Winter and Shoulder Season Plan

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Note: This page describes the planning effort surrounding winter and shoulder season recreation in Denali. The next step in the planning process is the Winter & Shoulder Season Environmental Assessment. The public may comment on this EA between June 1–30, 2020.


Denali has experienced increases in winter and shoulder season visitation in recent years, with a greater number and diversity of visitors coming to the park in what has typically been known as the 'off season.' Park management is seeking ways to improve the winter and shoulder season visitor experience while preserving resources and the special character of Denali during these seasons.

The Winter and Shoulder Season Plan was created in 2019 and addresses the management of the winter and shoulder seasons in Denali, outlines the role that Denali may play in regional tourism and outdoor recreation in these seasons, and describes ideas for increasing the quality of the winter and shoulder season visitor experience while protecting park resources and values.
 
people skiing in a snowy landscape
The National Park Service is looking for a formal way to address increased visitation outside the traditional summer season

NPS Photo / Kent Miller

Plan Process

Creation of the Winter and Shoulder Season Plan began in spring 2018, with preliminary public engagement efforts in fall 2018. Park planners have produced a plan, and it is currently available for public review. Download the plan.
This Winter and Shoulder Season Plan is a visionary document that explores ideas for management of the winter and shoulder seasons in Denali without committing the park to any course of action.

If and when the park decides to take action on any of the ideas contained in this plan, those actions will be proposed and analyzed using NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) compliance and appropriate environmental documentation.

Learn more about the process of pre-NEPA planning followed by NEPA compliance and environmental analysis.

Although the Winter and Shoulder Season Plan is not a NEPA environmental document, Denali is committed to robust public engagement and input as the plan is developed. The steps below describe the process of creating the plan.

1. Begin planning process – Spring 2018
2. Preliminary plan concepts available for public comment – Fall 2018
3. Incorporate public comments and refine plan concepts – Winter 2018 and 2019
4. Prepare draft plan – Spring and summer 2019
5. Plan available for public comment – Fall 2019
6. Incorporate public comment – Winter 2019s
7. Begin NEPA process if any action stems from ideas in the plan – Winter to spring 2019-2020


Your input will have the most impact if you engage with the planning process when plan materials are available for public comment. The next public engagement period is anticipated in fall 2019, and we look forward to hearing from you!

Plan Overview

Why Does Denali Need This Plan?

  • Marked increases in winter and shoulder season visitation to Alaska in general and to parts of Denali National Park specifically
  • End of the five-year winter road plowing evaluation period authorized by the 2013 Winter Road Plowing Environmental Assessment and FONSI
  • A relative lack of guidance in existing planning documents related to park management during the winter and shoulder seasons

What Time of Year Does the Plan Cover?

This plan concerns the winter and shoulder seasons in Denali, typically mid to late September through mid to late May.
For the purposes of this plan, the winter and shoulder seasons are defined based on the yearly cycle of park operations, particularly those concerning the accessibility of the Park Road. These operations largely shape the experiences available to visitors and the resource impacts from visitor use of the park. Many of these operations are contingent on weather conditions, and are difficult to tie to a specific date each year.
  • The fall shoulder season begins immediately following the last day of road lottery, typically in mid to late September.
  • Fall transitions into the winter season when wintry weather closes the Park Road and it is not plowed open again when the weather breaks.
  • Winter transitions into the spring shoulder season when spring road opening operations permit public vehicle traffic west of the Mountain Vista rest area, typically in mid-April.
The spring shoulder season transitions into summer when the full complement of summer services and facilities are open to the public, typically in mid to late May. This has included tour and transit bus service west of Teklanika, restriction of private vehicles west of the Savage River, operation of all entrance area facilities including the Denali Visitor Center and Denali Bus Depot, and the operation of all roadside campgrounds except Wonder Lake.

 

What Areas of the Park Does the Plan Cover?

The Winter and Shoulder Season Plan includes the entire park area with the exception of a portion of the southern 1980 park additions. The area not included in the plan consists of the southern park additions northwest of the Alaska State Highway 3, and extending to the western edge of the Kahiltna Glacier.

Why Omit Some Areas?

  • In the past, the omitted area has had very different visitor use patterns from other areas of the park
  • There are emerging issues that need immediate attention in other areas of the park, and incorporating these southern areas would complicate and delay the plan
  • Although use patterns in these southern additions are known to have been different from the rest of the park in the past, there is not detailed information regarding current visitor use in this area.
The park intends to study this area in greater detail to determine if a separate winter and shoulder season planning effort is needed to address the southern park additions.
 
a map of denali national park with a shaded overlay on part of the southern section of the park; legend indicates this area is not covered by the park's winter plan
A map of the southern portion of Denali National Park that will not be covered by the winter and shoulder season plan.
 
three teams of sled dogs being mushed down a narrow, snowy path through a brushy landscape
Addressing winter recreation is a key component of the Winter and Shoulder Season Plan

NPS Photo

Overall Plan Vision

The fall, winter, and spring in Denali National Park are special times of year that provide a contrast to the heightened activity, constant daylight, and crowds of summer. Visitors during the winter and shoulder seasons have valued these distinctions and the opportunity to experience Denali at a different pace, when the quiet, solitude, and freedom offered by the park can seem more apparent. The Winter and Shoulder Season Plan aims to preserve this special character of these seasons in Denali, and the contrast that they provide to the summer.

Denali’s winter tourism role is characterized by non-motorized wilderness recreation. Relatively easy access to an area without motorized winter recreational use is rare in Alaska and is part of what makes Denali unique during these seasons. Affordable and straightforward access to wilderness and associated self-reliant recreation opportunities defines Denali’s role in visitor services during the winter and shoulder seasons.

