This presentation was part of A Century of Design in the Parks Symposium, Santa Fe, New Mexico, June 21-23, 2016.
By Frank Norris
Almost a century ago, Congress established Mount McKinley National Park, and by the early 1920s work had begun on the park’s main road. This road was consciously built as a scenic, low-speed road, one that would allow (according to NPS official Arno Cammerer) “the visitor going over the road the best possible views and vistas of the country, avoiding a straight line in road location.”
Until World War II, the park typically attracted fewer than a thousand visitors per year, but the completion of the Denali Highway (in 1957) and the Parks Highway (in 1971) caused dramatic increases in tourism, and by the late 1970s the annual visitation total exceeded 200,000. Virtually all of those visitors wanted to see the park’s wonders – chief among them views of the area’s remarkable wildlife – by traveling down the park road.
In order to protect the park’s resources, park managers allowed limited streamlining of the road during the 1950s and early 1960s. Fearing a loss of the road’s character, however, the agency then engaged in a series of innovative measures – including the closure of most of the park road to tourist automobiles – that retained the rustic character of the park road’s design elements while simultaneously ensuring access for, and a safe travel experience to, the swelling visitor population. In recent years, decisions over road access into the park (now called Denali National Park and Preserve) consistently cause friction between NPS officials and outside development advocates. Major portions of the road, however, still largely follow the philosophical guidelines laid out during the 1920s by Cammerer and other NPS officials. For that reason, visitors can still enjoy viewing the park’s wildlife much as their forebears did many years earlier.
Frank Norris joined the National Park Service (as a Volunteer in Parks) in 1981 and has since worked for the agency in Montana, New Mexico, and various parts of Alaska. From 1990 to 2007, he served as a historian in the Alaska Regional Office in Anchorage, where he wrote various historic resource studies and administrative histories for Alaska park units. His paper topic for this conference is excerpted from the two-volume Crown Jewel of the North; an Administrative History of Denali National Park and Preserve (2007 and 2009).