Visitors interested in winter activities in Denali National Park and Preserve'and the small number of off-season tourists who just want to see the famous mountain'might have increased opportunities in coming years. The park is considering plowing an additional nine miles of road into the park, and is seeking public input on the idea.
There's only one road into the interior of the park, and it's closed to vehicular traffic beyond park headquarters (mile 3) after the first significant snowfall occurs, which is usually in October. Work to reopen the route begins about mid-March each year, and depending upon the weather, the road is generally open to the public as far as the Savage River (Mile 15) by early April, and to the Teklanika River Rest Area (Mile 30) by mid to late April.
Bus service, the only way to access the interior by road during the summer, is scheduled to begin this year on May 20, although the end of the road (mile 92) isn't expected to be open until June 8, 2012.
So, what's the situation during the remaining months of serious Alaskan winter? The road hasn't been plowed past headquarters, about three miles inside the park entrance, since the 1980s. That doesn't mean it is completely closed'the road is available for use by dog teams, cross country skiers, snowshoers, and other winter recreationalists.
Would more such visitors use the area during the winter if their starting point were a few miles further into the park? The staff is considering extending the area plowed during the winter season to the Mountain Vista Rest Area (Mile 12), which adds an additional nine miles to the stretch open to vehicles.
According to a park spokesperson, "Plowing the road beyond park headquarters would allow private and commercial vehicles to travel further into the park to provide mountain viewing and increased recreational opportunities."
"Mountain viewing" refers to the park's dominant feature, 20,320 foot-high Mount McKinley, which is North America's tallest peak. First-time visitors are sometimes surprised to discover that the famous mountain isn't visible at all from the main entrance to the park or the primary visitor center. If you want to see it from the park road, you have to drive almost ten miles into the interior'a location which isn't accessible by vehicle during the winter.
Once you get to a vantage point, viewing opportunities of the peak are still dependent on the weather, and there's one other factor to keep in mind: short daylight hours for much of the colder months. That said, those fortunate enough to get a look at the mountain are in for a treat, and there's plenty of other fine winter scenery even if the peak itself is hidden by the weather.
Would this proposal for increased vehicle access result in more use of the area? A big increase in casual visitors simply interested in a quick winter peek at the mountain seems unlikely. The most likely beneficiaries of expanded access are those who live close enough for a day or weekend trip.
Park spokesperson Kris Fister says moving the "trailhead" for activities such as cross country skiing and snowshoeing would increase access to some prime areas, such as the Savage River drainage. One factor which made the concept more viable was the completion of the Murie Science & Learning Center, which now remains open as Denali's "winter visitor center." It's located at mile 1.4 on the Park Road.
Among the factors to be considered are the increased cost of plowing, but that may not be as big a jump as it may sound. Parts of the route are across fairly open terrain, and the wind keeps snow from accumulating too deeply on the road in those areas.
In addition, one lane of the road is already being plowed to at least mile 7, so the road crew can manage an area where a "significant overflow of ice" occurs each winter. Rerouting a section of the road and installation of large culverts about three years ago helped reduce that problem, but it's still important for the crew to avoid playing serious catch-up on that section when spring rolls around.
One activity that would be affected is the park's dog sled operation, since the currently unplowed lane provides a good route for dog teams headed into the park for winter patrols. If both lanes of the road were plowed, another route for the sleds would be needed; one or more existing trails could provide an option.
So, do you have an opinion on the proposal? An informational meeting will be held on Wednesday, February 22, from 6:00 to 8:00 pm at the Murie Science and Learning Center in Denali National Park. Members of the public are invited to share their ideas and concerns about the proposal with park staff.
If you'd like to offer any ideas, but can't attend the meeting, you can also send them via fax to 907-683-9612, by U. S. Mail to Superintendent, Denali National Park and Preserve, ATTN: Winter Road Plowing, P.O. Box 9, Denali Park, AK 99755. If you'd prefer to submit a comment on-line, you can do so at this link. All comments must be received by Friday, March 9, 2012.