Denali National Park is easing into opening for the 2020 season.

Limited bus service into the park will begin July 1, along with the possibility that private vehicles and local commercial operators may be allowed to drive the park road as well.

Reservations are being accepted by Doyon-Aramark Joint Ventures as usual for the Tundra Wilderness Tour and the Natural History Tour beginning July 1. The Tundra Wilderness Tour travels 62 miles into the park to Stoney Hill Overlook and lasts about eight hours. The Natural History Tour goes 30 miles to Teklanika Rest Stop with interpretive stops along the way and lasts about five hours.

With public health guidelines in mind, the buses are expected to operate at 50% capacity. The schedules for transit and camper buses have not been finalized, but they will be limited.

The park is also considering allowing some local commercial use of the Park Road to offset the reduced bus service. Commercial use, for example, might be a guided private vehicle tour where one vehicle leads a caravan of up to three other vehicles along the road.

“This would allow visitors to experience the park in the privacy and safety of a vehicle while practicing social distancing,” said Pete Christian, spokesman for the National Park Service in Alaska.

“The park is currently open for private vehicle travel to the Teklanika Rest Stop at mile marker 30,” he added. “Hikers and cyclists may access the road further, to the East Fork bridge at mile marker 43. We will continue to allow access to the park road beyond Savage check station, likely through a reservation system, at least until buses run on July 1.”

This decision was made because of the delay of the park opening, Christian said. Private vehicles will be allowed to drive to Teklanika at least until July 1.

No additional summer road lotteries are planned for the 2020 season. The traditional road lottery for Sept. 18-22 will be open for applications June 1 to June 30.

However, a reservation system is being put in place to allow online reservations for visitors to drive private vehicles into the park.

“We are establishing an online system that will allow individuals to reserve a specific timed entry window on certain dates, giving them access to the Park Road via private vehicle,” Christian said.

This might happen every other weekend throughout the summer, but the frequency has not been determined yet.

“The number of private vehicles allowed will be in accordance with the park’s vehicle management plan and calculated to supplement what is already permitted via commercial bus tours and other road traffic,” Christian said. “Visitors would need to apply online on a first-come, first-serve basis, enter the park during the specified time frame and be out of the park again at the end of the specified time.”

Details are still being considered. It has not yet been determined how far private vehicles could drive on the 92-mile park road.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the biggest challenge for the 2020 season was the dramatic road slump on Polychrome Pass called Pretty Rocks. That section of road has been repaired, Christian said.

Earlier this spring, the contractor pre-staged equipment and materials at the Toklat Road Camp, mile 53 of the Park Road.

“Once work was underway in April, the contractor estimated they moved between 4,000 and 4,500 cubic yards of fill in order to bring the road to grade for ‘normal travel,’ “ Christian said.

Maintenance on this section of road will continue throughout the summer, as the slide is continuing to drop about 1 inch every day, he said.

Park officials are working with the Federal Highway Administration to develop alternatives for a more permanent fix, he added. 

Reach columnist/community editor Kris Capps at kcapps@newsminer.com. Follow her on Twitter @FDNMKris

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