Denali gets permanent superintendent as park, a top tourist destination, copes with disruptions

Yereth Rosen/States Newsroom

Denali National Park and Preserve, one of Alaska’s top tourist attractions, has a new superintendent, the National Park Service said on Friday.

Brooke Merrell, a deputy superintendent who had been filling in for the last nine months as acting superintendent, has now been promoted to the top job in the 6 million-acre park, famous for holding North America’s tallest mountain.

Merrell is the first woman to serve as superintendent in the park’s 105-year history, the Park Service said.

She faces numerous management challenges in Denali, considered one of the crown jewels of the U.S. national park system. One of the biggest challenges is posed by the thaw-created collapse of the sole park road at its midway point, at a site called Pretty Rocks.

That forced a late-summer closure last year of the road at its halfway point. This year and next year and possibly even beyond, the 92-mile road will remain closed at that spot, meaning that iconic park areas like the Wonder Lake campground and Polychrome Pass are off-limits at least until 2024.

The Park Service plans to construct a suspension bridge over the Pretty Rocks area, a project estimated to cost $91 million. A contractor to build the bridge and complete associated road construction has not yet been chosen, said Sharon Stiteler, public affairs officer for the park.

Despite the closure of half of the park road, Denali is attracting a healthy amount of visitors this year, Stiteler said. Shuttle buses that normally are able to ferry visitors all the way to the end of the road are stopping 43 miles in at a site called East Fork, but the system is accommodating this summer’s park users adequately, she said.

“We don’t have crowding issues and the system of sending people out to East Fork has worked well, giving visitors lots of opportunities to view wildlife and great hiking opportunities along the road before it’s closed or down to the river bed,” she said by email.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Denali typically received 600,000 visitors a year. In 2020, visitation dropped to 54,850, Stiteler said. It rose to 229,521 last year, she said. It has increased again this year, though it is not quite on pace with the 2019 count of  601,152, she said.

In a statement released by the park, Merrell said she is honored to have been promoted to the superintendent position. “I am also excited for the opportunity to continue working with all of our partners, our valued inholders, and the business community in order to find common ground and solutions for the challenges ahead,” she said.

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