In addition to providing access to wilderness recreation, any visitor services or opportunities offered in Denali should be consistent with other park values and principles. These principles include an emphasis on education, history, the NPS tradition, and direct experiences of the natural world. Resource protection is a primary park value, and visitor use during the winter and shoulder seasons will be managed to preserve the vitality and integrity of the biotic, abiotic, cultural, wilderness, and other resources of the park. Visitor uses that are incompatible with these values and resource protection goals or that have only an indirect connection to them would more appropriately be experienced outside of Denali.

Plan Goals

A major goal of the Winter and Shoulder Season Plan is to equip the NPS to anticipate and manage growth and diversification of off-season visitation. However, given the uncertainty of future visitation, the park must remain flexible and not commit itself to providing for visitor numbers or needs that may never materialize. Conditions beyond the control of the NPS, such as winter temperatures, the length of daylight, and the seasonal habits of wildlife also impact what the park can provide for visitors. The Winter and Shoulder Season Plan, therefore, emphasizes visitor opportunities and facilities that will help the park provide for increased visitor numbers that the park can sustain, regardless of changes to visitation and factors beyond the control of the NPS.
In order to experience Denali for their benefit and enjoyment, visitors must have access to the park. This need for access must be considered with the need for protection of park resources, and access should not come at the expense of resource protection. Access is appropriate when it does not have substantial impacts to park resources, and access will be managed to minimize resource impacts.


Although access to the park via non-motorized recreation is a focus of this plan, road access for vehicles may also be a component of providing adequate access to Denali. Given the special non-motorized character of portions of Denali during winter months, vehicle access to the Park Road during the winter should be provided to the minimum extent necessary to ensure adequate access to the park.

Denali should be a welcoming place for all visitors. Visitor services and opportunities in the park will be consistent with park values and might not meet every visitor desire, but will provide an engaging and inspiring national park experience for a wide range of visitor skill levels and interests. This could be accomplished by providing a spectrum of trail experiences (e.g., formally groomed, user-maintained, off-trail), access to a variety of terrain, and the availability of quality indoor visitor center experiences as well as outdoor recreation opportunities.


Different visitor populations potentially have different needs and expectations of the park, and to the extent that these needs are compatible with park values, the NPS should try to provide for the diverse visitor populations of the winter and shoulder seasons in Denali. International visitors, Alaskans, package tour groups, and independent travelers are some of the visitor groups currently coming to Denali during the winter and shoulder seasons. If the needs of these groups conflict, the park should provide for them so as to minimize the impact of one group on another

Previous park management documents have emphasized that the visitor experience transitions from urban to rustic to primitive environments as one travels west along the Park Road corridor. This concept is retained in the Winter and Shoulder Season Plan. In this plan, development and visitor services are concentrated at the main park entrance area and the level of administrative presence, visitor facilities, and other services generally decreases to the west along the road corridor. This has an impact on the types of commercial services and visitor opportunities that may be appropriate and feasible in different areas of the park. For example, groomed ski trails are more fitting in the entrance area of the park than at the Teklanika rest area (approximately mile 33 of the Park Road). Similarly, visitor opportunities that are appropriate along the road corridor might not be appropriate away from the road or other frontcountry areas.
A visit to Denali presents hazards at any time of year, but perhaps especially during the winter and shoulder seasons when park staffing is typically much lower than during the summer and environmental conditions can be extremely harsh. One way that the park can mitigate these hazards is by adequately communicating with potential visitors about the climate, driving conditions, daylight hours, and extent of visitor services and facilities that they can expect at these times of year. This could be accomplished with the park website and other park informational materials, but it may also be necessary to reach visitors with safety information through state tourism publications, rental car companies, or other entities that interact with winter and shoulder season visitors to Alaska.


Inside park boundaries, the park should provide safe settings while maintaining opportunities for self-reliant recreation by modifying park procedures, facilities, or messaging rather than the wilderness character or environment of the park.

 

Desired Conditions by Area of the Park


Desired conditions are statements of aspiration that describe what conditions, outcomes, and opportunities the park envisions for the future. Desired conditions describe the conditions that the park would like to achieve and maintain in the future and do not answer questions of how these conditions will be achieved.

It is the intent of the desired conditions outlined in the Winter and Shoulder Season Plan to add seasonally-appropriate nuance and detail to the management areas and desired conditions established by previous planning documents, not to replace or supplant the pre-existing guidance. This added level of detail will help the park focus on resource issues of particular importance in the winter and shoulder seasons as well as more fully articulate the desired visitor experience during these seasons.

The areas described below can be considered functional areas that categorize the park into regions that are useful when considering winter and shoulder season park use. These functional areas facilitate discussion of park management during these seasons, but do not replace the management areas and zones established by previous planning documents.


