Denali Park Road/Frontcountry

West Side Story

By Steve Carwile

Part 3 of a Series – see Series Introduction here

I do not favor a bridge at Polychrome, but I do think that the eastern and western halves of the park road should be rejoined. This rejoining should follow previous road repair guidance that prioritizes backslope shaving, soft-spot dig-outs, and overboarding reject material. I believe this is the most appropriate approach even though it would come with a significant jump in usual project effort and maintenance, though not near the cost of the proposed bridge and its maintenance.

The park road was admittedly financed to support the almost bankrupt Alaska Railroad and to provide a cheaper way to access mines in Kantishna and ship out ore.  But as the finishing mile to Kantishna became available for vehicles in 1938, NPS supporters began to realize that they had a special resource to value and preserve. The sinuous path of the primitive road contours through spectacular “game” country and wild landscapes. The park road itself is part of the experience, feeling like a gravel trail usable by passenger vehicles slowing down with purpose.  Over the past 70 years when periodic proposals to “improve” the road have emerged,  protests have succeeded in reminding decision-makers what we have and what we could lose. 

Going to East Fork feels only like an extended Short Tour; a tour that is supposed to end at Teklanika but could extend to Sable on a good weather day. So, while I believe it is essential that visitors be able to take a Tour along the whole 92-mile road – whether on a higher-priced tour bus or a lower-priced transit bus- it is important not to forget backcountry access.

It is paramount to me that the full range of road-accessible backcountry be attainable for the vast majority of backcountry travelers who have neither the money to fly to Kantishna or the many days presently needed to hike to Red Mountain or the South Fork of Moose Creek. We told hikers in the past to go ½-mile off the road (and out of sight) and you were good to set up your tent.  Now ½ mile toward Glacier Creek is over 25 miles from where the bus drops you. Walking the road as a majority of your hiking miles to get to Glacier Creek is not a waste of time, just a poor alternative to discovering your own off-trail route starting at milepost 68.

The backcountry east of East Fork is nice.  Fang Valley, Upper Igloo Creek, Upper Teklanika, and the Wyoming Hills are all worthy discovery areas. But the Old Park Backcountry Theater used to have a lot more cheap high-value seats.  Unless there is a significant advantage to wildlife populations from keeping vehicles off the western road in the future, I submit that the missing high-value seats should be restored by fixing the road at Polychrome, to re-establish the full plate of opportunities for wilderness discovery at Denali.

Steve Carwile started as a seasonal NPS interpreter at Mount McKinley National Park in 1975 which led to other park jobs in maintenance and resource management, which led to serving as Denali’s National Environment Policy Act Coordinator from 1992 thru 2016. Steve retired from NPS in 2016 and joined the DCC board of directors in 2018.


3 thoughts on “West Side Story

  • Tom Walker

    Steve, unsure of what you are saying. No bridge but what is your alternative? You used some road maintenance jargon but that does not get anyone past the slump. Do you propose a by-pass, route below Polychrome, or one behind? What? Not sure.

  • Steve Carwile

    Tom – dig into the backslope at the former road level. Could be the removal of 1 million cys of material as the EA stated, without showing the calculations. Paul Shearer and I calculated that it would require less than 400,000 cys removed to create a platform 80 feet wide. Material would have to be removed from the top down (or a contractor could figure out another way), and the use of explosives is not a prohibited use in Wilderness. FHWA calculated that over 1 million cys could be overboarded on the “perlite” side of the east buttress, without needing dozers to go down the slope to smooth it out. Once constructed, the new roadbed would need intensive maintenance for surface and backslope stability, including more overboarding of fallen material and importing additional surface material. FHWA said this alternative could be a maintenance “nuisance” in 15 years. It also could have been finished in 2022.

  • Tom Walker

    Thanks for the clarification. Logical. Wonder why this wasnt considered.

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