Mount McKinley Or Denali: The Naming Controversy Of North America's Tallest Peak

By | August 10, 2021

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Visitors take in the view of Denali, formerly known as Mount McKinley, on September 1, 2015 in Denali National Park, Alaska. (Lance King/Getty Images)

At 20,310 feet, which is the tallest mountain in North America, Mount McKinley or Denali? Trick question—they're the same mountain. The Alaskan peak has been known as Denali, a Koyukon verb meaning "to be tall or long" that evolved into a noun that means "the tall one," to the native people since ancient times. In 1867, however, the United States purchased Alaska from Russia, and some 30 years later, a gold prospector and President McKinley fanboy who'd moved into the area named William Dickey began calling Denali National Park's crown jewel "Mount McKinley."

The moniker caught on after Dickey was quoted in the New York Sun about the mountain, and after President McKinley was assassinated in 1901, a growing movement pushed to honor his memory with an official renaming of the tallest mountain in North America. In 1917, Congress officially renamed the mountain Mount McKinley, but Alaskan natives continued to call it by its traditional name.

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High camp at 17,200 feet (5,200 m) on Denali. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Wikimedia Commons)

In 1975, the Alaska State Legislature filed a motion with the U.S. Board of Geographic Names to restore their mountain's name, but they were blocked by a group of congressman from McKinley's home state of Ohio. The matter was brought before the board year after year, always with the same results, so the two sides struck a compromise: Mount McKinley National Park was renamed Denali National Park, but the official name of the mountain remained the same.

Alaskan politicians, however, remained unsatisfied, so in 2015, President Barack Obama and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell took action, pointing to a 1947 law that gives the secretary authority to act on measures when the Board of Geographic Names fails to do so within a reasonable time frame. Just before the park's 100th anniversary celebration, the mountain was officially renamed Denali, as it remains today.