Change of Name: Should “Mount McKinley” Become “Denali”?

Candice Gaukel Andrews July 3, 2012 36

“Denali” or “Mount McKinley”—either way, it is North America’s highest peak.

Nature surrounds us with an amazing variety of animals, insects, birds, plants and topographic features. To refer to and distinguish the entities in this bounty, we assign them names—often two: one for common use and one, a two-parter, for scientific identification.

Usually, the person credited with discovering or finding something new gets naming rights. And sometimes, he or she can be pretty creative.

Take, for instance, the new species of rugged darkling beetle, Stenomorpha roosevelti, which was discovered last year in the protected area of Cuatro Ciénegas, a biodiversity-rich oasis in Coahuila, Mexico. It was named after President Theodore Roosevelt, in honor of the 100th anniversary of his speech at Tempe Normal School (now Arizona State University) on March 20, 1911.

But another president’s name—this time attached to a mountain—is still stirring up controversy more than a hundred years after being bestowed. Should Mount McKinley’s name be officially changed to Denali? 

The name game

The common name “puffin” is an Anglo-Norman word for the cured carcasses of nestling manx shearwaters. ©Colin McNulty

You’ve probably fantasized about naming your own star or planet or breed of dog. Tributes to presidents, professions of love or gratitude, and even a witty sense of humor have all made their way into our nomenclature for the natural world.

Scientists named Fedexia strieglei as a gesture of thanks to FedEx, the shipping company that owned the land where the 300-million-year-old amphibian with “bone-ripping tusks” was found. Kryoryctes cadburyi, a quill-covered, toothless, cat-sized, dinosaur-era mammal, was named by paleontologists who subsisted mostly on Cadbury chocolate while conducting their dig. In 2008, a researcher at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, named a previously unknown deep-sea fish after her fiancé, geophysicist Michael Cousins, with the appellation Pachycara cousinsi. Just a year earlier, in western Columbia, scientists happened upon a new, beaked toad and nicknamed it the “Mr. Burns toad.” Its long, pointy, snout-like nose reminded them of the villain Mr. Burns from The Simpsons television series.

Two sides to every mountain

Although most Alaskans—and probably most of us who have visited Alaska—already use the name Denali (Koyukon Athabascan for “The High One”) to refer to North America’s highest peak, officially the mountain remains Mount McKinley. Strangely enough, however, the park around the mountain is legally termed Denali National Park & Preserve.

This anomaly has its roots in the late 1890s, when gold prospector William Dickey returned to the Lower 48 and wrote an account of his adventures for the New York Sun that appeared on January 24, 1897. He stated “we named our great peak Mount McKinley, after William McKinley of Ohio, who had been nominated for the presidency.” But in 1975, the Alaska Geographic Names Board changed the name of the mountain to Denali and requested that the United States Board on Geographic Names follow suit. The state board also asked that Mount McKinley National Park be changed to Denali National Park.

Sometimes, a witty sense of humor makes its way into our nomenclature for the natural world, as in the case of the Sally Lightfoot crab. ©Eric Rock

Ohio U.S. Rep. Ralph Regula, whose district included McKinley’s hometown, blocked the petition to rename the mountain. On December 2, 1980, however, with President Jimmy Carter’s signing of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, Mount McKinley National Park (created on February 26, 1917) was incorporated into a larger protected area named Denali National Park & Preserve. The United States Board on Geographic Names opted to defer a ruling on changing the name of the actual mountain.

Regula continued to fight the name change until his retirement in January 2009. Recently, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski introduced legislation to try to again change the name of our continent’s highest point from Mount McKinley to Denali, stating that Denali means something to Alaskans. Predictably, members of Ohio’s congressional delegation have filed measures or included language in bills to retain the name Mount McKinley.

Any one of us who has ever named a child or a beloved pet knows that names are important. They suggest meanings for and hopes and dreams of the giver, as well as of the person or thing being named. But the dispute over the name of this mountain is unusual. Few similar cases have gone on as long or at as high of a level as McKinley vs. Denali.

Do you believe that officially changing the name of the mountain to Denali is important, even if Alaskans—and almost everyone else—already call it that?

Here’s to your adventures, in whatever corner of the world you find them,



  1. B.K. July 25, 2012 at 9:58 am - Reply

    It’s the Ohioans! As it turns out, they block the federal-level renaming every time it comes up.

  2. Brian July 25, 2012 at 4:50 am - Reply

    When I was stationed up there in the 1990s, most people seemed to call it that anyway. The original highway leading to the park is still the Denali highway, the adjacent state park is Denali – if they rename it, it will be for the benefit of the people in the Lower 48. The residents up there know, with a wink and a nod, what’s what.

