Every year, 1,600 lucky people “win” the Denali Road lottery sponsored by the National Park Service, allowing them to drive their private vehicles into the park. During the regular park season, private vehicles are forbidden after mile 15, and only Park Service buses go further into the park.
The length of their route varies depending on which tour is purchased. Applications for the Denali Road lottery are accepted from June 1 to June 30.
For four days after the close of the regular park season, Sept. 16 to Sept. 19 this year, 400 vehicles per day have the opportunity to drive all the way to Wonder Lake, or 82 miles, weather permitting. That last phrase is important in Alaska. In some years, early snows have closed the road after only 30 miles. Considering that parts of the road are only 1-1/2 lanes wide and have a steep drop-off without guardrails, closing the road in inclement weather seems like a good thing.
Entries are limited to one per person and cost $10. There is an additional $25 road permit fee and a $20 vehicle pass unless you already have a National Park pass. Last year, the Park Service received 9,720 applications. So why would almost 10,000 people spend $35 to $55 for this privilege at odds of one in six? The answer is a chance to see the park’s wildlife at their own pace.
In mid-September the moose are in rut and you might see bulls charging each other. The Dall sheep are descending from the hills to the low country. And the bears are foraging in earnest, trying to fatten up as much as possible in the shorter daylight hours.
Lottery winners usually spend the night before their drive in lodges or motels in Glitter Gulch, as the highway between Cantwell and Healy near the park entrance is known. Some hardier types choose to camp in the park, but be forewarned that temperatures at night are below freezing. The park road runs in a general east-west direction and crosses four mountain passes with elevations just under 4,000 feet.
Climbing from the park entrance, fur trees give way to willows, a moose’s favorite food. Moose can be seen anywhere from mile 3 to Tolkat River. Foxes can also be seen in this section of roadway. In winter, the park is closed to vehicles after this point; only dog sled mushers and cross country skiers are allowed past mile 3.
If the weather permits, you can catch a glimpse of Mt. McKinley at mile 9, 75 miles away. Savage River Campground is located at mile 12.8, and this is where the lottery winners line up at the permit checkpoint. Savage River is at mile 14, and this is as far as you can drive your car during the normal park season. This is also as far as the road is paved. Beyond here dust is everywhere in a dry autumn. Along a 3-mile long hiking loop here you may spot Dall sheep, marmots, or ptarmigan. The next 5 miles might provide you with a second look at Mt. McKinley.
There is a campground at mile 29, Teklanika, but for the last three years tents have not been allowed here because of wolf conflicts. Teklanika Bridge at mile 31 marks the entrance to Igloo Forest. Be on the lookout for lynx and of course moose. Igloo Canyon, at mile 33, is where wildlife viewing begins in earnest. Trees are gone and bears can be seen anywhere from the road to streambeds. Igloo Campground, mile 34, remains closed due to its proximity to a wolf den. From mile 37 to 43 the road climbs to Sable Pass, prime grizzly country. No hiking is allowed in the tundra here. And if you look at the wooden Sable Pass sign, you can see where bears have chewed on it. Berries at both sides of the road attract bears at different times of the year. Mt. McKinley might be visible again, 55 miles away.
Mile 43 to 46 marks Polychrome Pass. It is a two-and-one-half hour bus ride to this point. To the south of the road you have a 5-mile wide view of the Plains of Murie, stretching to the Alaska Range on the horizon. Mt. McKinley might make another appearance here. This pass is where the road narrows to 1-1/2 lanes. The pass itself is carved out of the side of the mountain, and it’s not a place for those afraid of heights.
Mile 53 is the Tolkat River and Tolkat Bridge. Tolkat River is a braided river, with its channels constantly changing depending on the amount of glacial melt water that runs down to it. The river never fills from bank to bank. Bears, caribou and wolves often wander the riverbed.
At mile 66 is the Eielson Visitors Center. On lottery weekend the parking lot is crowded with tailgate parties. This is the turn around point for the faint hearted. Beyond Eielson the road narrows to one lane in spots as it clings to the side of the mountain with no guardrails and blind curves. Mt. McKinley is only 33 miles away and is visible all the way to Wonder Lake at mile 82. This is one of the few places you can see beaver.
Wonder Lake has a campsite for tents only. Swarms of mosquitoes in mid-summer make this inhospitable without a mosquito head net and lots of bug spray. Spring and late summer are more tolerable. This is where the iconic postcard photos of Mt. McKinley with Wonder Lake in the foreground are taken. This is also the turn around point for the lottery winners. The visitors center at Eielson and the campgrounds mentioned can all be reached during the summer by the park shuttle buses.
Because of the unpredictable weather and chance of early snows closing the road, most road lottery entrants are Alaska residents. The weather also dictates whether Mt. McKinley is visible or not. Roughly 25 to 30 percent of visitors to Denali get to see the “Great One.” But if the weather is favorable, the view is heart stopping.
Cruise Port Travel is Payson’s local travel agency. We can help you plan an Alaska cruise, land tour, or independent driving tour. It costs nothing to use the services of a certified travel agent. We can help you save hours of frustration searching online. Our personal visits to Alaska provide you with experienced help in choosing the perfect vacation and best value for your budget. Call us at (928) 472-7878 or go online to www.travelpayson.com.