DENALI NATIONAL PARK — Visitor services are expanding at Denali National Park for winter and shoulder seasons.

The changes include allowing private vehicles access on the Denali Park road to the Teklanika Rest Area, depending on weather and road conditions; allowing commercial guiding for nonmotorized winter recreation in some areas of the Denali wilderness; and grooming trails in the entrance area and perhaps trails in the Nenana River area as well. Also, concessionaire transit and tour bus service will begin earlier, in early to mid-May. Parking of private vehicles may be permitted at certain locations west of Savage River during the shoulder seasons. 

Shoulder seasons are typically the weeks before summer season kicks in and before the winter season begins. It’s the period of time between peak and off-peak seasons. The changes are happening because of the increasing numbers of visitors to the park during the shoulder and winter seasons, according to Jennifer Johnston, the park’s outdoor planner.

“This is an opportunity to really think about how to best serve these visitors,” Johnston said. “They’re not just increasing in numbers. They are also increasing in diversity of visitors that we didn’t see 10 years ago.”

For example, more tour groups visit the park during the shoulder/winter seasons than in past years.

“Previous to about a handful of years ago, we would see primarily independent visitors,” Johnston said. “Even to some extent, folks just stopping by on their way between Fairbanks and Anchorage. There is a greater proportion of locals.”

More international visitors are choosing to come to Denali National Park during shoulder and winter seasons — same with visitors from the Lower 48. More and more Alaskans are also discovering that shoulder/winter seasons are “an incredible time to be here,” Johnston said, adding that the park needs to find a way to best serve those visitors.

The decision to allow earlier access to Teklanika Rest Stop, 30 miles in on the park road, is an attempt to relieve what has become an “extraordinarily busy” spring visit for so many people.

“Driving yourself to Teklanika is an independent spring experience that is unique and a lot of Alaskans take advantage of it,” she said.

An earlier opening and bus service may relieve some of that pressure, she said.

“This allows the park to start the concessionaire operated tour bus and shuttle bus out to Teklanika concurrently and earlier than buses start now to relieve some of that pressure,” she said. “It works to serve the visitors and also protect the wilderness.”

Mountain Vista at Mile 11 of the Park Road has become a de facto trail head in the winter for mushers and skiers. A perennially open creek just to the west has limited travel in that direction for outdoor enthusiasts. The park will install a rustic crossing to allow access across that creek.

The proposed changes were available for public comment during June and comments ran the gamut, Johnston said.

“There are folks who really want to see the park do more and really hoping for more extensive, far-reaching changes, and there are folks who think any change goes against the preservation mission of the park or isn’t warranted,” she said. “So in this whole planning process, we tried to walk that online. My hope is that most of these are common sense enough that folks will understand.”

“The whole core of this is that the park service has a dual mission,” Johnston said. “How to provide for visitors and protect resources during the winter/shoulder seasons for increasing and diversifying visitors.”

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

What could change

Under the new plan, these are the visitor services that will be enacted at Denali National Park.

• Allow private vehicle access to the Denali Park Road (Park Road) west of Headquarters to the Teklanika rest area as weather and road conditions allow.

• Plow a portion of the Park Road during winter months, up to approximately mile 12 beginning in February.

• Install a seasonal footbridge near Mountain Vista to facilitate access to traditional winter routes.

• Create a connector trail for mushing access at the Mountain Vista rest area.

• Allow commercial guiding for non-motorized winter recreation in some areas of the Denali wilderness.

• Groom trails in the park entrance area and potential trails in the Nenana River area.

• Allow concessioner transit and tour bus service starting early to mid-May.

• Allow parking on the Park Road in identified locations west of Savage River for private vehicles during the shoulder seasons.

• Open the Savage River and Teklanika campgrounds earlier in the spring and keep them open later into the fall.

• Install minor facility improvements at the Teklanika Rest Area including parking lines, signs and informational kiosks.

• Provide seasonally specific detail to established desired conditions by adopting the desired conditions outlined in the 2019 Winter and Shoulder Season Plan.