How Did Mount McKinley Get Its Name? Origin and Meaning

Written by Mandy Trotti
Updated: September 22, 2023
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Denali, also famously known as Mount McKinley, is the highest mountain in North America. It’s also shrouded in controversy. From its name to its height, this Alaskan mountain has been the center of debates for over a century. Keep reading to discover how Mount McKinley got its name, the controversy surrounding it, and what it’s called now.

What Was Mount McKinley Originally Called? 

This stunning summit was called Denali by the Koyukon Alaskan Athabaskans, the original inhabitants of the interior of Alaska. In their language, the name means “The High One” or “The Great One.” The name Denali was used by generations, including non-Native researchers who studied the area. 

At least nine Native Alaskan groups that speak five Athabaskan languages have used different names to refer to the mountain. Most of these words translate to some variation of “the tall one.” But Denali is linked to the Koyukon language spoken in the North, which uses the name “deenaalee.” 

Explorers and gold prospectors staying along the Yukon River also called the mountain many names, including “Densmore Mountain” and “Densmore Peak.” However, these didn’t quite take off like Mount McKinley.   

Mount Denali Alaska. Learn how  Mount McKinley got its name

Denali has had many names before its official renaming in 2015.

©iStock.com/SteveAllenPhoto

How Did Mount McKinley Get Its Name

Denali is located in south-central Alaska, 130 miles northwest of Anchorage, with a peak that reaches 20,310 feet above sea level. It’s not only the tallest mountain in North America but also the third-highest of the Seven Summits. It’s even considered the tallest mountain on land, making it taller than Mount Everest. These claims come from Denali National Park because of Denali’s lower vertical rise that comes out to 18,000 feet.

In addition to its name, Denali’s height has sparked controversy. Since the 1950s, the long-standing measurement was 20,320 feet. However, in 2013 the summit was only 20,237 feet. In September 2015, the United States Geological Survey established the summit’s official elevation of 20,310 feet. Thankfully, the height debate was put to rest quickly.

But how did Mount McKinley get its name? 

In 1896, the gold prospector William A. Dickey started calling Denali “Mount McKinley” in honor of presidential candidate President William McKinley. It first appeared in writing in a famous New York Sun article in 1897. The new name slowly made its way into the American vocabulary. Still, the name didn’t stick until the assassination of President McKinley in 1901. President McKinley never stepped foot in Alaska. By 1907, Congress recognized the new name. 

However, not everyone was interested in the name change. Native Alaskans and other locals continued to call it Denali without hesitation. Most people in Alaska never stopped calling the beautiful mountain Denali. Thus began the name controversy that would persist until the 21st century.

The braided channels of the Toklat river meanders through colorful Autumn foliage in Denali National Park, Alaska.

Gold prospector William A. Dickey is the reason Denali went by a different name for more than 100 years.

©Bryan Neuswanger/Shutterstock.com

The Naming Controversy

The Mount McKinley name controversy began as early as 1916. Naturalist Charles Sheldon appealed to the Alaska Engineering Commission to preserve the name Denali. He also asked that the requested national park be named Mount Denali National Park rather than Mount McKinley National Park. At the same time, mountaineer Belmore Browne also pleaded with the commission to rename the national park. They weren’t the only two who were passionate about this situation. Many others believed in preserving the mountain’s given name.   

The head of the Alaska Engineering Commission and other officials believed it was better known throughout the U.S. as Mount McKinley. They also claimed the name Denali wasn’t descriptive enough due to his lack of understanding of Athabaskan words, therefore refusing to change the name. However, no one consulted Native Alaskans when the national park surrounding the summit opened in 1917, so it was also named after the president and appeared that way on government documents and maps.

The controversy surrounding the name of the famous summit picked up again in the 1970s when the State of Alaska petitioned the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN) to make Denali the official name. But congress members in Ohio who represented President McKinley’s home state blocked these efforts for nearly four decades.   

Finally, President Barack Obama and the Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, helped Alaskan politicians put the name controversy to rest. In 2016, the name of Mount McKinley and Mount McKinley National Park and Preserve was changed to the original, making it Denali and Denali National Park and Preserve. The timing of the change coincided with the park’s centennial anniversary and highlighted the importance of the area’s Indigenous history.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/SteveAllenPhoto


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About the Author

Mandy Trotti is a writer at A-Z Animals where her primary focus is on dogs and travel. Mandy has been writing professionally for over two years and holds a Bachelor's Degree in English Literature from the University of South Florida, which she earned in 2022. A resident of Florida, Mandy enjoys going on walks with her beagle, visiting botanical gardens, and watching the sunset on the beach.

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