Alaska Railroad service

Alaska Railroad service to and from Denali has been suspended until Monday, Aug. 19, 2019, at the soonest, due to failure of a retaining wall in the Healy Canyon. Photo submitted Aug. 17, 2019. Photo courtesy Alaska Railroad

The Denali Park Road was expected to open for normal operations early this morning, according to a news release Saturday from the National Park Service. Road crews spent all day repairing damage due to water erosion, mudslides and rockslides, on the western end of the road.

It remained closed to bus tours Saturday at Mile 53, Toklat River Rest Area, but inholders in the Kantishna area were allowed to transport guests to lodges. Buses were also allowed to transport visitors with backcountry permits or Wonder Lake Campground reservations to those sites.

Heavy rain also curtailed Alaska Railroad service to and from Denali after the failure of a retaining wall supporting railroad tracks in the Healy Canyon north of the park, according to an Alaska Railroad news release Saturday. Both passenger and freight service are closed north of the park until Monday at the earliest. Railroad passengers should expect delays. Motorcoach service will be provided.

Crews are working to repair the retaining wall in question.

“The lower slope slipped due to saturated soils from recent heavy rains,” Timothy M. Sullivan Jr., director of external affairs for the Alaska Railroad, stated in the news release. “Work will continue to fortify the structure and prevent any further erosion.”

Work also continued on the park road.

“The park road is a challenge to maintain under normal conditions,” Norm Solie, Denali’s west district maintenance supervisor,  according to the park service. “They’re working incredibly hard to get that road opened up to visitors as soon as possible.”

Doyon/Aramark Joint Venture, the park’s concessioner, resumed tour and transit bus shuttles Saturday only as far as Toklat River Rest Area. Tours are expected to continue today as usual.

With improved weather in the forecast, road crews said they believe they are in a good position to ensure the road remains stable, according to the park service.

“It’s clear that our changing climate is having dramatic impacts on Alaska,” Paul Ollig, acting public information officer, stated in a news release. “Park scientists expect that we’ll be seeing more of these intense precipitation events in the future. You start to couple that with melting permafrost and larger and more frequent wildfires, and a rainstorm can suddenly become a much more dynamic situation. This requires the park to be adaptive in how it manages the Park Road.”

Superintendent Don Striker praised Joint Venture partners, who operate the transportation system, for their flexibility during the road closure.

“Joint Venture did an excellent job of working with us to shuttle visitors to different areas of the park, adapting their tours and allowing people to still experience the open portion of the road, and making sure people who were out in the backcountry could be shuttled back to the entrance,” he stated in the news release.

Since Aug. 1, some areas in the western part of the park road have received close to 20 inches of rain, saturating the road surface and increasing the likelihood of mudslides. Weather cleared Saturday, so crews were able to clear debris and repair damaged sections of road. Continued clearing through Wednesday will also help considerably, according to the park service.

On Friday, about 300 visitors were stranded for several hours when mudslides and a culvert failure blocked the road. Road crews worked to make the road passable and they were all able to reach the park entrance by Friday night.

Visitors are encouraged to check Denali National Park’s current condition page at bit.ly/2THVXK9 for updates.

Contact the newsroom at 459-7572.

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