  3. Darrell July 24, 2012 at 5:23 pm - Reply

    Rename the mountain to the historic “Denali”, name the park after McKinley.

  4. Roger Bullard July 22, 2012 at 12:44 pm - Reply

    Denali, by all means. Not Mt. Denali – just Denali.

  5. Liz & Jim July 21, 2012 at 11:42 pm - Reply

    We’ve been to Denali Park and the base of Mount McKinley. We do feel the name Denali is much more suited to the mountain and the park; as ‘denali’ describes it very well. Sorry Mr. [Honorable President] McKinley , the problem with naming places after people is the names lose significance to future generations and names are changed to the next person to die climbing it or whatever.

  6. Joyce Maresco July 21, 2012 at 12:00 am - Reply

    Definitely YES!!!! It is the name given to the mountain by the original indigenous population of Alaska. We all need to respect the rights and traditions of the local indigenous population of this region. No one, no matter who they are, has the right to disrespect those who have lived in it’s shadow for years.

  7. Peter July 18, 2012 at 6:45 am - Reply

    Yes, increasingly, the mountain is universally referred to as “Denali”. As anyone who has been to Alaska can tell you, most/many Alaskans have referred to the mountain as Denali for many years.

  8. David P. July 16, 2012 at 8:53 am - Reply

    Denali is a much better name. It is time we started giving indigenous people and their languages more respect.

  9. Liz July 13, 2012 at 7:35 pm - Reply

    Change it to Denali. That’s what most people call it, anyway, and it’s a much more suitable name.

  10. Mark July 12, 2012 at 5:41 am - Reply

    I call it Denali (I should also note for trivia I’m originally from Ohio 🙂 ), and most climbers I know call it Denali, but there are some, such as climber/author Charles Irion, who hold fast to McKinley (in his Seven Summits murder mystery series)

  11. Lawan Bukar July 9, 2012 at 9:31 am - Reply

    I am glad that I read the brief history of how this National Park was named in the first place. It seems to me that it was politically motivated when they named it “Mt McKinley”, whereas the natives ‘christened’ it Denali. Therefore, its name should be changed to what the natives want and call, Denali National Park.

  12. Kirima July 9, 2012 at 1:17 am - Reply

    Denali is my personal choice 🙂
    However, I agree with Mark Stadsklevs point “There are more important things to think about. Like whose controlling access, why and for whose benefit etc etc.”
    What if “we” have no control over who is controlling access, why and for who’s benefit? Maybe a return to the older name might give something back to those who feel they’ve lost so much already.

  13. Mark Stadsklev July 7, 2012 at 12:52 pm - Reply

    It’s a name. Remember that each native group had it’s own name, and Denali was one group. Realize that every bay, mountain, river etc had a native or several native names. There are more important things to think about. Like whose controlling access, why and for whose benefit etc etc.

  14. George R. July 7, 2012 at 12:50 pm - Reply

    Mount McKinley is located in Denali National Park and Preserve (DNP&P). The mountain, although the crown jewel of the park, is but one of the mountains which may all have different names. It may be respectful of those who were here before us and preserve their names as we have done with the Hawaiian islands, we are the guardians of the land and it is the owners, managers and guardians of the land and all of its features who have the right to name them whatever they want.

    If it were up to me, ninety percent of Alaska would be protected under a national park where hunters, trappers, miners, drillers, loggers and other destroyers of the land would be banned. But with all of the natural resources Alaska has, preservation is going to be relegated to just 6M acres (663,268 sq. mi.) in the case of DNP&P.

    Preservation of the land is not a priority, nor is its heritage, so names may change, but the land is forever.

  15. Neville Jacobs July 7, 2012 at 5:32 am - Reply

    Long ago, someone told me that the high one wasn’t the right translation, but the word meant “Home of the Sun.” I don’t think that is correct, as the root word DENA is from the people commonly called Athabaskan, but their word for them selves is Dena, or T’ena or some variation, and I think it means “The One.” So I think the suffix refers to the heighth. I’m only guessing.

    Not being a speaker of the language I can only report what I’ve heard, but after coming to Alaska in 1949, 63 years ago, I can say that most of the Alaskans I know call it “Denali.” I’m all for changing it.
    Neville Jacobs

  16. Candace D. July 5, 2012 at 2:31 pm - Reply

    Yes, Have never understood why that gorgeous mountain should be named after one of our worst presidents. It already had a lovely, appropriate name, Denali.

  17. Gary July 5, 2012 at 2:30 pm - Reply

    Separate from the various histories on this one and if we have to choose only one name, then I personally prefer “Denali” for somewhat the same reasoning as Kathleen’s. Also, because it is a great name meaning “The High One”. For one who has been there, it is more fitting.

