As the summer tourism season approaches in Alaska, anxiety continues to simmer around the fate of the road that runs through Denali National Park and Preserve.
The Denali Park Road is the only way to drive into the park. Running east to west, through steep mountain passes, the road carves through the 4.7 million acre park.
Private vehicles are restricted along the 92-mile road past Mile 15, but hundreds of thousands of visitors each year rely on buses run by commercial operators to take them into the park. Business owners at the end of the Denali Park Road rely on the road to ferry in supplies and lodge guests.
As of mid-February, the National Park Service says it intends to open the entire road by early June.
“Despite the concern it has raised lately, the park is committed to devoting the resources necessary to opening the Park Road as close to its traditional schedule as possible,” G.W. Hitchcock, a Denali National Park spokesman, said by email.
But dramatic changes are making the road increasingly vulnerable to landslides. The park service closed parts of the road multiple times last summer amid heavy rains, rockfall and mudslides, including an incident in August that left around 300 people and 17 buses stranded for a few hours about halfway down the road.
And in December, the park service issued a warning about the possibility of a partial closure this year.
Because the road is a major draw for tourists, Alaska legislators, local businesses and the governor are calling for long-term solutions to address its problems. In 2017, Denali saw more than 600,000 visits, and visitors spent $632 million, according to National Park Service estimates.
A 2011 study estimated that about 60% of peak season visits to Denali National Park involved travel past Mile 15 of the park road.
A slowly advancing slide near the road’s halfway point, known as the Pretty Rocks landslide, is one of many areas along the road that is unstable.
Recent National Park Service surveys found that since September, the speed of the landslide at Pretty Rocks has increased dramatically: The road was slumping nearly 2 inches every day after August, according to a report from the park service.
That segment of the park road, which has been known as a problem area for years, has recently been suffering from the effects of a warming climate. The permafrost that has long sat below the land around the road is thawing, and the earth, combined with more rainfall, has started to slide.
“It gets warmer every year, there’s more rain,” Hitchcock said in an interview.
The clay-rich soil that sits at an incline on top of thawing permafrost can slide when it gets wet, Hitchcock said.
Riding into the park
In a joint venture between the Doyon Native corporation and the Aramark company, several tour and transit buses travel along the road every day of the summer.
Tony Beckerley, district manager for Aramark, said that the company was planning a normal summer of tours.
Some bus routes go to the Eielson Visitor Center at Mile 66, some to Kantishna at the end of the road. Other tours take visitors to Mile 57, providing prime views of Denali, which at 20,310 feet is North America’s highest peak.
The tour buses, with narration by guides who describe the flora and fauna that swing by through the windows, are popular among Alaska’s cruise ship passengers as well as international visitors and people traveling to the park on their own, Beckerley said.
Transit buses tend to attract Alaskans or other tourists hitching a ride to get dropped off for a hike or backcountry camping trip, he said.
The chances of seeing Dall sheep, bears and other much sought-after animals in the park increases farther down the road, said Kim Heacox, a former park ranger who wrote a 2015 memoir about Denali.
About 15 miles before the Pretty Rocks Landslide, past Mile 30, is when the park becomes most dramatic-looking, Heacox said.
“Some people say that’s when the park really begins,” Heacox said. “Well, that’s when the topography really begins. And so that’s when the problems with sloughing really begin.”
There are multiple solutions proposed for fixing the road, including rerouting a segment or building a bridge across the unstable areas, according to park service reports. Tunneling below the landslide or building up supports against landslides was deemed unfeasible.
If the road were closed at its halfway point, Beckerley said, it could mainly affect two bus tour routes and the transit buses that take campers and backpackers into the park.
The company has contingency plans in place if a sudden closure of a portion of the road occurred, he said.
“It would just be like a normal year if the road failed at a certain point and they just needed a little time to fix it," Beckerley said. “We would only go to a certain point, then turn around.”
Calls for solutions
Jenna Hamm, who owns two lodges at Mile 89 in the Kantishna area, said she’s been encouraged by multiple solutions to fix the road that have been proposed in the past several weeks. She is concerned about a closure, but a temporary closure is something she and her husband, Simon, could deal with.
Hamm said she wasn’t sure exactly how many cancellations they’ve had, but it’s likely more than 40. She said she thinks other prospective guests have opted to stay somewhere with a more certain future.
“We’ve had numerous cancellations at this point,” Hamm said.
The only other way into the Kantishna area is by air taxi, Hamm said, and relying on a small airstrip to get to the lodges would reshape their entire business model.
Alaska’s House of Representatives recently passed a resolution that urges the federal government to help with longer term solutions to the road’s issues.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy this month wrote a letter to the U.S. Interior Department, requesting both short- and long-term help in addressing the road’s problems:
“A long-term road closure during the summer tourism season the Denali road would have a disastrous cascade effect on businesses throughout the State,” Dunleavy wrote.
Through her positions on multiple Senate committees, Alaska’s senior Sen. Lisa Murkowski has worked toward gaining support for the fixes to the road, said Karina Borger, Murkowski’s communications director.
“We’ve been heartened by the fact that we’re not alone,” said Hamm, the lodge owner. “There’s quite a lot of people adding their voices to that effort and that desire to keep it open.”
Clarification: This story has been updated to add more detail about Kantishna lodge owner Jenna Hamm’s response to efforts being made to help fix the Denali Park Road.