wolf such as this one. Sadly since the hunting exclusion zone around Denali was decreased in size this year, so too has the Wolf population decreased. There used to be up to 100 in the park but the most recent count puts the now as low as 50 Wolves within Denali. I was very lucky to see one at all in this vast space but apparently the same morning other buses in the park spotted a mother and cubs near the road so all is not lost just yet.
5. Dall Sheep
Ovis dalli dalli are predominant across the mountain ranges of Alaska. They love steep terrain (makes it easier to escape predators – Wolves, Bears, Coyote and Golden Eagles particularly) but can be found feeding out on the meadows. They can weigh up to 136 kg / 300 lbs and males have the big curled horns. Dall Sheep populations are considered healthy and it’s not uncommon to see reasonably large groups high up on mountain ridges as you travel the Denali. The national park was actually established in 1917 to protect the Dall Sheep herds that lived there.