Winter Definition Shoulder Season Definitions
  • Begins when wintry weather closes the Denali Park Road at HQ (Mile 3)
  • Ends when the road opens past Mountain Vista (~Mile 13, date variable based on weather)
  • Fall season begins immediately after the Denali Road Lottery and ends when the winter season begins
  • Spring begins when the road is plowed open to vehicle traffic west of Mountain Vista and ends when vehicles are restricted west of the Savage River and the summer season begins
Category Winter Season Shoulder Seasons
Overview This area serves as a relatively structured gateway to other, wilder portions of the park. Compared to other areas in the park, this area most heavily moderates visitor interactions with the Alaskan winter through the availability of services, information, and facilities. Visitors can also have a less structured winter experience here. Facilities and trails are relatively easy to navigate, and the entrance area is a welcoming place for people with varying degrees of skill, available time, and desire to interact directly with the winter environment. In the shoulder seasons, the entrance area feels and functions like a quieter, less active version of what occurs here in summer. Visitors can spend their time exploring the area, or pass through on their way to other adventures in the park. Administrative presence is high, and facilities and trails are relatively easy to navigate. The visitor center appropriately accommodates the level of shoulder season visitation. Trails may be closed seasonally, especially during the spring thaw, to prevent resource damage.
Visitor Experience A variety of visitor opportunities that accommodate a diversity of skill levels is easily accessible in this area, including indoor time at the visitor center, on-trail experiences, and the opportunity to independently venture off-trail. Visitors are equally well-served by this area whether it is their sole destination or the beginning of a longer experience that includes other areas of the park. The entrance area provides a gateway to the park as well as an interesting destination in its own right during the shoulder seasons. Although many of the amenities of summer may not be available (e.g., baggage claim, bus ticketing), visitors can expect information, interpretation of park resources, and reasonable comfort here. The visitor center provides adequate space and facilities for shoulder season visitation levels. Hiking, biking, and other recreational opportunities are available in the shoulder seasons, although some trails may be closed for portions of the season.
Resources Although sounds of human use (vehicles, large groups) are present, the soundscape is often in its natural state, and visitors have the opportunity to experience stretches of silence, especially as distance from roads and facilities increases. This area of the park has the highest concentration of artificial light. Even so, artificial light sources are kept to a minimum to provide for visitor and employee safety. Night skies are clearly visible. Wildlife that exists in this area is largely undisturbed by visitor activity, and human-wildlife interactions are minimal. Visitor use of off-trail areas beyond existing winter travel routes has minimal to no adverse impact on vegetation Although sounds of human use (vehicles, large groups) are present, the soundscape is often in its natural state, and visitors have the opportunity to experience stretches of silence, especially as distance from roads and facilities increases. Wildlife that exists in this area is largely undisturbed by visitor activity, and human-wildlife interactions are minimal. Management actions, including temporary closures, may be instituted when necessary to protect wildlife and visitor safety
Category Winter: Portion of the road plowed west of Headquarters (Mile 3) Shoulder Seasons: Portion of the road that is accessible to private vehicles
Overview The plowed portion of the Park Road provides vehicular and non-motorized (pedestrian, bicycle) access to the park. The road is open only when safe driving conditions are present. The emphasis is on viewing wildlife and scenery as well as providing access for non-motorized excursions off the road corridor. Affordable, sustainable access that provides opportunities for independent exploration is a priority. Although commercial users and / or shuttles may be operating, independent access remains important. Vehicular road access west of the Savage River allows for private vehicles to a greater extent than during the summer season. Limits on the number of vehicles allowed past Savage or other management actions affecting vehicle access may be instituted if needed to provide for wildlife protection and visitor experience.
Visitor Experience The plowed portion of the Park Road offers relatively easy access farther into the park for visitors wishing to view wildlife and scenery or begin an overnight or day trip into the backcountry. Other visitors are frequently encountered, including independent travelers and commercial groups. Visitors can expect the road to be closed when safe driving conditions cannot be maintained. Visitors are able to independently explore this section of road which is normally closed to most private traffic. Visitors may travel in an unhurried, uncrowded manner. Encounters with other visitors may be common, but the road has an open, remote quality, and traffic congestion does not adversely impact the visitor experience.
Resources The natural soundscape of the plowed road is disturbed by vehicle traffic at times. Although there may be long stretches of time without the presence of vehicles, vehicle traffic and its associated noises can be present any time the road is open. Night skies are generally unaffected by artificial light. The NPS does not provide any artificial light installations. Wildlife on the road are treated in the same manner as they are during the summer, with little to no disruption of wildlife movement, feeding, or other behaviors. The natural soundscape of the open section of the road may be disturbed by vehicle traffic with portions of time when natural sounds dominate. Wildlife on the road are treated in the same manner as they are during the summer, with little to no disruption of wildlife movement, feeding, or other behaviors.

