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IN A NATURAL STATE; ALASKA'S RUGGED DENALI NATIONAL PARK SUCCEEDS IN KEEPING VISITOR IMPACT TO AN ABSOLUTE MINIMUM.

Byline: Eric Noland Travel Editor

DENALI NATIONAL PARK, Alaska - This is the model. This is what Yellowstone, Yosemite and the South Rim of the Grand Canyon would be if they could start all over again.

Denali National Park and Preserve, which stretches over a vast wilderness in south-central Alaska, did it right. While its popular national-park brethren in the Lower 48 wrestle with overcrowding, traffic jams and intrusive impact on wildlife and other aspects of the natural world, Denali barely leaves a footprint. Or a tire tread.

Despite being roughly the size of Vermont, it has one road - a largely unimproved one - that gently courses 90 miles into the park's heart. The park has a shuttle-bus system that visitors learn to embrace - because they must; cars and RVs and camper trucks pulling speed boats are not permitted on most of that road. After the first few miles, there are no trails; hikers simply wander across vast expanses. The park has no gas station within its boundaries. No food is sold beyond the first two miles of road. And its one hotel will cease to exist within two years.

If lightning starts a fire, no emergency vehicles tear onto the scene; it is allowed to burn. If wolves run down and tear apart a sickly moose calf, no meetings are convened to discuss protection for future calves. ``At the end of the park road,'' said park ranger Jane Tranel, ``you don't hit another road until you get to Russia.''

In short, Denali is a wild, subarctic ecosystem in the guise of a national park, and if visitors are understandably drawn to its charms - soaring Mount McKinley, a vibrant array of wild animals, the lush summer carpet of tundra and taiga - they tread here strictly on the park's terms.

Consider this contrast: Denali last year logged 390,084 visitors and limited vehicle round trips to just over 10,000. Yosemite, despite registering 10 times as many visitors, has struggled for years to implement even the most modest bus-shuttle system. In summer, it will routinely exceed Denali's annual vehicle total in a day and a half.

This Alaska park's relative isolation undoubtedly contributed to its prudence. The George Parks Highway, linking Alaska's population center, Anchorage, to Fairbanks in the north, was not completed until 1972. This chunk of wilderness - then known as Mount McKinley National Park - was able to benefit from the lessons of the nation's overrun national parks before the hordes began motoring up that road.

The park instituted its shuttle system eight years later, coinciding with a Congressional act that extended its borders by a staggering 4 million acres and changed its name to Denali, Athabascan for ``the High One.'' The transportation plan proved to be a deft bit of foresight: Within a dozen years after the highway was completed, annual tourist visits jumped from 30,000 to a half million.

Today, all of Denali's campsites and 65 percent of the seats on its shuttle buses are subject to advance reservations. For the shuttles, you pay different fees depending on how far along the road you want to travel ($12.50 for the first 50 miles or so, $31 for the its entire length of 89 miles). With someone else driving, this is a good way to search for wildlife or just gaze south across the tundra at the breathtaking majesty of the Alaska Range, where the 20,320-foot summit of painfully shy Mount McKinley - tallest point in North America -occasionally peeks from behind its near-constant summer shroud of clouds.

The buses will drop you off wherever you like, enabling you to embark on a dead-reckoning hike across this trackless wilderness. If you maintain your bearings and can find your way back to the road, returning to the mouth of the park is as simple as flagging down an eastbound bus (although don't be alarmed if the first bus or two that passes is full).

Not everyone is infected with this spirit of adventure, however. Especially here, less than 200 miles from the Arctic Circle. Another option is a guided bus tour operated by the park's concessionaire, Denali Park Resorts. The Natural History Tour is a three-hour ride that costs $35 for adults. The Tundra Wildlife Tour can last anywhere from six to eight hours - depending on duration of stops for wildlife viewings - and costs $64, including a box lunch.

On a wildlife tour last September, just before the tourist operations were shut down for the winter, a good number of the passengers were older travelers, obviously not able - or inclined - to stumble out over so wild a land.

Passengers are collected at three properties operated by the park concessionaire: the Denali National Park Hotel inside park boundaries and the McKinley Chalet Resort and the McKinley Village Lodge just outside the park entrance. (Several private lodging establishments have also sprung up here, creating kind of a tourist shanty town, but at least it's out of view of park visitors.)

