Denali National Park reopens but plans for drastically different summer

Photo courtesy U.S. National Park Service. Credit: NPS Photo / Tim Rains

The National Park Service has re-opened Denali National Park to visitors. The agency closed the park earlier in April when Alaska’s daily COVID-19 case counts were increasing, and state health mandates limited many activities, including in-state travel. 

With case counts now down, travel and other restrictions being relaxed, and snow cover receding, the Park Service has opened the road into Denali to Mile 12. That’s where summer season public vehicle access normally ends, beyond which visitors can hike, bike or take buses farther into the park.  National Park Service Alaska spokesperson Pete Christian said only limited bus service is anticipated this summer, and the agency is looking at expanding private vehicle access.

“One of the things we’re considering is an enhanced road lottery to the traditional road lottery that happens in Sept., and possibly one road lottery a week, or certain days of the week we’d allow traffic to go further west,” Christian said.

Christian cautioned that expanded vehicle access, as well as opening facilities like visitor centers and campgrounds, hinge on staffing, which has been reduced at least 50%.

“We have to find ways to house them within the social distancing mandates that everyone is aware of now, so the number of people we can hire translates into the number of visitors we can allow go forward onto the road and how far they can go,” he said, “We need to be able to protect them as well as the resources further along the road, so it’s a complicated business and we haven’t found the exact answer yet but we’re working on plans to do that now.”

Christian said the park service may be looking to hire local area residents, displaced from their jobs or businesses by pandemic restrictions.

“Certainly the Denali Borough and all the businesses around the Denali have been suffering from the COVID crisis, so local hire is certainly an option because what we wanna avoid is bringing in people from all over the United States or elsewhere into these smaller communities where healthcare isn’t so easy to get to,” he said.

Christian said the traditional seasonal hiring window has closed, but locals interested in working at Denali this summer can contact the park. Meanwhile, with staffing and operational protocols in question, Christian said bus and campground reservations have been suspended.

“We can’t do that yet because we don’t know what the system is gonna look like in terms of how many buses, the types of tours there’s gonna be, and the same goes with campground,” he said.

Christian noted that there’s been good progress repairing a landslide damaged section of the Park Road in the Polychrome Pass area, and that the agency is also working with Kantishna area residents to ensure access to their private properties, including lodges, at the far end of the 90-mile park road.

Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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