  18. Kathleen Jones, C.P.M., CPSD, MBA July 5, 2012 at 9:20 am - Reply

    I am in favor of changing the name of Mt. McKinley back to “Denali”. This change will help restore some of the Alaskan Native heritage that has been erased since Alaska became a state.

  19. Phillip T. July 5, 2012 at 4:06 am - Reply

    Mount McKinley is Mount McKinley – why the change the name?

  20. Brian July 5, 2012 at 4:05 am - Reply

    yes, absolutely. I was in Denali NP a month ago.It is fantastic natural system. Unique. Mt M is called Mt Denali by local people and the state of Alaska so the Fed Govmt should follow.

  21. Beat July 4, 2012 at 7:18 am - Reply

    I spent 4 months in the winter westside of Mt. Foraker and Denali and it deserves the name ‘the great one’, since Pres. McKinley never seen the mountain he gave the name to.

  22. Jill July 4, 2012 at 7:14 am - Reply

    Thought this change was already made. Alaska Railroad always calls it Denali.

  23. Bruce July 3, 2012 at 12:29 pm - Reply
  24. Elijah Allan July 3, 2012 at 12:28 pm - Reply

    Denali – the local people had named it that so honor them by calling it that, plus it just sounds way better ha

  25. Nine Quiet Lessons July 3, 2012 at 11:12 am - Reply

    Wow. First, I was not aware that people actually used the term “political correctness” without being ironic about it.

    Second, claims that names shouldn’t be changed because of “history” is kind of amusing here, since Denali has much more history to it than the comparatively-recent Mount McKinley.

    Mostly, the controversy here seems to boil down to people not liking change, especially when it’s changing something that they learned to be “correct” when they were young.

    Names should strive to be both aesthetically evocative, and factually accurate. Accuracy is not so much an issue here, but as a matter of aesthetics, I find Denali far superior to McKinley. Admittedly, that will come down to personal opinion. In the final analysis, I doubt the mountain minds having two names.

  26. David H. July 3, 2012 at 10:40 am - Reply

    Whether or not it is “officially” changed, I always have and always will continue to call it Denali.

  27. Tony July 3, 2012 at 9:05 am - Reply

    I have hiked Denali but not climbed McKinley…. a must visit for hikers… imo…any place named for a politician should be considered for ‘change’… some deserve the honour…most probably do not…

  28. James July 3, 2012 at 9:04 am - Reply

    Well, I don’t believe McKinley even made it to Alaska, but I don’t suppose that really matters. It’s been “Mount McKinley” for a very long time, and I don’t see any reason to change it. If groups of folks start getting together to rename everything I could end up named Candice! Nope, just plain ol’ Jim is fine for me, and I’ll stick with Mount McKinley as the name of the 20,320′ peak I can see regularly from around town and on down the road.

  29. Ed E. July 3, 2012 at 9:02 am - Reply

    The picturesque mountain named Denali by the original inhabitants of that region was subsequently named Mount McKinley by the ‘original’ surveyors. So until government agencies that produce the official gazetteers and maps promote Denali as the recommended name it will continue to be taught in schools as Mt. McKinley. Luckily I was taught that it currently has two interchangeable names and how the names originated. I choose the original original name. Its all about educating our new replacing generations.

  30. Bob G. July 3, 2012 at 9:01 am - Reply

    Why the need to do anything? When Lewis and Clark discovered the West, they gave names to rivers, such as the Madison and Jefferson, in honor of two very prominent men of that time. I’m sure the Shoshone and Blackfeet already had names for them too. So what’s next, go back and rename everything as it was when the native Americans lived there? This is an example of political correctness run amok!!!

  31. Alexandra Chapman July 3, 2012 at 8:46 am - Reply

    We had a family dog named Denali. She is long gone now, but if we had a memorial for her, I doubt mom and dad would agree to changing the plaque to read ‘In loving memory of Mount McKinley.” 😉

  32. Gary C. July 3, 2012 at 8:20 am - Reply

    Use both as we have done for a long time. Both names are important for very different reasons.

  33. John July 3, 2012 at 8:19 am - Reply


  34. Bruce C. July 3, 2012 at 8:16 am - Reply

    I think it should be officially renamed after the white man was not the first to discover and name it. Let’s restore the name and isn’t Denali more descriptive (and romantic)?

  35. Marc d'Entremont July 3, 2012 at 6:57 am - Reply

    No. Honor nature names are unimportant. Only in America are we still hung up on political correctness. I don’t know a single (white) Alaskan (and I have family) who call it Denali. If the Native Americans wish to call it by their own names then that is fine. But history is history, and many places around the world go by multiple names. So be it and leave it alone.

    • linda vaitkus July 13, 2012 at 12:07 pm - Reply

      I grew up in Alaska , I could see that mountain everyday out my window,leave the NAME alone

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