The Denali Road Lottery - All You Need to Know!

The Denali Road Lottery - By Karl Sander

Denali National Park and Preserve consists of over four and a half million acres of parkland (over two million acres designated as wilderness) and another 1.3 million acres of wildlife preserve. It’s bigger than the entire State of New Hampshire – and it’s served by one 92 mile road. It took 15 years for construction crews to carve the road out of the wild and rugged terrain before it finally reached Kantishna in 1938.  The Denali Road Lottery is the only way you can access the entire length of this 92 mile stretch.  The only other way to gain farther access into Denali is to book a reservation at the Teklanika River Campground. In 1972, in response to increasing traffic the park, officials instituted a policy for tourist season that limited private vehicles to the first 15 miles of the park road. Beyond that, visitors had to be on buses in order to travel the road and see the sights. After the height of the tourist season, the road was open to anyone who wanted to travel down toward Kantishna. Visitors from Outside had almost all gone home, and people who ventured down the road were almost all Alaska locals. Denali Road Lottery Toklat River Often narrow, windy, and with no guardrails, the road winds toward Kantishna The post-tourist-season opportunity to drive the park road grew increasingly popular as the years went by. By the late 1980s, almost two thousand vehicles were entering the park on a daily basis, making it difficult for park officials to manage based on the sheer volume of traffic on the often narrow dusty road.  The problem was then compounded by wildlife traffic jams caused by visitors viewing the many bears, moose, caribou, and whatever else wanders near the roadway.  Due to these difficulties, the Denali Road Lottery was born. In 1990, park officials instituted the Denali road lottery system. People entered a drawing for a limited number of permits to drive the road into the park as far as weather allowed. Initially, park officials issued 300 permits per day. Today, they issue 400 permits for each of the four days of the lottery, plus a military appreciation day for Alaska-based active-duty service members and their families. Denali Road Lottery Savage River Valley The first 15 miles to Savage River are paved How it Works Alaskans enter the Denali road lottery each spring, paying a small non-refundable fee ($15 in 2018). Of the four days available, entrants pick their preferred date and list the rest of them in order of preference. The drawing takes place in June, and everyone who entered gets a notification stating whether they were selected or not. Winners are assigned a date. As long as there’s space on the day you listed first, that’s the one you’ll get. Odds vary depending on how many people enter. In 2016, 12,600 people entered the drawing for 1600 permits. That works out to just less than a 1 in 8 chance of being drawn. Denali Road Lottery Riley Creek If it turns out you can’t go, your winning entry is transferable before the actual permit is issued. In that case, the person transferring the entry needs to provide the new recipient the original notification and a short note explaining the transfer. That transferability rule is how I got to go. A coworker had been selected, but wound up not being able to make it. I returned from a short work trip to find an email offering the spot to whoever was interested. I replied, but I wasn’t optimistic; the email was a few days old, and I was sure someone else had already jumped at the chance. I was wrong, though. No one else had, the spot was mine for the taking, and I had a Denali Road Lottery ticket all to myself! The Day of the Drive You can pick up your Denali Road Lottery permit a few days early at the Denali Visitors Center, or pick it up the morning of your drive. You’ll pay the standard $10 park entry fee per person (unless you have a federal recreation pass, or it’s Military Appreciation Day), and the Ranger will give you a quick explanation of the rules of the road. It’s not like driving a regular highway, after all. The pass I inherited was for a Tuesday, but since I had the unique chance to drive the entire park road, my boss had no problem giving me the day off. I made a short-notice reservation for the night prior at the Princess Cruise Line lodge near the park entrance. When the time came, I was able to get out of the office a little early on Monday and hit the road. Denali Road Lottery Moose on Road A cow moose crosses the roadway just a few miles beyond the Visitor Center The road lottery runs in the middle of September (officially, the second weekend after Labor Day). By then, tourist season is largely over, and many of the establishments near the park entrance are either already closed or about to be. Seasonal hires were getting ready to go home, and some places were even decorated like it was Christmas; since most of the seasonal workers don’t get to spend the holidays together, the end-of-season going-away festivities take on a Yuletide flavor. After checking in and eating, I called it an early night. The next morning I got up relatively early and made the now-almost-familiar trip to the Visitor Center for my third visit in two summers. Checking in with the Ranger to get my permit was quick and easy; the hardest part of the morning was carrying two sandwiches and a large coffee from Morino Grill to my car (spoiler alert, I spent the rest of the drive smelling like coffee). There was a low overcast the entire day, which might have been disappointing if I wasn’t so excited to be able to drive the whole length of the highway on my own. Traffic was moderate, suggesting that either the weather was keeping folks away, or (more likely) that over the years, they figured out the right number of daily permits to hand out. Despite the primitive road and soft shoulders, I didn’t see anyone with a flat or stuck in the gravel shoulders. That’s a good thing because there’s no cell coverage inside the park; any motorists who come to grief have to rely on park rangers patrolling the road in radio-equipped vehicles to call for what one assumes is a rather sizeable towing bill. This far north, the seasons change quickly. Even though my wife