As Denali National Park crowds grow, the wilderness experience erodes

John Schandelmeier
Denali National Park visitors view Mount McKinley from the Stony Hill Overlook, off the Denali Park Road. MARC LESTER / Daily News archive 2003

DENALI NATIONAL PARK -- The first time I remember visiting Denali National Park was 1963.  My Dad and I drove to the park in search of some wayward homing pigeons.  There was a snowstorm on the Denali Highway and heavy rain at the park entrance.  We pulled up to the Park hotel and immediately booked a room.  Today, if one wants a room near the Park, advance reservations are a necessity.  In the 1960s, private vehicles could drive the park road.  There was little traffic, no Glitter Gulch. But times have changed.

This past week, our family went on a road trip to enjoy Interior Alaska.  Every couple or three years, we drive across the Denali Highway and take a bus ride into the park.  A dozen years ago it was a pretty good ride.  It is still an OK ride.  But the National Park Service may need to consider some changes. The buses are full for the most part, and there are a lot of buses.  The road is quite narrow in many locations and we were stopped often to let buses pass in both directions.  

The park road has some serious maintenance happening this summer.  The road is sloughing in spots, especially in Polychrome Pass.  That’s OK so long as the Park Service doesn’t keep adding buses.

About 100 buses per day travel Denali’s roadway.  Each season, nearly 200,000 people travel to the Eielson Visitor Center at Milepost 66 of the park road. Wildlife viewing opportunities remain excellent, especially for grizzlies and caribou. But, the quality of the experience is steadily declining due to crowds of people everywhere. There are more big groups of hikers near the roads. Most are guided hikes.  

I personally saw eight or nine big groups of hikers. A couple of times our bus screeched to a halt to look at what was thought to be an animal. Nope, it was just another crowd coming off a mountain. It is a challenge now and will be a greater one in the future to maintain the wilderness experience in a canned environment such as Denali National Park.

Dwindling wolf numbers

Denali’s wolf population is at or near an all-time low. About 10 percent of visitors see wolves in the park these days. There is much speculation about the reason. Personally, I find an easy explanation. I believe that the area surrounding the park holds the key.  

Intensive wolf management outside park boundaries in Alaska’s Game Management Unit 13 has reduced the number of wolves available to move into the park.  Wolves move hundreds of miles to fill voids, but there must be enough of the big canines to overflow -- and there’s not anymore.

I am not advocating less or more wolf control just to solve a Denali Park viewing issue. It’s simply my belief you can’t separate Denali from the rest of Alaska.

That said, Denali has become a closed entity. I talked with four or five park rangers during my visit. All were fairly recent arrivals to Denali. All were European. They had excellent book knowledge of the Denali, but not much local information from outside the park.

In the 1960s and early '70s, my family hunted along the Denali Highway, right up to the park boundary. We would put our guns away and drive to the end of the park road just to have a look at more animals. This history is important. It illustrates how closely Denali National Park was (and still is) tied to the rest of Alaska.

None of the rangers or visitor personnel I spoke with was aware of potential changes in park policies, even though there has been discussion on limiting bus numbers and changing bus timing. Although the shuttle bus drivers were experienced,  those I spoke with knew little of Alaska outside of park boundaries. Many do not live in Alaska during the offseason.

Does that matter? The vast majority of visitors are from somewhere besides Alaska.  They want bears and wolves and a T-shirt that says “Denali Park.” I’d probably be the same if I traveled to Tibet.  

Solve the congestion

I did feel like a foreigner in Glitter Gulch. We wanted to camp somewhere and needed a few more groceries. There’s no real store. Chips, soda, and candy bars were all available, but not much real food. We settled for sitting down to a middle-of-the-road pizza and went searching for a place to camp. There are a lot of “No Camping” signs.  

Twenty-odd miles of driving brought us back to the Denali Highway where we found a great camping spot away from the crowds. That’s inevitable, I suppose. There is no way to service hundreds of thousands of Denali visitors at campgrounds.

More people will want to come to see Denali National Park and the rest of Alaska.  It is one of the last wild places in the U.S. That means now is the time to solve the congestion that is beginning to defeat the basic premise of the park. We don’t want Yellowstone. We want Alaska.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.