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RoadTrippin’ in Denali National Park

This year, limited travel means more room on the park road for Alaskans.
This summer, the National Park Service has opened up the first 66 miles of the Denali Park Road. Cars can go as far as the Eielson Visitors Center.
This summer, the National Park Service has opened up the first 66 miles of the Denali Park Road. Cars can go as far as the Eielson Visitors Center.(KTUU)
Published: Jul. 16, 2020 at 5:46 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - If this way any other summer, Denali National Park would draw hundreds of thousands of tourists from around the world to come visit. The views that they come to see are the same ones that led Paul Ollig to become a park ranger. He has worked at several other premier parks, across the United States, but as an Alaskan, Denali has had a profound impact on his life.

“I came to Denali, I fell in love with this park and it inspired me to wear ‘flat hat,’ and put on the badge to become a park ranger,” Ollig said.

In 2020, tourism and staffing has dropped off significantly at the 6-million-acres preserve. According to Ollig, the park is only seeing roughly 20% of the traffic that they would on a normal year -- but the pandemic is leading to some new opportunities as well. Rather than simply busing visitors down Denali Park Road, Alaskans can now apply for timed-entry reservations to drive the road themselves.

“The road reservations are sold out within a minute or two of going live on the day that the tickets are released ... That’s how popular they are, but the people that get one those reservations have had a remarkable experience.”

Paul Ollig, Denali National Park and Preserve

The road only runs about 66 miles into a park this year, ending at the Eielson Visitor’s Center. Staff limitations have prompted the National Park Service to close the road leading to Wonder Lake Campground, but all other campsites are operating normally.

This map from the National Park Service shows the layout of the Denali Park Road in its entirety.
This map from the National Park Service shows the layout of the Denali Park Road in its entirety.(U.S. National Park Service)

Even with a shortened road, our drive down and back took our crew around eight hours, with plenty of stops along the way to take in the landscape and the wildlife. With less traffic to compete with, the park had a unique sense of calm you might not get on a normal year.

With less traffic in the park this year, visitors have more time and space for viewing the wild residents of the Denali Preserve.
With less traffic in the park this year, visitors have more time and space for viewing the wild residents of the Denali Preserve.(Grant Robinson | KTUU)

That tranquility drew out the wildlife too. Caribou, bald eagles, ground squirrels, and even a couple grizzly bears poked their heads out as we drove by. The road wasn’t entirely empty, though. Near the end of the trip, we met Mark Melham, a Fairbanks resident who was in the middle of biking the entire stretch. It wasn’t his first time doing it, but the lack of crowds made the experience feel new.

“This was kind of a rushed, last-minute thing, We got here at eleven last night and we were able to find a campsite ... Now we are here and there are no freaking cars. It is awesome,” he told KTUU.

Along with Melham, there were few other Alaskans taking in the sights during our time on the road. On this day, that group happened to include United States Senator Lisa Murkowski.

“This is what we are blessed as Alaskans to have around us everyday,” Murkowski said. “I think what happens is, sometimes we get so busy that we forget to look, breathe, smell and hear ... I think when we have a summer like this, you’re reminded to use all of your senses.”

U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowsi discusses the geography of the Denali Park Road with the KTUU RoadTrippin' crew.
U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowsi discusses the geography of the Denali Park Road with the KTUU RoadTrippin' crew.(Grant Robinson | KTUU)

Murkowski was also there to check out one of the most beautiful, and most dangerous parts of the drive: Polychrome Pass. The road is so narrow in the pass, the park instructs drivers to wait for at least 15 seconds before going across, making sure that no cars approach from the other direction.

Looking across the "Plains of Murie" near "Polychrome Pass," in Denali National Park and Preserve.
Looking across the "Plains of Murie" near "Polychrome Pass," in Denali National Park and Preserve.(KTUU)

The drive was still nerve-racking without the traffic, but the scenary was worth it. One view we couldn’t get, though, was Denali itself. Rain came and went during the drive, but the clouds surrounding the mountain never cleared. Even then, a stormy finish was not enough to put a damper on an incredible experience, that might never again be as accessible as it is this summer.

Copyright 2020 KTUU. All rights reserved.

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