As the climate warms, the face of Denali National Park changes

The damage wrought to the park’s road by melting permafrost is creating a new reality affecting visitors, park staff, local businesses and potentially wildlife.

DENALI NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE — On a gravel road that cuts through one of America’s most famous national parks, a tan school bus rumbled westward. Five members of Congress had come to Alaska to see the subtle effects of a warming climate. They encountered something more dramatic.

“I think I envisioned rocks on the road. I didn’t envision the entire road had fallen away,” said Rep. Katie Porter of California, one of the five Democrats to recently tour the park.

At the Pretty Rocks landslide, 43 miles into the park, layers of yellow earth slope down at a sharp incline where the road once was. On either end of the slump, the road ends abruptly, some of its crumble visible down the steep hill.

For the second consecutive year, the iconic Denali Park Road, constructed long before Alaska became a state, has been closed roughly at its halfway point. Options available to park visitors are considerably different: rather than a 13-hour bus ride on the 92-mile road, park shuttles operate only until an East Fork River turnaround a few miles before Pretty Rocks, for a five-hour excursion.

The damage wrought to the road by melting permafrost is creating a new reality that affects visitors, park staff, local businesses and potentially wildlife. Work is set to begin this year on an ambitious bridge construction project that will restore access to the western 50 miles of road. But the multiyear closure is already reshaping the way visitors experience the 6-million-acre park and preserve.

Even so, the number of visitors this year will likely be near the pre-pandemic, pre-road closure record of more than 600,000. Many of them arrive at Denali knowing little, if anything, about the landslide and road closure.

Vinnie and John Saez from New Jersey first visited Denali more than 25 years ago and returned this year as part of a Holland America cruise with their daughters. The Saez family wasn’t aware of the road closure before stepping foot in the park. But asked if they were disappointed about the truncated bus ride, Vinnie said “not really.”

“I mean, yeah, I’m sorry we couldn’t see it all. But you know what? There was plenty to see. It was just disappointing I didn’t see a bear,” she said.


Park staff and business owners recognize the duality here: Tourists on their once-in-a-lifetime trip to Denali may not know what they are missing. But the temporary loss of access to 50 miles of road tells a story of the way climate change could alter national park experiences in Alaska and elsewhere.

“We lose access to extremely beautiful areas and places that many people think of,” said Denny Capps, National Park Service geologist. “But on the other hand, most of our visitors, they’ve never been out here, they ride the bus to Mile 43, and our reports are that they’re having great experiences.”


In some ways, Denali is the perfect place from which to observe the long-term impacts of climate change in Alaska — a harbinger for what’s to come in other places.

“The warming impacts are happening faster up here and we’ve been living the impacts of climate change for some time. We are a real microcosm for what’s to come for the country at large,” said Brooke Merrell, the park superintendent.

[Denali Park Road not fully reopening until 2026 after bridge construction pushed back a year]

Because it was declared a national park in 1917, Denali has compiled valuable temperature data over more than a century. The permafrost-rich ground here — with year-round ice buried just beneath the surface — is particularly sensitive to change.

The Pretty Rocks landslide is now the park’s most visible case in point.

“I can’t tell you for sure that that temperature increase caused the speed-up of Pretty Rocks. But the correlation is very, very good. It’s like one-to-one,” said Capps.

Park staff began to recognize a problem at Pretty Rocks in the 1960s — a small slump in a particularly steep part of the road that was noticeable after the annual winter closure.

“From the ‘60s all the way into the ‘80s, it was basically like ‘no big deal.’ You just put a little gravel in there, grade it, and move on,” said Capps. But a slump of an inch per year would eventually become an inch per hour.

Conspicuous change occurred after 2014, the year scientists observed a 4-degree jump in annual temperatures in the park. The 30-year normal temperature had been right around 31 degrees, just below freezing. But in 2014, average temperatures increased by 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit.

“So what we’re dealing with, in that case, is a literal and metaphorical phase change,” said Capps. When the mean annual temperature rises above freezing, permafrost is gradually lost. Ice that once knitted the ground together, turned to lubricating water.


In 2020 and 2021, road crews dumped tons of gravel on the slumping section to regrade it at regular intervals. Eventually they could no longer keep up.

Two years ago, road maintenance crews observed a 25-foot drop in the road at the beginning of the season. That was the last year visitors to the park were able to travel all 92 miles of road. A year ago, crews observed a 45-foot drop.