Category Winter Shoulder Seasons
Overview The unplowed Park Road provides non-motorized visitor access into the winter wilderness of Denali, as well as an easier-to-navigate winter route. From the visitor perspective, there is little that distinguishes the unplowed Park Road from the surrounding wilderness. The closed section of the Park Road is essentially a trail for non-motorized recreational use in the shoulder seasons. Pedestrians and bicycles dominate the traffic, and although administrative motorized traffic maintains a presence, it does not adversely impact the visitor experience.
Visitor Experiences The unplowed section of the Park Road provides a backcountry experience for users of many ability levels. It is easy to access and its width and relatively gentle grades make portions of it suitable for beginner-level recreationists. For more experienced visitors and those desiring to go further into the park, the unplowed Park Road provides easier-to-navigate access. Multiple uses and a variety of ability levels may be accommodated simultaneously. Visitors are encouraged to use non-motorized means to explore the park on the closed section of the Park Road. Although visitors may encounter other recreationists on the road and occasional motorized administrative use, crowding and administrative vehicular traffic does not adversely impact the visitor experience. Vault toilet restroom facilities on the closed portion of the Park Road are available for shoulder season use.
Resources Resource conditions of the unplowed portion of the Park Road are nearly indistinguishable from resource conditions in surrounding wilderness, and wilderness character quality is high. Silence and natural sounds dominate. The NPS does not provide any artificial light installations on the unplowed portion of the Park Road, and the night sky is unaffected by artificial light. Wildlife that exists in this area is largely undisturbed by visitor activity, and human-wildlife interactions are minimal. Silence and natural sounds dominate the soundscape. Wildlife on the road are treated in the same manner as they are during the summer, with little to no disruption of wildlife movement, feeding, or other behaviors.
Category Winter (Mountain Vista, if winter plowing occurs) Shoulder Seasons (Teklanika Rest Stop)
Overview This area provides a wilderness threshold experience in concepts where the road is plowed to Mountain Vista. Rest areas, parking areas, and NPS facilities are maintained. Trails and winter routes are available for visitors to explore. Established trails may have signage or wands to improve visitor experience and increase safety, but are generally maintained to a lesser degree than trails near the entrance area. Visitors may use these areas as a portal into the park, and are largely left to their own devices beyond plowed parking areas and maintained facilities. As weather allows during the shoulder seasons, the Teklanika rest stop area is the terminus of vehicle traffic and a gateway for further non-motorized exploration of the park. As a visitor hub, the area includes maintained restrooms, parking areas, and interpretive installations. NPS presence is higher here than at other points along the open portion of the road, but typically not as high as in the entrance area.
Visitor Experience This area provides a gateway into the wilderness of Denali. Facilities exist, but are relatively minimal and the overall experience is not as managed and structured as the majority of the experiences visitors have at the entrance area. For many visitors unaccustomed to route finding and the Alaskan winter, this area will provide all the characteristics of a wilderness experience. For other visitors, this area will feel like the last development on the edge of a vast wilderness. As the terminus of vehicle traffic on the Park Road, the Teklanika rest stop area is a visitor hub in the shoulder seasons, though to a lesser extent than the entrance area. Visitors can expect to encounter many vehicles and other people in this area but crowding does not adversely affect the visitor experience. Maintained restrooms and interpretive or educational signs and opportunities facilitate visitor use of the area although the overall visitor experience is not as structured as the majority of the experiences visitors have at the entrance area.
Resources The soundscape in and around parking areas might be impacted by vehicle noise. This impact diminishes with greater distance from the road and parking areas. Vehicles are not allowed to idle in parking areas. Night skies are generally unaffected by artificial light. The NPS does not provide any artificial light installations. Wildlife that exists in this area is largely undisturbed by visitor activity, and human-wildlife interactions are minimal. Visitor use of off-trail areas beyond existing winter travel routes has minimal to no adverse impact on vegetation. The soundscape in and around parking areas might be impacted by vehicle noise and a relatively high concentration of people. This impact diminishes with greater distance from the road and parking areas. Wildlife that exists in this area is largely undisturbed by visitor activity, and human-wildlife interactions are minimal.
Category Winter Shoulder Seasons
Overview The wilderness and backcountry areas of Denali National Park offer solitudinous and self-reliant visitor experiences in backcountry and wilderness settings. The winter environment functions as naturally as possible, and is undisturbed by development. During the shoulder seasons, the wilderness and backcountry areas of Denali National Park function much the same as they do during the summer season. Visitor use is dominated by day hiking and overnight backpacking.
Visitor Experience The emphasis in these areas is on wild and backcountry experiences. Visitors must be prepared to be fully self-reliant, and trails, facilities, and NPS personnel are present at much lower levels than in other areas of the park. However, NPS staff do occasionally patrol and may informally create routes that may be followed. The visitor experience in these areas of Denali during the shoulder seasons is largely similar to that of the summer. In most areas, visitors can expect to see few, if any, other people and signs of modern human use are rare. Use is dominated by day hiking and overnight backpacking.
Resources The wilderness character of these areas is intact and preserved to the greatest extent. The soundscape is as close to natural as is possible. Silence and natural sounds dominate. Night skies are unaffected by artificial light. Wildlife are largely unaffected by human presence. Visitor use of off-trail areas beyond existing winter travel routes has minimal to no adverse impact on vegetation. The wilderness character of these areas is intact and preserved to the greatest extent. The soundscape is as close to natural as is possible. Silence and natural sounds dominate. Wildlife are largely unaffected by human presence during these sensitive times of year. Visitor use of off-trail areas has minimal to no adverse impact on vegetation.
Category Winter Shoulder Seasons
Overview This area provides a visitor experience that is largely similar to that of the areas that surround it (backcountry and designated wilderness). It shares many characteristics of a wilderness experience, but there are signs of development (e.g., buildings). This area provides a visitor experience that is largely similar to that of the areas that surround it (backcountry and designated wilderness). It shares many characteristics of a wilderness experience, but there are signs of development (e.g., buildings).
Visitor Experience The visitor experience in Kantishna is similar to that of the surrounding designated wilderness and backcountry areas. Because of the possibility of air taxi landings on the Kantishna airstrip, motorized use in the area, existing facilities, and private development or commercial use, this area feels more developed than other surrounding areas and is more accessible. The visitor experience in Kantishna is similar to that of the surrounding designated wilderness and backcountry areas. Because of the possibility of air taxi landings in Kantishna, existing facilities, and private development or commercial use, this area feels more developed than other surrounding areas and is more accessible.
Resources Motorized use might be present in the Kantishna area for traditional activities, but at relatively low levels. Usually, the soundscape is relatively undisturbed and there are long stretches of time where natural sounds dominate. Night skies are generally unaffected by artificial light. The NPS does not provide any artificial light installations. Wildlife are largely unaffected by human presence. Visitor use of off-trail areas beyond existing winter travel routes has minimal to no adverse impact on vegetation. The soundscape is relatively undisturbed, despite any private development in Kantishna. Natural sounds dominate the vast majority of time. Wildlife are largely unaffected by human presence during these sensitive times of year.

