Our National Parks: Denali National Park

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1992

Our National Parks: Denali National Park
By Alston Chase and Debra Shore

Box 9, Denali Park, AK 99755
Established 1917
6,000,000 Acres

The Big Picture: The guidebooks say that Denali is Athapaskan for "the high one," but a more realistic translation might be "the hyperbolic one." The park boasts the continent's tallest peak (20,320-foot Mount McKinley, aka Denali), the most photogenic mammals (grizzlies, Dall sheep, moose, and caribou) of any park, more acreage than Vermont, and a passel of not-so-small problems stemming from the fact that there's basically only one way into the place: a narrow gravel road traveled by a growing army of park shuttles and tour buses. Those who land a backcountry permit, however, will find unmatched views, wildlife, and empty expanses that go a long way toward explaining the term "Lower 48." If all of last year's 6,000 backpackers were in the park at once, they could each have nearly 1,000 acres to themselves. In fact, there's so much room in Denali that the rangers are scratching their heads over the gradual disappearance of the caribou, whose population has declined to 2,500 after reaching a high of 20,000 in the forties. Theories abound--disease, pollution, natural population cycles--but in the end, Denali's rangers are left with one oddly comforting fact: Their park is still too big to understand.

Where Everyone Goes:
Traffic report: 558,870 total visitors, 6,000 backcountry visitors

Aboard the aged yellow Park Service school buses that travel the 97-mile gravel road into the interior. The first 15 miles are especially crowded, as they're accessible by any private vehicle, and there tends to be a pileup around the campground at Wonder Lake, that silvery pool that graces the foreground of many a Mount McKinley photograph.

Where You Should Go: Denali is one of the few national parks where the finest areas are defined not solely by where the roads aren't, but by rivers, valleys, and high mountain ridges. Start at park headquarters, where you can pick up a backcountry permit; you have to do it in person, but the wait usually isn't more than a day or so. Then catch a free shuttle into the Toklat River area, where a short hike off the road gives you your pick of any ridge. Be sure to stay high, above the mosquito-filled bogs, and you'll be rewarded with good tent-flap views of McKinley--when it's not sheathed in clouds, as it is about 65 percent of the time. Don't bother bringing a fishing rod--most streams are too silty for fish--but a walking stick will help you cross the deceptively swift glacial runoffs.

Getting closer to McKinley requires a little assistance from one of the many flight operators in Talkeetna, 145 miles south of the park entrance. For $200-$235 the ski planes of Talkeetna Air Taxi (907-733-2218) will buzz you to the vast bowls of Ruth or Kahiltna glaciers, where you can cross-country ski in the springlike conditions and stare at The Mooses Tooth, a 10,335-foot granite spire. Mountain Trip (907-345-6499) runs four-day ski-tours for $500 a person.

Don't Forget: Plenty of socks. With mossy bogs, glacial streams, and McKinley-generated mist, it just isn't a camping trip in Denali unless your feet are damp.

Where to Bunk: The park would prefer that you stay at the concessioner's hotel near the park entrance, but to avoid the summer-camp ambience try Carlo Creek Lodge, 32 acres of woods with six log cabins and several tent sites. Ask for the kitchenette cabin at the juncture of the creek and the Nenana River ($65-$85 for a double; 907-683-2576 or 907-683-2573).

Food Is: About as reliable as a clear view of the mountain. For a break, try the pizza and Alaskan Amber Ale at Lynx Creek Pizza, just outside the park entrance.

Park Lore: In 1989, Oukiok, a Siberian husky belonging to a couple from Chamonix, France, became separated from its masters at 13,200 feet and was presumed lost, only to show up three weeks later at the medical camp at 14,200 feet, thin and hungry but otherwise OK. Roger Robinson, a veteran ranger at the Talkeetna station, theorized that Oukiok had slipped into a crevasse and scrambled his way out. "He climbed maybe a 70-degree slope," said Robinson. "That's steep, but he could have tried a lot of times. The dog has 20 claws. Critters can move around."

Your Park Service at Work: The big quandary at Denali today is mathematical: how to funnel half a million visitors--twice as many as 1981--into the park along one road in the space of three months. The Park Service has been studying the effects of buses on wildlife on and off since 1974, but there is no systematic way to monitor impact. In the meantime, the traffic has created the safari-like phenomenon of six or seven buses pulling up to view a single grizzly. In 1986, the park figured to draw visitors to the less-popular southern reaches by planning a visitor center near Talkeetna. Now, however, not only does the project seem destined to fail to meet its goal--a subsequent study showed that traffic levels would not be lessened--but it also seems to have caused quite a ruckus. Many Talkeetnans are dead-set against it, fearing the damage that 200,000 summer visitors could wreak upon their hamlet of 350 residents. But the Park Service has found a Native American corporation willing to build a hotel complex there, and documents obtained by local activists seem to suggest it's a done deal, even though the Park Service is going through the motions of a public hearing process.

Finally, a word of advice: Don't underestimate the vigilance of the rangers when it comes to patrolling the park road. Last summer, former park geologist Steve Hicks was ticketed for driving without the proper permit. When he missed his court appearance, the rangers sent federal agents to Montana to arrest Hicks and escort him back to pay his $200 fine--and his $484 plane fare home. Cost to taxpayers: $4,739.

Where the money goes:
Budget: $5,831,800
Science: 0%
Visitor services: 31.4%
Maintenance: 35.2%
Other: 33.4%

Flashlight Reading: Two in the Far North, by Margaret Murie (Alaska Northwest, $12.95); The Backcountry Companion, by Jon Nierenberg (Alaska Natural History Association, $8.95).

Fun Index: Big place, big fun--if you get off the big road. 4.5

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