View of Denali from Kantishna in Denali National Park and Preserve/NPS file

As park travelers expand their horizons, more and more national parks find themselves not only crowded, but without adequate facilities to handle those crowds. That’s the case at Denali National Park in Alaska, where roadside campgrounds, backcountry campsites, “rustic” lodging, transportation infrastructure and more are being considered for the Kantishna and Wonder Lake areas of the park.

Though the planning comes as visitation to Denali continues to grow, it coincides with the Park Service being hamstrung by a staggering maintenance backlog that could stand in the way of near-term funding for the project. And it also raises the question of how much development should be allowed in a park with the wilderness reputation that Denali enjoys? As the saying goes, if you build it, they will come, and is that in the best interests of not just Denali but the National Park System?

“Whatever we do, we don’t want to create a new hot spot in the park where everybody that comes says they want to go there,” said Paul Anderson, a veteran of 42 years with the National Park Service, the last 11 spent as Denali’s superintendent until he retired in 2012. “We weren’t trying to do neat things that had never been done before to increase visitation when I was at Denali. We were trying to do what we could to deal with what we had and prepare for what might happen down the road.”

Examples of overcrowding and adverse impacts to natural resources and the park experience are becoming more and more obvious, from Acadia National Park in Maine with its cruise-ship-loads of visitors to Zion National Park in Utah, where the red-rock cathedral of the Zion Canyon seems to be on just about everyone’s to-do list. 

For now, however, Denali staff are looking to respond to higher visitation with more facilities in the Kantishna and Wonder Lake area. The park has experienced an 11 percent growth in visits between 2013 and 2018. An estimated 11,000 of the approximately 600,000 park visits are hikes on formal or informal trails in the Kantishna and Wonder Lake areas, the Park Service notes. Two formal trails currently exist to serve these visitors. A web of informal trails, including some maintained by lodges, has developed. Some informal trails are old mining routes and others are present due to repeated use on poor soils.

National Park Service officials want to develop a more formal trail system at Wonder Lake in Denali National Park/Rebecca Latson file

National Park Service officials want to develop a more formal trail system at Wonder Lake in Denali National Park/Rebecca Latson file

But there are significant issues to deal with if the park staff decides to add the improvements, some of which were discussed as far back as 2006.

Part of the problem is that staff lodging in the area is inadequate, park staff said, with showers and laundry facilities “located miles from staff sleeping quarters.” As Denali staff deals with this situation, private property owners in the Kantishna area are thinking of building winter guest lodging, which would bring even more tourists to an area that in the past has not had regularly maintained infrastructure and staff to support year-round needs in the area. Already, as visitation to the area has increased, the number of vehicles on the Park Road has exceeded the number allowed, and that has impacted the natural soundscape, according to the park.

The data showing that the park is out of standard with natural sounds disturbance comes from preliminary results of the NPS managed Day Hiker User Survey completed in 2018. Management guidance says no more than 10 natural sound disturbances should occur in eligible wilderness. Approximately 10% of hikers said they heard motorized noise more than 10 times. The threshold is set at no more than one motorized noise event in designated wilderness. Nearly half of all surveyed day hikers said they heard noise two or more times.

Overall, Anderson had few quibbles with the plan, and noted that it is just in the early stages before a formal plan is adopted by the Park Service. But he added that the agency long has known that it had to address the areas with better planning.

“Kantishna has never been the busiest place in the park. And the lodges … up until now we’ve kept them at the same size, the same pillow count that they were back in the day,” he said last week. “So, the number of overnight guests is not exorbitant amongst the four lodges. But apparently some of my friends up there are going to put a new lodge on their property at Rainy Creek. That in and of itself is a travesty. The worst part about it is they’re going to try to make it a year-round operation. Whether they can or not is another question. But that’s going to add more bedrooms.”

Each of Kantishna’s four lodges, which combined can hold about 250 a night every night of the summer, offers its own hiking program, and they create problems with following their own trails.

“Those guided hikes go all over Kantishna. The fallacy about Denali, and most people see it that way, is that it’s a trailess wilderness,” said Anderson. “Denali is not a trailess wilderness. It’s a wilderness that has lots of trails that the NPS ignores and refuses to acknowledge. And the resource damage from those trails in some cases is fairly extreme. But, the public won’t let us formalize any trails in the wilderness, and we haven’t pushed to do that.”

The park’s current proposal, however, would try to address the trails. This summer park staff planned to identify potential trails in the Kantishna and Wonder Lake areas, with the intention of returning next summer to conduct cultural resource and wetland surveys in those areas.

“While future demand for the use of the area is ultimately unknown, park management desires to proactively define the desired visitor experience, formalize a trail system from a network of informal trails, and consolidate the administrative footprint,” the planning document states. “This will allow park management to mitigate existing resource damage and address potential visitor safety concerns in the predicted event of an increase in the use of the area.”

Though Anderson doesn’t see a need for any more campsites at the Wonder Lake Campground — “Wonder Lake Campground is 95 percent full in July and August. It’s 95 percent full by the reservation system, but probably 25 percent of those people get off the bus with all their camping gear, and by the time the last bus of the day leaves Kantishna, they’re on it going home because they can’t stand the mosquitoes,” he said — he was impressed by the park’s proposal to possibly use small, moveable cabins called “quinzees” there.

“It’s kind of an A-frame, teeny little cabin that has bunk space for four or six people, and a nice little cooking/eating area, all in a compact package on skids, so that they can skid it onto a truck or skid it on the snow if they wanted to and move it around,” explained Anderson. “I was just really impressed by that.”

There are other issues to deal with if greater visitation is to be allowed at Kantishna and Wonder Lake, as the Park Service has pointed out:

* High levels of arsenic and antimony naturally occur in Kantishna soils and waters, making water sources undesirable for long-term consumption;

* Designating campsites and trails, and encouraging bike use, may increase negative human-wildlife interactions.

* The number of businesses offering guided services is likely to increase in the area as guided hiking contracts are transitioned to Commercial Use Authorizations (CUAs). New lodge developments may also increase the number of guests staying in the area for multiple days. Without a formal trail system use will likely continue on existing informal trails, contributing to further erosion, or new informal trails may develop as groups try to avoid one another.

* The Wonder Lake Campground is the only campground on the west end of the park. It is near capacity (above 95%) in July and August. No group camping sites exist.

* The day-user experience at Wonder Lake for visitors on the transit bus is to exit the bus at the lakeside and walk up the campground road to re-board the bus. The presence of multiple busloads of day users in the campground may impact the campground user’s experience.

• Water sources are unreliable enough in the Kantishna Hills that visitors cannot rely upon them.

You can find this and more information on the pending proposal at this website. The plan is open for public comment through September 17.  

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