 

Range of Considered Proposals

Each topic area below briefly summarizes some of the ideas described in the plan to address access, trails, facilities, commercial opportunities, and the visitor experience. In some cases, multiple contrasting options describe various directions that the NPS may decide to take with some topics.

More detail about these ideas, as well as additional possibilities not summarized here, are in the Winter and Shoulder Season Plan.
Winter Road Plowing
  • Option 1. The park could consider terminating the winter road plowing trial that began in 2014 and reverting to the previous regime of closing the Park Road at Headquarters in the fall with the first winter weather, and not plowing until spring road opening efforts begin, typically in mid-March.
  • Option 2. The park could also consider continuing the winter plowing effort that began in 2014. Winter plowing, if conducted, should begin no earlier than February, and should not extend further west than the Mountain Vista area.
    • Road opening dates at this time in the winter season coincide with a return of daylight and a spike of visitation to Alaska. This date also makes it financially viable for the park to staff road and facility maintenance activities, provide an improved and safer visitor experience, and moderate resource impacts from plowing.
    • The Mountain Vista rest area is an ideal location for the terminus of winter road plowing as it has ample parking, restrooms, trails, and informational signs and is on the paved section of Park Road.

Shoulder Season Vehicle Access to the Park Road
  • Decisions regarding shoulder season vehicle access to the park road should:
    • Preserve the desired uncrowded, quiet, and independent visitor experience
    • Minimize adverse impacts to wildlife from the number and timing of vehicles on the Park Road
    • Maintain a distinction from the summer visitor experience
    • Recognize how decisions affecting shoulder season road access impact the amount of visitation and the services and facilities necessary to support that visitation
    • Provide shuttle service, an adequate visitor center, and entrance area food service concurrently with large bus tours
  • Option 1. It could be possible for the park to meet visitor expectations and achieve the desired visitor experience and resource conditions by continuing to allow road access as at present:
    • Private vehicles have unrestricted access to the Park Road west to the Teklanika rest area in the spring and fall
    • Large bus tours start around May 10 and go as far as the Teklanika flats turnaround (approximately mile 26 of the Park Road)
    • No commercial use authorization (CUA) operators have access to the Park Road beyond Mountain Vista and the date range of the winter activities CUA permit (currently mid-February - May 10)
  • Option 2. The park could also consider retaining unrestricted private vehicle access while managing commercial vehicle access differently than at present:
    • Private vehicles have unrestricted access to the Park Road west to the Teklanika rest area in the spring and fall
    • Large bus tours begin at the start of the summer season, when private vehicles are stopped at the Savage check station (typically May 20) and continue to operate as normal for the summer season without extending into the fall
    • A limited number of smaller vehicle tours (under 8,800 lbs. GVWR, 12 passenger van or similar) operate to the Teklanika rest area during the spring season
    • Smaller vehicle shuttle service is encouraged as a commercial opportunity to serve visitors without access to a private vehicle
  • Option 3. Another option for shoulder season Park Road access could be:
  • Private vehicles have unrestricted access to the Park Road west to the Teklanika rest area in the spring and fall
  • Large bus tours start around May 15 and go as far as the Primrose pullout (approximately mile 16). Large bus tours do not operate in the fall after Road Lottery
  • A large bus shuttle system starts around May 15 and goes to the Teklanika rest area
  • A limited number of smaller vehicle tours (under 8,800 lbs. GVWR, 12 passenger van or similar) operate to the Teklanika rest area during the spring season