The melting permafrost, which once held together the soft ground into which the road had been chiseled, is set to continue. Landslides in other parts of the park — away from the road — pop up occasionally, indicating the ongoing impacts of higher temperatures and disappearing permafrost.

In a study published last year, researchers from the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks found that climate change is likely to lead to a higher landslide risk along the Denali Park Road in the coming years, and park staff are already tracking around 150 sites where damage is occurring. None are as serious as Pretty Rocks — yet.

‘Faster and bigger’

Federal funding has already been secured to build a 475-foot steel truss bridge over the Pretty Rocks landslide. The cost of the project has crept up and is now expected to be more than $150 million.

The timeline has also been readjusted: An initial completion date in 2025 has been pushed back to 2026. As of early July, a 50-person construction worker camp had been set up in the park, but construction at the site had yet to begin.


The $150 million project will require 500 tons of bridge steel, 250 tons of concrete blocks, 1,000 tons of material for the base of the bridge, and the use of thermosyphons, a heat exchange system designed to keep the base of the bridge from thawing, Capps said.

Twenty-three thermosyphons — the same technology used to keep the ground frozen along the trans-Alaska oil pipeline — will be placed along the base of the bridge to keep permafrost from melting. The goal is to cool it to 28 degrees Fahrenheit.

“We’re building in a little bit of resiliency there for uncertainty we face in the future because we don’t even know how much the atmosphere is going to warm,” said Capps.

Visitors to the landslide often wonder why an alternative solution wasn’t chosen. Couldn’t a road be rebuilt into the mountainside? Or what about a route at the base of the mountain, where a braided river snakes through a wide gravel valley?

“The problem is, it’s going to fail again. And so that’s why we’re going to this longer-term fix,” said Capps. “If you’ve got a bull charging at you, you don’t really square up your shoulders. You step aside, have your little red cape, and let it go by. And so that’s what our intent here is.”

Options other than a bridge would have been significantly more expensive and would have taken longer than the current projected four-year project, Merrell said.


Without the road that was carefully planned last century, with its alpine vistas and varied terrain, access to the park would be limited only to those who can afford to fly in to a rugged airstrip in Kantishna, a community founded as a gold mining camp in the early 1900s that is now home to multiple private lodges.

“So this is still the cheapest way, even though that number keeps ratcheting up. I think it’s the right way to do it,” said Merrell.

‘Not as much fun’

With visitor numbers close to pre-pandemic levels, Glitter Gulch — the cluster of hotels, restaurants and tour operators located just outside the park — is again bustling. Trains and buses deposit hordes of tourists in hotel lobbies.

Most school-bus style coaches, operated by park concessioner Doyon Ltd., are packed to capacity with tourists who watch for the occasional sightings of moose, caribou, bears or eagles.

Sheila Concannon, who owns rafting company New Waves Adventures, said the road closure has led visitors to explore more activities just outside the park.

“There’s still people coming. There’s still lots of things to do here,” said Concannon.

Vanessa Jusczak, director of the Denali Chamber of Commerce, said local businesses are thriving despite the road closure.

“It’s proven over the last couple years to not have the impact that some people feared it would have,” Jusczak said.


But some people come to Denali to camp at Wonder Lake, deep in the park, or stay at one of the lodges at the end of the 92-mile road, or catch the quintessential views of the biggest mountain in North America from the western half of the road. For now, their only option is to pay hefty sums to fly to Kantishna.

Staff have invested in creating a complete visitor experience on the 43 miles of park road that remain open. At the new turnaround point at East Fork River, a stairwell built last year leads down to the riverbed, where families can descend from buses to explore by foot. Here bikers and hikers can launch their backcountry adventures.

On a sunny Thursday, groups could be seen venturing along the river, and rugged mountain bikers emerged from the riverbed, covered in what looked like several days’ worth of dirt.

Last summer, the park counted fewer than 430,000 visitors — or around 70% of the pre-pandemic record. Hotels and restaurants struggled to fill vacant jobs. This year, that’s less of an issue. The final number won’t be known until the end of the season, but park staff expect this year’s visitors will rival the record.

‘A different market’

Even with visitors reporting positive experiences on the park road, adapting has been more difficult west of the landslide.

“There are big costs to not having the road open in terms of local economy, in terms of our facilities over there, in terms of making sure the people who own land in Kantishna can access it,” said Merrell.

