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Denali National Park is a bit too popular

Al Grillo / AP file

A tour bus pulls into one of the lodges that is part of a row hotels, lodges, restaurants and stores that line the Parks Highway next to the Nenana River in an area known as Glitter Gulch located a few miles north of the entrance to Alaska's Denali National Park.

The Alaskan wilderness is getting a bit crowded.

Denali National Park and Preserve, home to 20,320-foot-tall Mount McKinley, gets about 400,000 visitors a year, mostly between May and early September. The park has more than 6 million acres — but just one road.

“It’s quintessential Alaska: untamed wilderness and wildlife that includes bear, wolves and caribou,” said Casey Ressler of Alaska’s Mat-Su Convention and Visitors Bureau. “A lot of the cruise lines offer pre- or post-cruise land tours by motor coach from a port of call, and Denali National Park is a big part of the land itinerary. It’s a huge draw for independent travelers as well.”

The 92-mile Denali Park Road is paved for the first 15 miles, but motorized access beyond that is permitted only via shuttle or tour bus. For years, the number of vehicles allowed down that stretch of road during the summer season has been capped at 10,512.  

But traffic in the park has been bumping up against that limit, so park officials are proposing alternative plans for moving visitors through the park.

Alternative A keeps the status quo. “Alternative B maximizes the visitor capacity of the park, with larger buses visiting one section of the park,” said Denali park planner Miriam Valentine. “Alternative C maximizes the visitor experience by creating more tour products and adding a new, remote, wildlife-viewing zone.”  

Beth Harpaz / AP

Denali National Park and Preserve sees about 400,000 visitors during the summer season but has just one road.

Too many visitors converging on a popular national park is nothing new. “Yosemite, Zion and other parks have had capacity problems, too. But those are more to do with traffic jams and not enough parking spots,” said Joan Frankevich in the Alaska regional office of the National Parks Conservation Association. “Denali is somewhat different. Here, driving the road and seeing the wildlife along the road is the key experience. Managing the park road to protect resources and the wildlife is necessary to provide a good experience for visitors.”

The public has until Sept. 30 to submit comments on the park's traffic-management plan, with a decision expected before the 2012 summer tourist season begins.

“It’s not like anyone is going to be turned away,” said Frankevich, “but not everyone may be able to go into the park when they want. You may have to wait and take your turn.”

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