Fall Road Vehicle Access
  • Option 1. The NPS could continue to manage vehicle access to the Park Road as it has in the past.
    • Private vehicles have unrestricted access to the Park Road west to the Teklanika rest area
    • Commercial tours operate to the Teklanika flats turnaround through the last week of road lottery
    • The first wintry weather of the season closes the Park Road at Headquarters, and the road does not open again until spring road opening (mid-April) or winter road plowing (mid-February) begins
  • Option 2. The park could also consider allowing vehicles access to the Park Road as at present, but allowing the road to open and close based on the presence of safe driving conditions, irrespective of whether the road had initially closed due to winter weather.
    • Private vehicles have unrestricted access to the Park Road west to the Teklanika rest area
    • Commercial tours operate to the Teklanika flats turnaround through the last week of road lottery
    • The first wintry weather of the season closes the Park Road at Headquarters, but if conditions improve and allow for safe driving, the road is re-opened as far as conditions allow, west to the Teklanika rest area
  • Option 3. The NPS could commit to maintaining vehicle access to a portion of the Park Road through a specific date.
    • Private vehicles have unrestricted access to the Park Road west to the Teklanika rest area
    • Commercial tours operate to the Teklanika flats turnaround while the road is actively made accessible to vehicles
    • The NPS commits to keeping the road open for vehicle access to the Teklanika or Mountain Vista rest areas through a specific date (e.g., October 15 or 31). After this date, the road closes at Headquarters with the first winter weather
  • The park could continue grooming trails in the entrance area to the same extent as at present
  • The park could also groom additional established trails and developed areas near the park entrance that are capable of safely supporting use by skiers (e.g., Bus Depot parking area, Bike Path). Grooming of areas beyond previously-established, year-round trail surfaces and paved areas is not considered in this plan.
  • If trails between the Nenana River and George Parks Highway proposed in other plans are constructed, portions of them could be constructed to standards that support winter use. The park could decide to groom the trails in this area that are accessible to winter use.
  • If the Denali Park Road is not plowed west of Headquarters until spring road opening, the "Aufeis Trail" could be maintained and advertised to support winter-only use by the public.
  • The Spring Trail could be re-routed and maintained to continue providing an access route for mushers.
  • Opportunistic grooming of the unplowed the Denali Park Road between Headquarters and approximately mile seven of the road as a result of road maintenance operations could be continued. Additional or more formalized grooming of the unplowed Denali Park Road surface is not considered in this plan. Informal grooming of the unplowed Denali Park Road between Headquarters and approximately mile seven of the Denali Park Road as a result of road maintenance operations provides a recreational opportunity in a manner that is feasible, fiscally sustainable, and minimally impactful to park resources.
Winter Visitor Center
A winter and shoulder season visitor center should be located in the entrance area of the park, and should be able to provide the following experiences and services:
  • Ability to accommodate up to 80 visitors at a time (several typical tour groups) without crowding negatively impacting the visitor experience and without overbuilding for visitor numbers that may never materialize
  • Heated restroom facilities available 24 hours a day adequate to serve pulses of up to 80 visitors at one time
  • Ability for major building systems (heat, electricity, water) to function in all seasons
  • Exhibits to inspire, educate, and inform visitors
  • Adequate staff areas and offices
  • Ease of access to the visitor center by vehicles, pedestrians, and rail passengers, and accessibility of the visitor center to park entrance area trail systems
This table summarizes some of the potential options for a winter visitor center, and some of the considerations associated with each option.
Plan Needs & Implications Pros Cons Estimated Cost
Retain existing Murie Science and Learning Center (MSLC) Increased leach field pumping
  • Low cost
  • Low impact to park resources
Crowding $20,000
Provide exhibit and/or improved visitor experience in the Murie Dining Hall
  • Increased leach field pumping
  • Twice annual switch of building use
Uses existing park infrastructure intended for year-round use
  • Major NPS use of concessioner-assigned building
  • Might not accommodate greatly increased visitation
$75,000
Expand MSLC (e.g., additional space, separate bathroom facility, etc) Increased leach field pumping Could benefit summer users of the MSLC Increased infrastructure footprint $2.8 million
Retrofit Denali Bus Depot for winter use
  • Building systems upgrades
  • Twice annual switch of building use
  • Ample space for visitors
  • Uses existing park infrastructure
  • Major NPS use of concessioner-assigned building
  • Distant from rail depot, trails
$3.5 million
Retrofit Denali Visitor Center (DVC) for winter use Extensive building systems upgrades
  • Uses existing park infrastructure
  • Easy access to trails
  • Easy navigation
  • Costly
  • Building not originally intended for year-round use
$5.9 million
Construct new building Need to identify suitable entrance area location Ability to design to exact specifications and needs Increased infrastructure footprint $5 million
Open DVC or just DVC restroom facilities longer into shoulder seasons Water, sewer systems need to be operational sooner in spring, later in fall
  • Relieves crowding pressure during busy times of year
  • Could work in conjunction with other visitor center options
Does not address increased winter visitation $40,000


Campgrounds
Visitor enjoyment of the park could also be enhanced by access to the drive-in campgrounds of Savage River and Teklanika during portions of the shoulder seasons. These concessioner-operated campgrounds are currently only available for summer use, and are only open when the full complement of summer services and rules are in place. The concessioner could open these campgrounds earlier in the spring (perhaps May 1) and operate them later into the fall season (perhaps September 30).

It is unlikely that water and septic systems could reliably be provided at these times of year. The campgrounds could be opened for a reduced fee for primitive camping, with vault toilets only and no running water available. To avoid the necessity of staffing a reservation center, campground reservations could be available only by phone or online. The reduced fee for camping could go toward supporting a campground host who could check reservations and perform other typical campground host duties.

Public Use Shelters
The 2006 Backcountry Management Plan articulates a vision of park management without public use shelters, and the park has never made shelters widely available to members of the general public. Four shelters currently exist (in the vicinity of the Sanctuary campground, Igloo campground, Toklat rest area, and mile 70 of the Park Road), but access is restricted to clients of the park’s dogsled concessioner. Public use shelters could improve the quality of the winter visitor experience, encourage Alaskans in particular to connect with the park, and facilitate non-motorized recreation that is consistent with park values. The intent of establishing public use shelters in Denali would be to provide a winter recreation opportunity. Year-round or shoulder season access to public use shelters is not considered in this plan.

Establishing public use shelters available to the general public would represent a substantial change in park management, operations, and visitor opportunities, and if the park were to pursue this idea, such changes should be implemented cautiously. If the park were to explore the possibility of public use shelters, the beginning stages of a public use shelter system in the park could include the following elements:
  • Establishing a trial period for a limited number of public use shelters before committing to public use shelters as an established visitor opportunity.
  • Co-locating a few (2-3) temporary structures on the unplowed section of Park Road corridor in areas with established vault toilet facilities.
    • Option 1. Temporary structures could include hard-sided quinzees similar to those already in use by the dogsled concessioner, yurts, or winter tents capable of being heated by a stove.
    • Option 2. The NPS could also consider allowing general public access to some or all of the four existing quinzee shelters currently available exclusively to clients of the dogsled concession. These four existing shelters are placed each winter near the Sanctuary campground, the Igloo campground, the Toklat rest area, and approximately at mile 70 of the Park Road (the “Thorofare Pit”). Of these four locations, the Sanctuary and Igloo campgrounds would be most easily maintained, managed, and patrolled by the NPS during a trial period.
To protect park resources and ensure a quality visitor experience of public use shelters during a trial period or as an established visitor use, the park could manage a public use shelter system within the following guidelines.
  • Public use shelters placed on the road corridor only
  • A maximum number of public use shelters limited to developed roadside locations west of the Savage River with vault toilet facilities
  • Public use shelters available for a set date range (e.g., November 15–March 31) during the winter (generally snow-covered) season only.

