Wild and remote Denali National Park has only one road, which culminates in North America’s tallest peak. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

A trip to Denali National Park is a journey into wild America at its best. This six-million-acre landscape is bisected by only one, 92-mile ribbon of road. Travel along it, and you’ll see low-elevation, taiga forest morph into high, alpine tundra. It all culminates in North America’s tallest peak: the 20,310-foot Denali. Wildlife—such as black bears, grizzly bears, caribou, Dall’s sheep, wolverines and wolves—roam freely here, much as they have for millennia.

In the summer months, visitors to Denali National Park may drive their cars on the first 15 miles of the Denali Park Road. The rest of the road is limited to tour buses (which provide visitors with a narrated program and box lunch or snack), shuttle buses (which you may disembark and reboard anywhere along the road—providing there is room and you can flag them down), bikers and hikers. Most of the annual 530,000 visitors [2013 statistic] to the park choose a bus tour.

About 100 buses per day travel Denali’s one roadway. But the increasing number of tourists is causing the National Park Service to consider some changes in the schedules. Soon, tour bus stops may be strictly limited to 10 minutes each. Some park visitors fear that sticking to such a timetable will negatively affect the park experience. What would happen if a grizzly bear or a wolf were sighted at the nine-and-a-half-minute mark at one of your stops? Should your bus, then, have to quickly reload and move on within 30 seconds; or should you be allowed to linger for a few minutes more?

Unlike Denali National Park, Zion National Park has many developed trails. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Forced to take the bus

In May 2000, Zion National Park instituted a mandatory shuttle system in the main canyon to relieve crowding and congestion and to protect natural resources. The free Zion Canyon shuttle stops at nine locations in the park; and during the busy season, the buses run from early morning to late evening, as often as every seven minutes.

However, Zion is a very different park than Denali. The shuttle is not the main way that tourists get around in the park; it merely transports you to a variety of developed trails and from one, very walkable area in the park to another. Other than the one road, most of Denali National Park is wilderness backcountry. Using the shuttle there rather than the tour bus requires some serious outdoor skills and planning.

Last summer, in the Alaska Dispatch News, lifelong state resident John Schandelmeier wrote about his recent Denali National Park bus tour. After a gap of about a dozen years between tours, he found that the activity had dramatically changed. While wildlife-viewing opportunities—especially for grizzlies and caribou—remained excellent, he noted that “a couple of times our bus screeched to a halt to look at what was thought to be an animal. Nope, it was just another crowd coming off a mountain.”

If a grizzly is spotted, should a tour bus be forced to move on? ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

With more and more visitors coming to see one of the last, nearly pristine places in the United States, if buses are required to keep stops within a strict number of minutes, such interruptions could impact the chances for seeing Denali’s wildlife even more.

Crowds = caretakers

Ken Burns, filmmaker and director/producer of the PBS series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, has said that he is happy to see the crowds at national parks and put up with all that they entail. “Traffic jams are an important part of democracy,” he has stated. “If there were no traffic jams, the national parks would have no constituency. And then the next time somebody wants to dam a river or cut down a stand of trees or mine a canyon, there’s not going to be people advocating against it and saying no. Once you lose a place, it’s lost forever. Once you save a place, it is—like freedom, like liberty—a constant vigilance to maintain.”

But the question is: how should we balance encouraging more park visitors with upholding the quality of the national park experience?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,