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Early September snowfall closes Denali Park road

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Posted: Thursday, September 6, 2012 11:34 pm

Updated 3:45 p.m. with road reopening

FAIRBANKS, Alaska - It’s a sight that tourists in Denali National Park and Preserve probably didn’t appreciate.

Up to 4 inches of snow fell at higher elevations in the western portion of the park on Thursday, briefly closing the only road leading into the 6-million acre park 130 miles south of Fairbanks.

Buses carrying tourists into the park had to turn around at Mile 53 of the 92-mile Denali Park Road because of slippery conditions. The road was closed at 8:30 a.m. and was reopened about 2 p.m.

“They reported 4 inches of snow at Toklat this morning,” park spokeswoman Kris Fister said. “On the higher points of the road they said there were 2 to 3 inches of snow.”

The slippery conditions at high elevations prompted the road closure, she said. The Park Service did allow some eastbound traffic through the closed portion of the road in the form of two overnight camper buses from Wonder Lake at Mile 82 and buses from two private lodges at the end of the road that were transporting guests out of the park.

The snow wasn’t deep enough to plow and park officials were waiting for it to melt before allowing traffic through, Fister said. There were 13 shuttle buses scheduled to go past Mile 53 on Thursday, she said.

“We’re waiting to see if it warms up,” Fister said. “We’ll reopen it as soon as we can.”

Snow in the western part of the park isn’t unusual at this time of year, Fister said. Toklat is located at just a little over 3,000 feet elevation and the snow line has been creeping down below the 4,000-foot level in recent days, she said.

Meteorologist Chris Cox at the National Weather Service in Fairbanks said a cold front moved through the western portion of the park overnight Wednesday and mixed with moisture streaming in from the southwest to produce snow at higher elevations.

“They’re just high enough in that area,” he said.

Cox agreed that snow at the altitude is not unusual for this time of year. The snow was expected to switch to rain later in the day and this evening, he said.

The early snow doesn’t bode well for the Denali Road Lottery, scheduled for Sept. 14-17. Lottery winners — 400 a day — are allowed to drive their vehicles the entire length of the park road once the tourist season ends but it’s contingent on the weather, Fister said.

“We always say it’s weather conditions permitting,” she said.

Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587.

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