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Mount McKinley

(aka Mount Denali) the highest point in North America

view of Mount McKinley


Essentially a giant block of granite that was lifted above Earth's crust during a period of tectonic activity that began about 60 million years ago, Mount McKinley has a summit elevation of 20,237 feet above sea level, making it the highest peak in North America. Measured from base to peak, it is also the world’s tallest mountain on land, dwarfing even Mount Everest. McKinley sits atop a plain with elevations from 1,000 to 3,000 feet, for a base-to-peak height of 17,000 to 19,000 feet. Mount Everest, on the other hand, sits atop the Tibetan Plateau at a much higher base elevation. Base elevations for Everest range from 13,800 feet on the south side to 17,100 feet on the Tibetan Plateau, for a base-to-peak height in the range of 12,000 to 15,300 feet.

Mount McKinley actually has two summits: South Peak, the tallest, and North Peak, the summit of which reaches 19,470 feet above sea level.

The upper half of Mount McKinley is permanently covered with snow and many glaciers, some more than 30 miles long. The mountain's extreme cold, which can be -75 F with wind chill down to -118 F, can freeze a human in an instant.


The Koyukon Athabaskan people who inhabit the area around the mountain call it Denali ("the great one"). During the Russian ownership of Alaska, the mountain was called Bolshaya Gora ("big mountain"). In the late-1880's and early-1890's, it was known as Densmore's Mountain, in honor of Frank Densmore, an Alaskan prospector who was the first European to reach its base. It was gold prospector William Dickey who, in 1896, renamed it in honor of then presidential candidate William McKinley. Although locals still call the mountain Denali, Mount McKinley became its official name after President Woodrow Wilson signed the Mount McKinley National Park Act of February 26, 1917. Although the National Park Service changed the park's name to the Denali National Park and Preserve in 1980, the mountain itself is still officially called McKinley.


The first European to document the mountain was British explorer George Vancouver, who saw it from Cook Inlet (over 100 niles away) in 1794.

The first recorded attempt to climb Mount McKinley was by Judge James Wickersham in 1903, via the Peters Glacier and the North Face. Avalanches and other difficulties kept him from reaching the summit, however.

In 1906, Dr. Frederick Cook claimed to have reached the summit of Mount McKinley. Although his claim was regarded with suspicion by many, it was generally believed by the public. It was a picture of Cook supposedly posing atop the summit that ultimately disproved his claim, as later examinations found that the peak Cook was standing on was in fact quite a distance down from the summit.

In 1910, four locals (Tom Lloyd, Peter Anderson, Billy Taylor, and Charles McGonagall), known as the Sourdough Expedition, attempted McKinley despite a complete lack of climbing experience. They spent approximately three months on the mountain before two of them reached the North Summit, where they claimed to have planted a flag that could be seen from Fairbanks, with binoculars.

The first proven ascent of the South Summit was completed on June 7, 1913, by Archdeacon Hudson Stuck, Harry P. Karstens, Walter Harper, and Robert Tatum. Stuck confirmed, via binoculars, the presence of a large pole near the North Summit, confirming the Sourdough Party's story.

In 1932, Alfred D. Lindley, Harry J. Lick, Erling Strom, and Grant Pearson climbed to the top of South Peak and then, two days later, the top of North Peak, becoming the first to ascend both peaks during the same expedition.

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National Park Service
Web Odysseum

William McKinley
President Woodrow Wilson

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The Robinson Library >> American History >> United States: Local History and Description >> Pacific States >> Alaska

This page was last updated on December 16, 2017.