Denali National Park: a unique approach to tourism

One other very important question I have…does one need to technically climb — ropes and grommets — or can one hike to the summit of Mt. McKinley? My last question is, is Mt. McKinley usually covered with snow around the first of June?
~Person Who Will Be Just Riding a Bus When in Denali NP

While I was in Alaska, my mother and I visited Denali National Park, which contains Mt. McKinley. It’s also probably the most unique national park I’ve ever visited.

Most national parks have roads you can drive on to get here and there, and hiking trails. Denali had few of either. There is effectively one road that winds about eighty miles into the park (and then promptly dead-ends). It’s unpaved for most of its length, and barely large enough for two vehicles to pass one another. There are a few hiking trails, but they encourage backpackers to go anywhere they want, which is, heretofore, unheard of in a park. My first reaction to that was “What the fuck…really?!”

But the road is what I want to talk about. You see, they don’t allow personal vehicles beyond the Savage River campground, about 15 miles into the park. In order to see the rest of it, you have to take a bus. There are several buses, but I’ll focus on the official Denali NP bus, which is the one I took.

You pay a fee, depending on how far you want to take the bus into the park. But the bus driver will drop you off wherever you want, and you can catch rides on other green NPS buses to get somewhere else or back, although it’s advised that you take your initial bus as far into the park as you can go before getting off, for simplicity’s sake.

The park service started this in the 70s, when the new highway to the park increased the number of visitors. And in my opinion, it is one of the best systems of any park.

There are no “wolf/bear/moose jams.” In fact, a jam in Denali only really occurs on the 15 miles stretch leading to Savage River. Otherwise a jam is when the bus meets another bus coming the other direction and has to stop a second to let it by.

Think about it. There’s a bear. You have one bus stopping instead of twenty some-odd vehicles. Furthermore, you have thirty-some-odd extra pairs of eyes out looking for wildlife, too. At one point a few people spotted a lynx, and a good portion of the bus got to catch a glimpse before it disappeared. More people got to see it than would have if we’d all been in separate cars.

It’s also safer for wildlife. The only time they see a human that’s not in a bus is when they see a backpacker. Mostly. We did see a number of idiots on the way to Savage River harassing a bull moose while trying to get a picture. One ranger said they hadn’t had a major incident between a tourist and an animal in 94 years. But beyond Savage River, the idiots are all on the bus, leaving the more experienced backpackers to face the animals.

Not to mention that the animals ignore the buses for the most part. They continue doing what they do, and thus I saw pictures of wolves trotting in front of buses and got photos myself of bears foraging not terribly far away.

Personally, I can’t think of a better system that benefits both wildlife and people. Sure, the upfront costs seems greater, since the bus tickets run 25-50 USD. But that includes a seven-day park pass ($10 per person), and hey, you’re not spending the money for up to 160 miles worth of gas. And you’re chauffeured, and you get to see more wildlife. I call that an epic win.

The only downside is that due to the large amount of time it took to get to our destination, we didn’t get to do any real hiking in the park. But that’s a function of the time it took for us to get out there (5+ hours to Wonder Lake one-way), and isn’t the park service’s fault.

I want to see this phased into every major national park. Yellowstone needs it horribly, from what I’ve heard about it. Denali definitely gets my seal of approval for the way they’ve handled the park.

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2 Responses to “Denali National Park: a unique approach to tourism”

  1. That’s pretty kickass. As far as the “Hike anywhere” thing goes, though, how difficult is it to get lost out there?

    • VERY. You’ve got a major landmark, Mt. McKinley, but a single road. There are some “established” trails that people often take, but if you’re not careful and experienced, you can get your ass into some serious trouble out there. There is NOTHING for miles and miles and miles. Strike out in the wrong direction, and you’ll be walking for a very long time.

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