Until 2021, Camp Denali, a 70-year-old backcountry lodge in Kantishna, was one of a few accessible by road. Now guests must arrive by plane or helicopter.

That meant doubling the per-night price for visitors to adjust for the cost of flying both people and most things they will eat or otherwise need during their stay, said owner Simon Hamm.

“It resulted in needing to tap into a little bit of a different market,” he said.

The lodge, which once was able to accommodate 48 guests, has reduced its capacity to 24. Most nights, it serves only half that. From a staff of 40, it has gone to 30. Those low occupancy numbers are true for the other backcountry lodges in Kantishna, according to Hamm.

While the Pretty Rocks landslide was known for years, it was still unexpected when the park staff announced in August 2021 they would no longer be able to keep the road open, triggering a mad dash to evacuate guests and staff, and prepare for an unknown stretch of time with no road access. Camp Denali rushed to equip its facilities with vehicles, fuel and other supplies.

“The degree to which that whole road closure accelerated really caught everybody a little bit by surprise, including ourselves, the Park Service, federal highways and the geologists,” said Hamm. “I think they anticipated that they’d be able to continue patching it while another resolution was deployed.”

Camp Denali happened to complete a solar array project in 2020 that produces enough electricity to meet its needs, while other lodges have to fly in generator fuel at steep costs.

Denali Air, a sightseeing operator based outside the park, has provided the air service to lodges at the end of the road, transporting everything from passengers to milk.

But some problems aren’t easily solved: The lodges once had their septic systems pumped out twice per summer by truck. Now, that can’t happen.

“Reducing the capacity a little bit is a way to help extend some of those systems until hopefully there’s road access again,” said Hamm. “A lot of things are so much easier when a vendor like fuel or propane or septic or trash can drive in on the park road.”

Merrell said “there’s no reason to believe” that the reopening of the full road will be delayed beyond 2026, but Hamm says he wonders about the timeline amid construction holdups.

“We’re also open to the fact that the road might never come back,” he said. “It’ll be easier to believe once road work actually begins.”

Camp Denali is the only lodge that is currently allowed to use the western half of the road. That gives Hamm and his guests unique access to track changes in a part of the park that few people can access.

Park biologists wonder: Will Denali’s wildlife change their behaviors around a road that now has virtually no traffic? They recently collared several bears in the western half of the park to track their movements in the coming years, part of an effort to study how the road closure is impacting the nonhuman creatures of the park.

“That’s the big question,” said Hamm. “And there’s not a simple answer.”

‘Real and hard conversations’

With a growing price tag to maintain the park road amid the ever-more visible impacts of climate change, some wonder about the road’s long-term future — particularly as Alaska competes for a finite pool of money against Lower 48 parks that see far more visitors per year.

“Across the United States, the National Park Service is facing quite a lot of climate-related infrastructure expenses,” said Hamm. “You could say that Denali has an annual visitation of 700,000 now, and Yellowstone or Yosemite combined are well in the millions, and maybe that money would be better spent on those parks, not on Denali. Those are real and hard conversations that we know are actually going on right now in the Department of Interior.”

In Yellowstone, catastrophic flooding that occurred in 2022 is expected to cost around $1 billion to repair over a years-long stretch. A future shaped by climate change likely means that maintaining parks like Denali will come at a steep cost, and communities around the park have come to depend on it.

One of those who has been advocating for a long-term solution is U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican who has made it a priority to push for federal funding for the projects.

“While we know the end result will take a considerable cost, we want a solution that will be long lasting, sustainable, and safe,” Murkowski said in a 2020 social media post, a year before the road closed, calling reliable transportation beyond Polychrome Pass “vital.”

“There’s literally scores of mom-and-pop operations around the park entrance area, from raft companies to sandwich shops to B&Bs that all benefit by the park being one of the crown jewels in Alaska,” said Hamm.

With the road closed, “the experience is inevitably diminished. You don’t get as far in, you don’t cover as much wildlife habitat, you don’t get the showstopper viewpoints of Denali and the other high peaks, you don’t get Wonder Lake,” he said. “All of that, I am concerned, is going to start to have a negative effect when word gets out that Denali isn’t what it used to be.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the last name of the owner of Camp Denali. It’s Simon Hamm, not Haas.

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Iris Samuels

Iris Samuels is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News focusing on state politics. She previously covered Montana for The AP and Report for America and wrote for the Kodiak Daily Mirror. Contact her at