A major project aimed at thinning the crowds at Alaska's Denali National Park and Preserve will get under way this summer with the building of a visitor center in the nearby Denali State Park.
The low-profile state park lies just south of the national park but is not as famous because the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America, sits within the national park.
The 325,240-acre Denali State Park, however, offers advantages that Alaska tourism officials say justify the multimillion-dollar South Denali Visitor Center.
Chiefly, the entrance to the state park is roughly 100 miles closer to Anchorage, Alaska's largest city, than the entrance to the national park is. The visitor center would be accessible from Mile 137 of the Parks Highway, about 35 miles north of Talkeetna. (Click here or on the image, right, for a larger view of a map of the Denali State Park map.)
"It will relieve some of the pressure Denali National Park is feeling by giving visitors the same Denali experiences they want without having to drive 100 miles more north," said Casey Ressler, marketing and communications manager for the convention and visitors bureau of Matanuska-Susitna (Mat-Su), the borough just south of the state park entrance. "For visitors on a tight schedule, it would allow them to have a Denali experience on a day trip from Anchorage."
This location won't mean giving up much in terms of the Denali experience, tourism officials say.
The center will sit on Curry Ridge, which "has an amazing view of the Alaska Range and Mount McKinley," Ressler said, adding that "it has tremendous opportunity for hiking trails, backcountry camping, mountain biking and other outdoor activities."
Alaska State Parks said it chose the site for various reasons, including visibility along trails to reduce surprise wildlife encounters and a variety of natural features that will "enhance the visitor's understanding and appreciation" for the Denali region, including unique glacial features, beaver ponds, rocky knolls and Lake 1787.
The topography offers accessibility to visitors of varied physical abilities for activities such as nature trails, scenic viewpoints and trails to and around the lake.
Alaska State Parks anticipates the development would bring a "conservative 230,600" more tourists per year to Denali State Park, which on average gets about 325,000 annual visitors.
"The expectation is that once the center is up and fully operational with marketing, it would equal the Denali National Park visitation," said Bill Kiger, interpretation and education manager at Alaska State Parks.
While the visitor center will be built in the Denali State Park, near Lake 1787, the parks services anticipates the development of lodging and food services on adjacent private land as a result of the project, Kiger said.
Kiger said construction would begin this summer on parts of the center's base, including access roads, campgrounds, trails and a maintenance facility.
This first phase should be completed by 2014.
"Visitors will be able to camp, hike and park here well before the visitor center is built," Kiger said.
The center, a cooperative project between the state and the National Park Service, currently has no set date of completion, because different parts of the project will be built when funding is provided. Alaska State Parks received $3 million from State of Alaska general funds for design of the visitor center facilities.
Some of funding will also come from private partnerships, including Princess Cruises.
According to Kiger, Princess has promised to help fund the needed electrical extension for the project. Currently, electric service ends at mile 121 on the Parks Highway.
"We're a vested partner in the project, so we've committed our time as well as funds," said Bruce Bustamante, vice president of community and public affairs for Princess. "It's great for the growth of tourism and is the most viable means to expand capacity and the visitor experience in the park."
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