Carefully Providing Wheeled Access To Denali National Park and Preserve

Kurt Repanshek's picture

Wheeled access into the heart of Denali National Park and Preserve is intentionally limited to the 92-mile-long Parks Highway to protect the wildness and character of the park. This short video explains the rationale behind that decision, and looks at the future of the highway.

As Bob Janiskee pointed out earlier this year, when it opened in 1971 the highway provided a godsend to those visitors who wanted to get a closer look at Denali but didn't have time for an extended backpack trek.

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.

As this video explains, in 2008 Denali officials embarked on an Environmental Impact Statement to chart the course of transportation in the park in the years to come. That study, they say, will provide the "science to determine a carrying capacity for the park road that will preserve wilderness resource values and provide for a high-quality experience for current and future generations of visitors."

And, the officials say, the EIS will not attempt to alter the design or infrastructure of the Parks Highway.


Our family went to Alaska last August and one highlight was the Tundra Wilderness Tour. I think it is a good balance between preserving the wilderness and allowing access. I would hate to see it opened to more traffic and reduce wildlife sightings. Being able to see the sweeping vista of Polychrome Basin was a memory I will carry with me for my lifetime. It also bolsters my belief of the need to protect places like these and take interest in our parks.

The Ken Burns series on National Parks due out this September has a segment on the history of the road in Denali, including the plan to widen & pave the entire loop and build a fancy visitor's center at Wonder Lake, and the fight by Adolph Murie that stopped the paving.