Other Visitor Facilities
  • If the road is plowed past Headquarters in the winter, picnic shelters at Mountain Vista could have temporary hard sides installed on one or more sides to help block wind and provide day-use-only protection from the elements.
  • The Upper Savage River cabin is not currently open to visitors in the winter. If staffing levels allow, the park could consider staffing this cabin as an educational, interpretive, and visitor contact station when and if the road is plowed past Headquarters in the winter.
  • Temporary signs and parking lines at the Teklanika rest area could help maximize efficient parking during the shoulder seasons.
  • The entrance area of the park acts as a hub for commercial activity in the park during summer months, and it could remain the hub of commercial activity during the winter and shoulder seasons. Of any area in the park, the widest variety of commercial services could be provided in the entrance area –Headquarters and Nenana River trails areas of the park. Guided snowshoeing, guided skiing, gear rentals, photography instruction, food service, and other commercial services could all take place here.
  • Food service in the entrance area of the park during the winter and shoulder seasons is an identified visitor need and this could be a new commercial services opportunity for the winter and shoulder seasons. Entrance area food service could be provided in a variety of ways, including:
    • The Murie Dining Hall is currently assigned to the transportation concessioner, and functions as an employee cafeteria during the summer. In the Murie Dining Hall, the concessioner could provide vending machines, or could use the kitchen facilities to provide more substantive food. This could begin as a trial with food provided only during times of high visitation. If demand is sufficient, this trial could be expanded to include longer periods of the winter and shoulder seasons.
    • A food truck or similar portable food outlet could operate at the railroad depot or on the railroad right of way. This non-NPS property could more easily allow for commercial operations such as food service.
    • Extensive retrofitting of existing entrance area facilities and utility systems could enable the Morino Grill on the DVC campus in the entrance area to operate in all seasons.
  • If the park establishes public use shelters along the unplowed section of the Park Road after a successful trial period, commercial access to the shelters for guided overnight trips could be considered. A commercial operator could also manage public use shelters in the park (reservations, stocking, maintenance), if a trial period of public shelters is deemed successful.
  • Commercial operators could facilitate the visitor experience of the closed section of the Park Road by offering guided cycling day trips on the Park Road.
  • Commercial non-motorized recreation in eligible and designated wilderness areas is subject to an extent necessary determination.
  • When the road is closed at Headquarters during winter months, there is currently a gate with a stop sign, a “winter trailhead” sign, and very little else. This somewhat imposing configuration may give the impression that the park west of Headquarters is closed, or dissuade visitors from exploring the park further. The addition of a more welcoming sign or a temporary informational kiosk in the vicinity of the gate could more effectively invite visitors to experience the park.
  • In 2018 the Alaska Railroad enclosed one of their shelters at the railroad depot to provide increased comfort and protection from the elements to winter visitors using the rail system. The NPS could partner with the Alaska Railroad to provide improved interpretive media in this shelter that focuses on winter in the park.
  • Driver safety is paramount on the section of road plowed west of Headquarters in winter months. This section of road is only open to the public when the park determines that safe driving conditions are present, but even at these times there is no easily available communication in the area and some drivers are unprepared for and unfamiliar with typical winter driving conditions. In addition to allowing vehicle access only when road conditions are deemed safe, the park could also increase safety messaging regarding winter driving in the park. This could include written information on the park website, a recorded safety briefing available online and at the visitor center, or information distributed to car rental agencies, tourism boards, and interagency visitor centers around the state.
  • If staffing levels allow, the park could increase the presence of NPS personnel on the open section of road during the shoulder seasons to minimize human-wildlife interactions and manage traffic at wildlife stops, if necessary.

 
a snowy forest at night with a log cabin with interior lights glowing under a sky full of green aurora
Several concepts address the possibility of visitors using public use shelters such as quinzees

NPS Photo

Plan Concepts: Possible Scenarios for the Future


These concepts outline what the park could look and feel like if different combinations of actions described in this plan were taken. Concepts are not proposed alternatives, but an illustration of a few of the various directions the park could take when implementing ideas described in this plan.

Facet Concept A: No Implementation Concept B: Light Touch Concept C: Approachable Wilderness Concept D: Varied Experience Concept E: Focus on the Frontcountry
Winter Road Plowing No plowing No plowing No plowing Plow to Mountain Vista in February Plow to Mountain Vista in February
Spring Road Access As at present – large bus tours start early to mid May, no CUAs Small vehicle tours operate, no large buses until summer Small vehicle tours operate, no large buses until summer Small vehicle tours operate, large buses go to Primrose, shuttle bus service to Teklanika As at present – large bus tours start early to mid May, no small vehicle tours
Trails
  • No grooming
  • No Aufeis Trail
  • No Spring Trail reroute
  • Continue grooming at entrance only
  • Aufeis Trail as a visitor opportunity
  • No Spring Trail reroute
  • Continue grooming at entrance
  • Nenana River trails grooming
  • Aufeis Trail as a visitor opportunity
  • No Spring Trail reroute
  • Continue grooming at entrance
  • Nenana River trails grooming
  • No Aufeis Trail opportunity
  • Spring Trail reroute
  • Continue grooming at entrance
  • Nenana River trails grooming
  • No Aufeis Trail opportunity
  • Spring Trail reroute
Visitor Center Intimate visitor center with adjacent heated facility (e.g., keep using the MSLC and Murie Dining Hall as at present) Intimate visitor center with adjacent heated facility capable of a quality visitor experience (e.g., improve experience at the Murie Dining Hall and open DVC earlier / later Expanded visitor center in the vicinity of the MSLC (e.g., addition to MSLC) Flagship visitor center in the entrance area, but not on the DVC campus (e.g., retrofit Denali Bus Depot and open DVC earlier / later) Flagship visitor center on the DVC campus (e.g., retrofit the DVC, construct new building)
Public Use Shelters No public use shelters available to general public No public use shelters available to general public Public use shelter trial; if successful max = roadside locations with vault toilets Public use shelter trial; if successful max = roadside locations with vault toilets No public use shelters available to general public
Other Visitor Opportunities No new visitor opportunities
  • Teklanika and Savage Campgrounds open earlier
  • Spring roadside camping
  • Teklanika and Savage Campgrounds open earlier
  • Spring roadside camping
  • Staff at Savage Cabin
  • Teklanika and Savage Campgrounds open earlier
  • Spring roadside camping
  • Staff at Savage Cabin
  • Increased visitor contacts in the historic Headquarters district