Liz Hutson, who worked as a vegetation biologist at the park in the 1970s, was our driver and guide, and she urged the 30 passengers to assist her in trying to spot wildlife.

We weren't five miles along when an older man cried out, ``There's some sheep up there!'' Hutson stopped the bus and investigated what turned out to be a jumble of rocks on a hillside.

The excitement is understandable. The desire to view animals here can take on the magnitude of a quest. The Lonely Planet guidebook to Alaska refers to the Denali grand slam, four fascinating and elusive creatures that would make any visit memorable: grizzly bear, caribou, moose, wolf.

On this day, we would get nothing more than a broken-bat single up the middle. About 20 miles in, we came upon three caribou grazing placidly about 100 yards from the road - a bull with an enormous hatrack of antlers, and two cows.

These beasts, though appearing contented enough, are not to be envied. This region only gets 100 days a year where the temperature climbs above 32 degrees, so there is nothing more than a thin layer of soil on top of the unforgiving permafrost. That means a lot of standing water. And that means a lot of mosquitoes - more than 30 species. Caribou are tormented mercilessly by clouds of them in summer. The caribou also have to contend with botflies, which lay eggs inside their considerable nostrils. And their young are born literally on the run in the spring, so relentless are the attacks of wolves.

At another juncture, though she was busy driving and we were watching, Hutson was the first to spot a bright-white herd of Dall sheep high up a mountain side. We stopped long enough to observe them through a spotting scope that she set up on a tripod. It was no accident that the sheep appeared to be rocks with the naked eye; that is their natural camouflage.

Aside from a white-eared snowshoe hare and a chubby spruce grouse, we didn't see much else in the way of animal life, but that was probably due to the lateness of the season. As the end of summer nears, the park service shortens the amount of road that is open for vehicles, and we had to turn around at Teklanika, only 29 miles into the park. In the peak of summer, this tour will wander 53 miles in. (Our tour lasted only four hours, but at least they gave us a shoulder-season discount: $44, down from the usual $64.)

It might have been a disappointing outing had not the scenery been so mesmerizing. Usually the wind and rain of approaching winter knock the fall color off the trees by the end of August, but last year was unusually gentle, and autumn lingered. In the forest zone of the park's front country, splashes of bright gold were everywhere, courtesy of the thick stands of willow, trembling aspen, paper birch and balsam poplar.

Then, as we ventured onto the tundra, the landscape became other-worldly - at least to those more accustomed to the High Sierra and Rocky Mountains. Up here near the crown of the globe, so far from the equator, spring, summer and fall are compressed into three months, and the evergreen trees look much the worse for it. In a land of shallow soil and bitter winters, they are stunted and scrawny, their tops often brutalized by winter winds. And none of them can subsist above about 2,700 feet of elevation (the timber line in the Lower 48, by contrast, is about 11,000 feet).

Then there's that mountain. You can't take your eyes off it -or at least off the cloud bank where it is hiding. McKinley's magnificence is enhanced by its peculiar geology. You might say it looks taller than its size.

Mount Everest, at 29,028 feet, rises infinitely higher, but Everest juts out of the Tibetan Plateau, which is itself 18,000 feet above sea level. Mount McKinley, if measured from the 2,000-foot lowlands of Wonder Lake (near the end of the park road), soars 18,000 spectacular feet in a span of about 28 miles.

It hides its face through much of the summer, and when those clouds do part, the entire region sells out of photographic film in about an hour. As we wound along the park road, it graced us with a brief glimpse of its lower, north peak.

The rest of the Alaska Range is no less appealing. It includes a 600-mile semicircle through south-central Alaska, and in McKinley's immediate neighborhood there are fully a dozen peaks that rise more than two miles in elevation.

We stopped at the Teklanika River campground for a restroom break, hot drinks served off the bus' tailgate . . . and, alas, to turn around and head back. In the summer peak, the tour will continue another 24 miles to Toklat, crossing two drainages that Hutson said are prime grizzly bear habitat. Grizzly sightings occur on 95 percent of the tours, she said, although sometimes you might just get a glimpse at a furry blob on a distant gravel bar.

