New visitor center to grace entrance to Denali

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FAIRBANKS, Alaska -- Visitors to Denali National Park next summer will see the results of a major facelift at the parks entrance.

Travelers on a late-summer cruise or those braving the winter elements this year already can see the first phase of the face-lift: the Murie Science and Learning Center will become the parks temporary visitor center this fall.

The new visitor complex should be finished by midsummer 2005, a parks representative said. Other areas in the facility will include a bookstore, a gift shop and a food court -- something the park hasnt had yet, she said.

The current visitor center just isnt big enough for all the activities the park would like to host, the parks representative said.

What we currently have is a place where you get your bus tickets and wilderness permits, she said. But there was no space for exhibits, displays or anything to bring people to a higher understanding of what this place is all about.

And this place is all about a bunch of different things. Denali includes the tallest mountain in the U.S., Mount McKinley; a subarctic ecosystem; and abundant wildlife, including bears, caribou, moose, wolves, Dall sheep and various bird species.

Denali is so big that the bus tour around the park, which costs $41.70 for an adult ticket and includes a snack and hot drinks, only scratches the surface.

Some campgrounds operate on a limited basis or are closed because of nearby wolf activity. Bear-resistant food containers are available for free with permits to hike and camp in the parks back country.

The new visitor center will have space for an auditorium for ranger talks and for exhibits about the park.

And it will be directly across from the Denali railroad depot, where thousands of visitors and cruise-ship passengers annually arrive and meet the buses that take them to area lodges and hotels.

The parks representative said the location will give guests a chance to spend time in the visitor center or grab a bite to eat at the new food court before heading to their hotels.

The Murie Learning Center will serve as the welcome center this fall, but it definitely wont see much foot traffic: The park all but shuts down in mid-September.

One campsite, Riley Creek, stays open all winter, but the park turns off the water -- meaning that winter camping options are for only the hardiest of travelers.

Still, the Murie center will be a place to check out in the summer because it will act as a home base and learning center for the Denali Institute.

The institute offers several multi-day field seminars and teacher-training courses, but the center also will hold daily, five-hour excursions to observe the wolves of Denali.

They talk about wolf research, and how we do it. They also offer field trips that are science-based -- as opposed to a ranger walk -- that are more in-depth, the parks representative said.

Once the improvements to the park entrance are finished, look for the park to replace the Eielson Visitor Center at mile marker 66, which is perched on the tundra slopes and offers excellent views of Mount McKinley on clear days.

To contact reporter Rebecca Tobin, send e-mail to [email protected].

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