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For first time, Denali Park Road will open to mile 12.5 during the winter

Sean Doogan

For the first time since the early 1980s, people will be able to drive part of the Denali Park Road in winter. The National Park Service is plowing the road and opening it to traffic to the Mountain Vista rest area at mile 12.5. The winter opening is being done on a trial basis after years of requests from Alaska and tourism officials.

Denali Park Road is a narrow ribbon of gravel that cuts 92 miles into Denali National Park. It is usually only open from spring to the fall. But beginning Saturday, Feb. 16, people will be able to drive their own cars a dozen miles into the park. No permits are needed for non-commercial vehicles. The National Park Service said it will try out the winter road opening to gauge whether people take advantage of the unusual access.

The idea of opening part of the road during the winter was first brought up in 2010. Then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar traveled to Fairbanks, where he was asked by Fairbanks North Star Borough officials to increase winter tourism opportunities in Denali National Park, the 6 million acre federal park that contains the nation's tallest peak, Mount McKinley. After an environmental impact study, the park service decided to open the road on a trial basis beginning in February.

"It provides people greater opportunities and easier access to get into the park," Denali National Park spokeswoman Kris Fister said.

Fister said the Mountain Vista rest area is only 70 miles from Mount McKinley and should provide people with a great look at the mountain. But allowing cars into the area will also be helpful to people who want to get out on their own using skis, snowshoes and dog sleds. The Mountain Vista rest area is only a few miles from Savage River, an area popular with winter outdoor users.

Winter road access will continue for three to five years while the National Park Service figures out its cost and impact. Early estimates put the price tag at $25,000 per year, largely for plowing.

"It is an extra cost for us," Fister said. "But if people use (the Denali Park Road), we will continue to plow it in February."

The road normally opens for traffic in mid-March. Fister recommends that drivers planning to travel the road should call ahead to park headquarters at (907) 683-9532 before starting. She noted it may take a day or two to reopen the roadway after a heavy snowfall.

As for the driving conditions, Fister said the road is in good shape with some patches of ice in shady areas. After a recent snowstorm, Denali's winter cloak of beauty has returned.

"Until two weeks ago it was brown, there were bare areas, but it snowed about 8 or 9 inches and got cold," Fister said. "It kind of saved our bacon for a lot of things."

Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)alaskadispatch.com.