We only got to look at the pelts. At our extended stop, two park naturalists and one ranger had laid out an educational and faintly grisly display of animal skins, skulls, antlers, hooves and jars of scat (droppings). The skins of two grizzly bears were exhibited - one had been poached outside the park, the other hit by a car. The front claws were as long as my index finger, which is enough to make you rethink the back-country camping permit.

An observation platform nearby offered a commanding sweep of the Teklanika River, an obvious photo opportunity. After a while, though, people put down their cameras. Several of us lingered there, gazing west, as if not wanting to leave just yet. The park road was closed beyond this point. This was the extreme edge of a network that linked us with the rest of North American civilization.

Somewhere out there, perhaps on a track that connects Egvekinot with Srednekolymsk, the process began anew.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Denali National Park lies 239 miles north of Alaska's largest city, Anchorage. It is 125 miles south of Fairbanks. Most cruises to Alaska can make arrangements for land tours to Denali, with passengers transported up the George Parks Highway in motor coaches. In conjunction with a September cruise, I opted for Holland America's ``Alaska Your Way'' option, which is geared for people who like to be more independent with their travel. A rental car is picked up in Seward, lodging is booked at such comfortable properties as the Westin Alyeska Resort and the Talkeetna Lodge, and you're otherwise on your own. Information: (800) 426-0327. Web: www.hollandamerica.com. Be advised, however, that Denali is a 366-mile haul from Seward. With infrequent stops, it still required about six hours. The Alaska Railroad travels from Anchorage to Fairbanks and has a stop inside the park. Information and reservations: (800) 544-0552.

COSTS: Admission to Denali National Park is a modest $5 per person, $10 per family. Passes are good for seven days. The round-trip fee for the shuttle buses is graduated depending on how far into the park you travel - $12.50 per adult for Mile 46, $21 for Mile 66, $31 for the end of the line (Mile 89). Advance seat reservations are recommended: (800) 622-7275.

TOURS: Denali Park Resorts, the national park's concessionaire, offers two guided bus tours. The three-hour Natural History Tour costs $35 for adults, $20 for children. The Tundra Wildlife Tour, which ranges anywhere from six to eight hours (depending on duration of stops for critter viewing), costs $64 for adults, $34.50 for children. Information and reservations: (800) 276-7234.

LODGING: The McKinley Chalet Resort and McKinley Village Lodge both lie along the George Parks Highway just outside the park boundaries. In the summer peak, their rooms range upward from $203 for a double. The accommodations are more utilitarian than luxurious - which seems appropriate in this rugged part of the world. Inside the park, the Denali National Park Hotel offers rooms from $159 for a double, but it is scheduled to cease operations after summer 2001. Information and reservations for all three properties: (800) 276-7234. Denali has seven campgrounds with a total of 293 sites, ranging from $6 to $12 nightly. RVs are permitted in 186 of the sites. Information and reservations: (800) 622-7275.

DINING: The McKinley Chalet Resort has the obligatory national park cafeteria, but it also has a restaurant that proved to be a pleasant surprise. The food was outstanding and reasonably priced, the wine selection impressive for so remote an outpost, and the window views of the Nenana River were beautiful to the point of distraction.

INFORMATION: The park service office at Denali National Park and Preserve can be reached at (907) 683-2294. Web: www.nps.gov/dena. The park concessionaire, Denali Park Resorts, maintains two information and reservations numbers. For lodging, tours and rafting trips (both whitewater and smooth water), call (800) 276-7234. For shuttle-bus and campsite reservations, call (800) 622-7275. Web: www.denalinationalpark.com. For general tourism information on Alaska, call (800) 862-5275. Web: www.travelalaska.com.

CAPTION(S):

4 photos, map, box

Photo:

(1 -- 2 -- color) At Alaska's Denali National Park, autumn is a memorable sight, as the leaves create splashes of color in the evergreen forests. Caribou, top, are plentiful in Denali National Park.

Eric Noland/Travel Editor

(3 -- color) Hikers climb through fall foliage to Polychrome Pass.

(4) A grizzly bear sighting is a treat in Denali.

Map: (color) no caption (Alaska locator)

Box: IF YOU GO (See text)
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Title Annotation:Travel
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 5, 2000
Words:2444
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