Paving the Way to Denali National Park & Preserve

The George Parks Highway. Photo by substack via Flickr.

Seldom has a highway project impacted a national park’s attendance more dramatically than the construction of the 323-mile long George Parks Highway. Completed in 1971, the Parks Highway didn't just link Anchorage and Fairbanks. It also quite literally paved the way to Denali National Park & Preserve, triggering a tremendous leap in visitation.

When Alaska’s Mount McKinley National Park was established 92 years ago today, things were very different. Alaska wasn’t even a state, for one thing, and the park, situated several hundred miles north of Anchorage in the middle of nowhere, was very hard to get to. You could arrive by bush plane or via the Alaska Railroad, but getting there by auto was a task reserved for the adventuresome.

As late as 1965, nearly half a century after the park was established, annual visitation was still less than 30,000. It’s no mystery why. Alaska was (and is) a very lightly populated state, and tourists from the Lower 48 had not yet begun to arrive in large numbers. Jet travel was too expensive for most, and no big fleet of cruise ships was plying the Inside Passage and disgorging tourists by the thousands at Alaskan ports. Most importantly for the park, there was no easy way for visitors to make their way to the park entrance by car or motor coach.

If ever there was a park that deserves a good highway link, it’s Denali. Established on February 26, 1917, and redesignated Denali National Park & Preserve in 1980, this Massachusetts-sized park sports awesome mountains, vast reaches of boreal forest and tundra, and so much watchable wildlife that it vies with Yellowstone as “America’s Serengeti.” Small wonder that Denali was designated an International Biosphere Reserve in 1976.

Everything changed for the lightly visited park when a paved all-weather road, the north-south oriented Alaska Route 3, was completed in 1971 to link Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska’s two biggest cities. Four years later the new “Alaska-Fairbanks Highway” (which actually begins at the Glenn Highway junction about 35 miles north of Anchorage) was officially named the George Parks Highway in honor of George Alexander Parks, Alaska’s Territorial Governor from 1925 to 1933.

Alaskans just call this vital road link the Parks Highway. Confused by the name, lots of visitors are surprised to learn that the highway was actually named for a person.

As the map at this site shows, the Parks Highway was routed in a way that could scarcely have served Denali National Park visitors better. Paralleling the route of the Alaska Railroad, the highway skirts Denali’s eastern edge and delivers motorists to the park’s main entrance at Riley Creek, which is located about 240 miles north of Anchorage and about 125 miles south of Fairbanks.

The year after the Parks Highway was completed, the NPS inaugurated the now-famous shuttle bus service on the park's only road as a means of providing convenient, low-impact access to the park’s wilderness interior. Once they reached the park, motorists could now drive up to 15 miles into the wilderness interior in their private vehicles or elect to use the shuttle bus service for trips even deeper into the park (up to 80 miles).

You can see Mount McKinley from the shuttle road on a (rare) clear day, but watchable wildlife is the main attraction. Nowhere else in the Park System is it more convenient for visitors to see a tundra wilderness wildlife community that includes caribou, grizzly bear, moose, Dall sheep, and wolf (a collection known in Alaska as the “Big Five”).

It’s quite an understatement to say that the new highway access and shuttle road service triggered a dramatic increase in Denali visitation. In 1971, the year the Parks Highway was completed, the park drew 44,500 visitors. The very next year, the first with both the highway and the shuttle service in place, visitation nearly doubled (to 88,625).

After that, it was “Katie bar the door.” Attendance zoomed to 137,300 in 1973, and before the decade was out it had topped a quarter-million. In 1988, less than 20 years after the Parks Highway was completed, it was pushing 600,000.

Post script: In 2008, Denali National Park & Preserve recorded more than 432,000 recreational visits. Though not a match for the heady numbers of the park’s 1986-1993 heyday (when visitation topped 500,000 for eight straight years) that’s not bad attendance for a 9,494 square-mile park that consists almost entirely of untrailed wilderness, has only one short road (a dead-end one at that), and is dominated by cold weather nine months of the year.

Comments

Bob - great information and background on the park - and the highway.

With benefit of hindsight, it's a good thing the park started the shuttle bus service shortly after the highway was completed, and therefore kept the number of private vehicles in the park under control. My one experience with the shuttle bus was very positive - and I shudder to think of how different the park would be today if all of those visitors drove into the park by private car or huge tour bus.

Agree with Jim B. that shuttle bus is critical to protecting Denali. I used it when out there in 2005 so things may have improved since then, but my one complaint is that it's too bad they use the noisy, smelly "school bus" instead of something quieter, cleaner, and with MUCH better viewing windows like the shuttle in Zion. Maybe some Stim budget money for a new shuttle fleet at this jewel of a park!

I am so thankful they made parks like Denali so accessible. Yes, I am torn between preservation of parks and easy access by visitors (leading to environmental degradation), but on the whole, I'd rather people were able to see the beauty of a place than not.

You can't drive home the importance of preserving the environment if people aren't allowed to experience the environment. I loved my own trip to Denali, a trip made possible because it was accessible to middle-class schlubs like myself ...

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My travels through the National Park System: americaincontext.com