and I had visited just over two months earlier, the colors of the brush and tundra were already vastly different. Wildlife wasn’t as plentiful as it was on our mid-summer visits; I wasn’t quite sure if it was the change in seasons or the preceding few days’ of vehicle traffic that had caused the animals to head elsewhere. Denali Road Lottery Grizzly Bear A sow Grizzly Bear showing off her backside I did get to see a bear, though. Videos posted to social media by other visitors on the road that day showed him wandering down the middle of the road; when I drove by, he was off to the side, meandering lazily around – but close enough to make everyone stop and take pictures or video. On my return trip, he was on the high ground on the other side of the road, farther away but still able to draw a crowd of onlookers. Denali Road Lottery Polychrome Pass Polychrome Pass I don’t usually find the elevation gain along the road readily apparent after leaving the spruce forests near the entrance. On this trip, though, our climb was evident by the decreasing temperatures, the wintry mix turning to snow, and the snow sticking to the ground by the time I reached Polychrome Pass. At Eielson Visitor Center, it was starting to accumulate. But beyond Eielson, the road descends again, and the snow turned to drizzle before stopping altogether. Denali Road Lottery Denali Clouded Denali mostly visible from a pullout along the road Denali Road Lottery Eielson Visitor Center There is much to do and see at the Eielson Visitor center. We recommend spending some time here! Even without the view of Denali herself, Wonder Lake was still scenic, and before long I was nearing the inholdings that were home to privately operated lodges deep within the park. Beyond them, the road fords a creek that the Park Service decided wasn’t worth the trouble of a culvert or a bridge; a couple concrete panels had been laid down, presumably to minimize erosion, and the water was allowed to flow over the road. It wasn’t charging through a roaring river with a snorkel kit, but in my head, it seemed car-commercial worthy. Denali Road Lottery Wonder Lake Wonder Lake Denali Road Lottery River Crossing Kantishna A fellow Denali Road Lottery winner crosses the small river in their classic car! The road ends in a large loop, ninety-two miles inside the park (complete with a sign saying “end of the road”). I stopped to eat my sandwich and visit the adjacent airfield, which had been our destination the summer prior during a flightseeing trip. A remote bush strip in Alaska is quite a contrast to a standard airport, with all its fencing, lighting, and other infrastructure. Instead, here there was just long wide-open space, a couple places for planes to park, an above ground fuel tank, and a shelter where people can wait. That’s it. Denali Road Lottery Caribou Near Eielson A bull caribou roams the tundra just beyond the Eielson Visitor Center Just short of the end of the road is Fannie Quigley’s house. A mining pioneer, she came to the Kantishna area in 1905 – before there was a railroad or a park. Fannie lived out the later years of her life in this house until she died in 1944. It’s incredible to think of people living out here full time back then; before the highway and railroad linked Fairbanks directly to the coast, before the park road. It’s also amazing to stop and think that, in the grand scheme of things, “back then” isn’t even that long ago. Denali Road Lottery Bull Moose A large bull moose nears the roadway during the Denali Road Lottery With a passable road and a faster conveyance than Fannie’s dogsleds, my trip back to the entrance and civilization passed uneventfully, aside from the brief stop to watch that one lone bear wander along his ridge. Ironically, my only moose sighting was in the parking lot of Prospectors Pizzeria and Alehouse, where I had dinner while watching the staff cross items off the menu as they used up the last of their ingredients on the final night of the season. I then headed south for Anchorage in the gathering darkness, far enough into the fall for real nighttime to make its return to the North. In seven months’ time, I’d be packing up to move Outside - back south. At least for a while. Low ceilings and shy wildlife aside, I was grateful to have had the chance to get the Denali road lottery tickets so I could experience the park in such a unique way before leaving the Last Frontier. Denali Road Lottery Railroad Tracks Karl Sander is a freelance writer who lived for many years in Anchorage, Alaska, where he was usually skiing, hiking, or on a motorcycle. You can see more of his work at his website here.  You can also catch up with Karl on Facebook and Twitter as well! Editors note: While Karl's trip into the park wasn't as great for photography, The Alaska Life crew won the 2014 Denali Road Lottery and were able to get many great shots of the wildlife and scenery on our 92 mile drive.  The photos you see in this piece are from that trip. Published June 16, 2018 https://www.thealaskalife.com/blog/denali-highway-alaska-top-10/

4 comments

Please define the definition of very nicely… :) akuntzelman@gmail.com I won Tuesday 09/18/18

Aaron Kuntzelman April 17, 2021

Several years ago on a trip with my dad and an uncle we took the tour bus trip to Kantishna. It was a 14 hour trip the entire 92 miles of the road. We did get to see Denali in all its splendor and most of the park animals. Mountain goats, wolves, bear, elk, etc. It was amazing. The bus ride was a bit hard on my dad and uncle who were both in their 80’s, but well worth the time and cost. It let us look and take pictures leaving the driving to someone else. Alaska and Denali are on my “return” list. The majestic land has always been a draw for me. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

Sue Martin April 17, 2021

If anyone is looking to ‘transfer’ their winning lottery for 2018, I would be willing to compensate VERY nicely

Carla Timmerman April 17, 2021

How I would love to win this lottery, love driving isolated, remote roads and have driven many of them here in Australia with on of them being 1800 km long Canning Stock Route, one of the most remote roads in Australia.

Bill Good April 17, 2021

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