People sat up and took notice in early 1897 when gold prospector William Dickey claimed that a mountain he’d seen in Alaska was the tallest mountain on the continent:
We named our great peak Mount McKinley, after William McKinley of Ohio, who had been nominated for the Presidency, and that fact was the first news we received on our way out of that wonderful wilderness. We have no doubt that this peak is the highest in North America, and estimate that it is over 20,000 feet high.
And Dickey’s claim proved to be true — the tallest peak in North America is indeed the South Peak of “Mount McKinley,” with a summit elevation of 20,237 feet. (Not only that, but the base-to-summit vertical rise above sea level is around 18,000 feet — greater than that of Mount Everest.)
But it also kicked off a naming controversy that persists to this day.
Because the mountain already had a name. Several names, in fact. There were multiple indigenous groups in the region, and each called the peak something different:
The Koyukon called it Deenaalee, the Lower Tanana named it Deenaadheet or Deennadhee, the Dena’ina called it Dghelay Ka’a, and at least six other Native groups had their own names for it.
Denali — a version of the Koyukon Athabascan name Deenaalee, meaning “the high one” or “the tall one” — seems to have become the preferred name among settlers and visitors in the area.
And yet, even though…
- Hudson Stuck, co-leader of the first expedition to successfully climb the mountain in 1913, began his book The Ascent of Denali (1914) with a “plea for the restoration to the greatest mountain in North America of its immemorial native name,” and
- Charles Sheldon, the naturalist who came up with the idea of a conserving the Denali region as a national park, made “repeated pleas [to Congress] to return the mountain to its original name,”
…the U.S. officially adopted the name McKinley when President Wilson signed the Mount McKinley National Park Act in early 1917.
Alaska officially renamed the mountain Denali in 1975, and the U.S. officially renamed the park Denali National Park and Preserve in 1980. But, despite ongoing efforts to restore the name Denali, the federal government continues to refer to Denali as “Mt. McKinley.”
UPDATE: On August 30, 2015, the mountain was officially renamed Denali by U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
The mountain is part of the 65-million-year-old, 600-mile-long Alaska Range located in south-central Alaska. The mountain range was created by the Denali Fault, which runs along the southern edge of the range and frequently causes earthquakes in the region.
Tens of thousands of people have attempted to reach the summit of Denali over the years. The overall success rate is about 52%, but in the 2014 season it was just 36%. The average expedition (round-trip) lasts 17 to 21 days, and climbers experience an “extremely wide range of temperatures and conditions” on the mountain, including winds in excess of 80 miles per hour that can last for several days in a row.
Denali is surrounded by 6 million acres of subarctic parkland, one-sixth of which is covered with glaciers. In 2014, the park welcomed over 531,000 visitors.
Interestingly, it wasn’t the mountain that Charles Sheldon was thinking of when he came up with the idea of establishing a park. It was the large mammals — grizzly bears, caribou, moose, Dall sheep, lynxes, wolves, and more — in the region. He thought they’d be wiped out by hunters if the land wasn’t protected.
There’s also plenty of evidence of ancient life in Denali National Park: thousands of trace fossils (such as footprints) have been discovered there.
So, has the word Denali ever been used as a baby name?
It has, for both genders. Here’s the number of U.S. babies given the baby name Denali since the turn of the century:
- 2014: 55 baby girls and 20 baby boys named Denali
- 2013: 62 baby girls and 11 baby boys named Denali
- 2012: 48 baby girls and 21 baby boys named Denali
- 2011: 45 baby girls and 13 baby boys named Denali
- 2010: 42 baby girls and 20 baby boys named Denali
- 2009: 54 baby girls and 15 baby boys named Denali
- 2008: 55 baby girls and 22 baby boys named Denali
- 2007: 43 baby girls and 26 baby boys named Denali
- 2006: 57 baby girls and 31 baby boys named Denali
- 2005: 51 baby girls and 41 baby boys named Denali
- 2004: 56 baby girls and 31 baby boys named Denali
- 2003: 46 baby girls and 33 baby boys named Denali
- 2002: 50 baby girls and 29 baby boys named Denali
- 2001: 44 baby girls and 17 baby boys named Denali
- 2000: 40 baby girls and 8 baby boys named Denali
The gender breakdown for these particular years is 69% female, 31% male.
Though I’ve found a few isolated cases of people in the U.S. named Denali in the 1800s and early 1900s, usage of the name didn’t pick up steam until the end of the 1900s. Denali started appearing regularly on the SSA’s baby name list as a girl name in the late 1980s, and as a boy name in the late 1990s.
Appropriately, the name Denali first became trendy in Alaska. In fact, it’s one of Alaska’s most distinctive baby names…though I think this may soon change, as usage in the states (especially California and Texas) has been inching upward lately.
What do you think of the baby name Denali?
- Alaska Native in Traditional Times: A Cultural Profile Project
- Beyond Denali: Restoring Native American names
- Denali (Mount McKinley): Facts About North America’s Tallest Mountain
- Denali National Park & Preserve
- Dickey, William A. “Discoveries in Alaska.” New York Sun 24 Jan. 1897: 6.
- History Time Line For Denali National Park & Preserve (pdf)
- National Park Service Legal Testimony, Peggy O’Dell, 2013 (pdf)
- The National Parks: America’s Best Idea: Parks – Denali | PBS