 

Plan Implementation

Constraints

The operational implications below are further underscored by additional constraints, some of which are beyond the control of the NPS.

These constraints include:
  • Weather during the winter and shoulder seasons is often harsh and unpredictable. This affects access to the Park Road and the visitor opportunities that the park can offer. Park facilities are also affected by weather during these months, as freezing temperatures can impact the availability of water and wastewater utilities.
  • The ability to staff the park is dependent the park budget and is further constrained by hiring regulations. Seasonal staff can only work limited hours in a season, and the months that a season can encompass are defined by the larger NPS, not Denali National Park. Extending these parameters to include the winter and shoulder seasons generally necessitates permanent positions, which can be difficult to fund and hire.
  • Many visitors come to Denali to view wildlife, however, wildlife may not be as visible during the winter and shoulder seasons. Attempting to provide a summer-like visitor experience during the shoulder seasons, for example, may result in a mismatch between visitor expectations and what Denali actually offers during those times of year.

Monitoring and Adaptive Management

Winter Plowing

  • Monitor every few years to assess wildlife behavior, crowding on the road and at Mountain Vista, and visitor safety

Spring Road Use

  • Wildlife behavior and human-wildlife interactions from entrance to Toklat, to include vehicles, pedestrians, and cyclists
    • Differences in wildlife reactions to vehicles, pedestrians, and cyclists
  • Traffic levels and patterns
    • Amount of time on the road with no traffic (i.e., “sheep gaps” from VMP monitoring)
    • Times of heaviest use
    • Parking capacity at Teklanika rest area and other parking areas
  • Crowding and other social impacts
    • Crowding at Teklanika rest area
    • Crowding on the section of road open to vehicles, especially at wildlife stops
    • Crowding on the closed section of road
    • Factors that affect the spring visitor experience (i.e., are shuttles desired, additional or different commercial services that would be beneficial to visitors, perceptions of large bus tours)
  • Resource and other impacts from use of dormant campgrounds and roadside pullouts

Public Use Shelters

  • Visitor use patterns
    • Occupancy rates
    • User group profiles
    • Damage to the structures and nearby facilities
    • Amount of administrative snowmobile, helicopter, and other motorized use necessary for emergency response
  • Resource impacts
    • Informal trail creation
    • Human waste issues
    • Resource damage from fuel collection, grey water disposal, or dog waste

Areas Not in the Plan

Southern new park additions need concerted resource and visitation monitoring, with similar monitoring possibly needed on the Stampede corridor as well

Other Monitoring Needs

Soundscapes and night skies require monitoring every few years to ensure desired conditions for these resources are met

Next Steps

It is unlikely that decisions about all of the ideas presented in the Winter and Shoulder Season Plan would be made at one time. Rather, decisions would likely be made as needed, or as funding for implementation is available, needs arise, or other conditions change prompting action.

The phases described below illustrate one possible sequence in which decisions could be made about the ideas discussed in this plan. This sequence takes into consideration needs to be addressed, the feasibility of executing the idea, likely funding requirements and availability, and the extent to which greater detail is needed before a decision can be made.

These phases are meant to illustrate a possible order in which decisions could be made following from the Winter and Shoulder Season Plan, and are not intended to suggest that evaluating these ideas would necessarily result in implementation or action. Evaluation of the ideas in these phases would be conducted with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process, as appropriate. If the park decides to formally consider any of the ideas presented in the Winter and Shoulder Season Plan, the first environmental document analyzing those decisions could be expected in winter-spring 2020.
The ideas considered in Phase 1 address current visitor needs, do not require extensive amounts of additional information to evaluate, and are relatively easily accomplishable, if the decision is made to implement them.

Phase 1 would evaluate options related to:
  • Winter road plowing
  • Providing improved musher’s access at Mountain Vista
  • Shoulder season vehicle access to the Park Road
  • Appropriate commercial opportunities
  • Installing signs or informational kiosks at the gates at Headquarters and the Teklanika rest area
  • Providing temporary parking lines at the Teklanika rest area
  • Providing increased opportunities for shoulder season camping
  • Snowmobile grooming of trails in the entrance area
  • Continuing discussion with businesses and local communities regarding visitor services best provided inside and outside of the park
The topics evaluated in Phase 2 address important visitor needs, but may be contingent on decisions made in Phase 1, require additional funding, or require more focused and extensive individual attention and evaluation.
  • Reroute of the Spring trail
  • Winter and shoulder season visitor center
Topics evaluated in Phase 3 would provide additional visitor opportunities, but would require increased funding and NPS staff capacity as well as more focused and extensive individual attention and evaluation.
  • Public use shelters


Last updated: June 1, 2020

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