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Wet autumn snowfall arrives at Denali National Park, closing road

Laurel Andrews
Denali National Park photo

Snow piling up at Eielson Visitor Center in Denali National Park on Thursday forced the park road to close for several hours. About 4 inches of snow fell at the Eielson Visitor Center, which sits at Mile 62 and an altitude of 3,700 feet.

Kris Fister, the park's public affairs spokeswoman, told Alaska Dispatch the park closed the road past the Toklat rest stop at Mile 53 about 8:30 a.m. Some four hours later, the road was reopened to Mile 62 as the day warmed and the road was plowed. No westbound traffic was allowed past Eielson. However, eastbound traffic – people returning from lodges or overnight tours – could travel back to the park entrance. It wasn't until 1:30 p.m. that traffic resumed to normal.

In a way, the snow’s timing was “fortunate,” Fister said, because Thursday marked a significant decrease in shuttle traffic. Only 15 shuttle buses were on the road Thursday, eight fewer than Wednesday. This is the final leg of Denali's tourist season, with buses only running until September 13.

Afterwards, the coveted road lottery will take place when up to 1,600 permit holders have the road to Wonder Lake to themselves over a four-day weekend. Fister has a feeling it will be “one of those years,” when drivers will encounter a park dusted with snow. The road lottery is always a “weather permitting” event, and this year will be no exception. Although the road lottery has never been completely cancelled due to weather, it has on occasion been "extremely curtailed," with cars stopped at Mile 30.

Is this year's snow unusual? “No,” Fister laughed. She recalled a storm in the early 1990s that dumped a foot of snow on the park around Labor Day. Still, the latter part of August and early September have been damper and colder than usual, Fister said.

The park may hopes to allow limited westbound traffic later Thursday, but officials were trying to determine if shuttles can venture as far as Eielson. The forecast for Thursday night includes additional snow accumulation of around 1 inch for areas above 3,000 feet.

Fister said visitors are taking the closure in stride. It’s “part of the experience,” she said, adding that sometimes snow makes wildlife more visible.

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