Mount McKinley Is Now Denali: 5 Things You Didn’t Know About North America’s Tallest Mountain
Policy + Politics

Mount McKinley Is Now Denali: 5 Things You Didn’t Know About North America’s Tallest Mountain

NPS Photo/ Tim Rains

Over the last-minute howling of Republican House Speaker John Boehner, President Obama has declared the renaming of Mount McKinley in Alaska as Denali.

A four-decades long struggle came to a close on Sunday when the president made the name change official before leaving for a trip to Alaska. Politicians from the Buckeye State have been attempting to preserve the name of the 25th president, an Ohio native, on the peak since the 1970s, when Alaska state officials and Native Americans first floated the idea of making the change.


"This is all real. This is happening to our fellow Americans right now," Obama said during his weekly address on Saturday. Julie Kitka, president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, told The Washington Post that the announcement will have both psychological and practical benefits.

“It’s symbolic,” she told the newspaper, “but the practical thing is now on all the maps and all the descriptions it will have the traditional name.”

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Republican Sen. Rob Portman joined fellow Ohioan Boehner in sharply criticizing the action, charging that the president’s executive action “is yet another example of the president going around Congress.”

As the name Mount McKinley is erased from the maps and Alaskan visitors’ centers and replaced by Denali, here are five things you might not know about this magnificent mountain range:

1. It is commonly assumed that the mountain was named Mount McKinley as a memorial to Republican President William McKinley of Ohio after he was assassinated in September, 1901. In fact, that name was chosen by a gold prospector, William Dickey, to honor McKinley’s nomination to a first term in June 1896.  According to one account, Dickey had encountered many silver miners who were supporting Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan because of his pro-silver policies and he decided to retaliate by naming the mountain after McKinley, a strong proponent of a gold standard.

2. Rising an astounding 20,237 feet above sea level, Denali ranks third behind Mount Everest in Nepal and Aconcagua in Argentina in terms of topographic prominence, a technical concept that measures the independence of a summit from its surroundings. Located in the Alaska Range in the interior of Alaska, Denali has lured adventurers and ambitious mountain climbers for decades. The first successful ascension of the mountain was made on June 7, 1913.

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3. The first recorded sighting of the majestic peak was made by surveyor George Vancouver on May 6, 1794 while he was exploring the Knik Arm of the Cook Inlet in Alaska. He described it in his journal as a “distant stupendous mountain.” Vancouver could have made first claim to naming the mountain but left that task to others. Early names appearing on maps include Tschigmit and Tenada, while the common name for it during Russian ownership was Bolshaya Gora – which means “big mountain.”

4. A controversy has raged since 1975 over whether to rename the highest peak in North America.  The mountain was known as Denali or “the great one” by Athabaskan Alaska Natives in a region that later was designated the Denali National Park and Preserve. 

Efforts by the Alaskan state government to change the name were repeatedly blocked by members of the Ohio congressional delegation, who viewed the effort as an affront to the McKinley name and legacy. For years, the most determined opponent was Rep. Ralph Regula, a Republican whose district included Canton, Ohio, where McKinley spent much of his life.

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5. With Regula no longer in Congress, Republican Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski submitted fresh legislation in January proposing to rename the mountain Denali. Last month, The Columbus Dispatch newspaper in a surprise move published an editorial urging Boehner and other Republican lawmakers to get over it and end their opposition to a name change – noting, among other things, that McKinley never laid eyes on the mountain.  On Sunday, President Obama announced that Interior Secretary Sally Jewell would change the name.

Click here to enjoy some magnificent scenery from Denali National Park.