A Unique Wilderness
Balancing Wilderness, Trails and the Denali Park RoadOften, Wilderness areas do not have roads or trails in them. Denali's road existed before Congress designated parts of the park as Wilderness, however, creating an interesting balance for park managers.
Denali Park Road
The Denali Wilderness has a 92 mile road cutting through it. This is a uniquely accessible wilderness by Alaska standards - no other park in Alaska has the same combination of designated Wilderness and road access. The Wilderness boundary is 150’ from the center line of the Denali Park Road.
Built after careful thought and planning, formal trails serve busy areas such as the Headquarters / entrance area of the park, the Polychrome rest area, Eielson Visitor Center, and Wonder Lake.
These trails help preserve wilderness character by reducing multiple informal trails, reducing the amount of vegetation loss and trampling, reducing the total area of bare ground, and improving the visitor experience by providing a well maintained trail giving access to Wilderness.
Informal or social trails
These have been part of the landscape for eons and form naturally where wildlife commonly travel. Increased recreational use in the last 50 years has caused more impacts particularly to informal trail networks adjacent to the Denali Park Road.
Denali’s 2006 Backcountry Management Plan identifies a “no formal trails” policy for the areas away from busy nodes. However, while the majority Denali is managed with a ‘no formal trails policy,' it is increasingly difficult to manage informal trails due to published hiking guides, published GPS routes, and generally increasing visitor use, especially day use.
How the agency protects wilderness values while ensuring a positive visitor experience is an ongoing dialogue, but some strategies outlined in the Backcountry Management Plan include education, increased enforcement of existing regulations, voluntary restrictions, required registration, regulate numbers of visitors, temporary restrictions, temporary or permanent closures.
In addition to these, adaptive management principles allow the NPS to develop alternatives to refine previously established policy that may put park resources at risk of long term damage.
People and Wilderness
For many Alaska Natives and rural people, areas designated as wilderness have been and continue to be essential areas for subsistence hunting, fishing, gathering, and traditional knowledge.
For millennia, people hunted, camped and lived here -- resulting in archaeological sites, historic structures, cultural landscapes and associated features, objects, and traditional cultural properties that are contributing elements to wilderness. Historic structures and other historic properties, such as old roads, mines, mills, cabins, and artifacts embody the cultural heritage of the park and contribute to both its unique landscape and wilderness.
Within Denali, there are more than 100 documented native place names, which demonstrate that Denali’s wilderness has been inhabited for thousands of years. Place names and their associated stories are important not only as a tool of understanding traditional land use, but also in preserving the complex knowledge of Alaska Native peoples who have inhabited this place for centuries.
It is important to recognize that laws, such as the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), Archeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA), American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), as well as others intended to preserve our cultural heritage, are applicable in wilderness.
Two of the oldest known archaeology sites in North America - Teklanika West and the Bull River II Sites - are in Denali.
These sites date from 12,500 to just over 13,000 years old. These sites are important as they provide some of the oldest physical evidence of when prehistoric people migrated to and inhabited this continent during the last Ice Age.
Denali and the Wilderness Act
In early July 1963 the Executive Council of the Wilderness Society conducted their annual meeting at Camp Denali - at the time, located on the edge of the park. Some notable people were in attendance: Olaus and Mardy Murie, Ade and Louise Murie, Howard Zahniser, Sigurd Olson, Sr., Mark and Mrs. Harvey, George Marshall, Michael Nadel, Ted Swem, Ernest Oberholtzer, Stuart Brandbork, and Bob Cooney. Many of these people went on to shape the language and ideas behind the Wilderness Act.
Did You Know?
Warmer average temperatures over several decades have resulted in expansion of woody vegetation. If this warming trend continues, it will change Alaska's ecosystems and drastically alter the physical appearance of Denali's landscape, as treeline marches higher up the mountains.