A few months ago Ben called me while I was in NYC and insisted that I apply for the Denali Park Road Lottery. Little did I know that he was telling everyone to apply and he would be the only one lucky enough to actually win the lottery and get a pass to drive the Denali Park lottery. Lucky for me, I’m his brother and one of the first people he invited to join the caravan through Denali National Park!
- Denali National Park Lottery
- Camping in Denali in September
- How to Enter the Denali Road Lottery
- Where to Stay in Denali National Park
- Grizzly Bears on Denali National Park Road Lottery
- Bear Country – Safety Tips
- Denali Park Road, Exploring Eielson
- Denali National Park Facts
- Kantishna, End of the Denali Park Road Lottery
- Changing a Tire on the Denali National Park Road
Denali National Park Lottery
Denali National Park & Preserve is open all year but buses only drive the park road during peak and shoulder seasons. The park offers a lottery every year to let people take their own vehicles along the park road for one final weekend before the road closes for winter. Ben and his girlfriend, Jenae, invited me and two of her friends, Emily & Kim, to make this the best once in a lifetime trip you can imagine!
Camping in Denali in September
Ben was one of the lucky Denali road lottery winners for Friday, September 14th meaning it would be peak fall foliage but also that I would have to take my first day off at my new job. With a little elbow grease and some luck, I found a substitute teacher for my 5th & 6th graders so I could join this adventure without worrying too much about the chaos back in my homeroom.
How to Enter the Denali Road Lottery
- The 2018 application period was May 1 – May 31st, 2018 and you can assume next year’s lottery will be similar.
- Pay a $15 fee and fill out out the application on recreation.gov.
- Wait for the email confirmation that you won and cross your fingers!
We left Thursday after work for the 5+ hour drive and set up our tents at Rabbit Creek near Denali’s main entrance, the same site we camped at before our summer backpacking adventure. After setting up our tent, we contemplated going to sleep when I walked outside, looked up, and saw an aurora dancing above us!
“The aurora is out!” I shouted before scrambling to get my camera and tripod. Above the evergreens shone a handful of stars and what looked like a weird green cloud floating in and out of sight. Ben was inside the tent and thought I was just kidding but when one of the girls caught sight of this natural beauty too we all agreed to take a walk and start tomorrow’s road trip a little bit later.
Where to Stay in Denali National Park
Not interested in Denali National Park Camping? We stayed at the Aurora Denali Lodge ($89 and up) during Christmas and it was very affordable for some aurora chasing. If you are willing to spend a little more you can get a lake view and a hot tub over at Denali Lakeview Inn ($132 and up).
Be sure to check out Otto Lake if you’re spending the night in Healy or anywhere outside the park!
That morning our team piled into the car and drove the last few miles of paved road. Jenae created a wildlife tally shortly after calling out the first moose of the trip. We hoped to spot a few bears, some caribou and were especially happy when the blue skies revealed our first glimpse of Denali.
Miraculously the weather remained perfect all day on the Denali park road. We saw our first bear jam just a few miles down from the viewpoint above. Bear jams are the aptly named traffic jams unique to places like Denali where a dozen or more cars were parked on the right side of the road letting us know there must be something there.
When driving on a Denali national park road lottery day it is important that you always pull over to the side of the road that’s the same as what you’re looking at. Rangers will also remind you to yield to all vehicles leaving the park and tell you the minimum distance you should stay away from wildlife.
As soon as we pulled over, a friendly gentleman told us where two bears were foraging in the distant hill. With yellow trees covering the ground these brown bears blended in perfectly. Then I saw it! Movement near a lower stretch of the forest resembling an upturned C. I zoomed in and sure enough there was a large momma grizzly!
Grizzly Bears on Denali National Park Road Lottery
We watched her roam around a few hundred yards away when her yearling popped his head above the nearby rocks. It was barely two hours into our Denali road lottery adventure and we were already pumped. No one wanted to leave these two bears and keep driving but at the same time, we all wanted to see what else the Denali park road would show us today.
While we debated moving onwards the two bears disappeared into the bush making our choice easier. Well, that was until they reappeared even closer! The grizzlies edged along the autumn hillside for a while longer giving us one final showing before sneaking into the underbrush.
Another few miles of beautiful mountains brought us past Cathedral Mountain and Sable Pass. I kept remembering how gorgeous the backcountry around Cathedral was but didn’t let myself daydream too much.
We had spectacular views of the Alaska range on our southern side and even more golden hills to the north when around the next bend Denali appeared yet again. This time she was considerably closer than I’d ever seen and I literally shouted with glee.
We pulled over yet again, snapped photos and scanned the horizon for a while before swapping drivers and continuing on this beautiful road trip through Denali National Park.
The dirt road was quite well maintained and better than many of the other dirt roads you’ll find in state parks throughout Alaska. We didn’t have to worry too much about potholes but still maintained a slow average of about 30 mph. The only times we had to stop were for a bear jam or if we wanted to get out and stretch.
Our next stop came at Polychrome Pass where we took a short stroll. Autumn filled the valley with golden and red shrubbery creating the beautiful scene below. We couldn’t see much of Denali from here and opted to aim for lunch at Eielson Visitor Center.
Coming down the next hill we could see a large bear jam on the left side. There was even a park ranger parked at the front facing the opposite direction and signaling everyone to keep driving. The right-hand lane rolled slowly past and we caught tiny glimpses of a massive grizzly between the cars before finding a suitable place to pull over.
Ben pulled out his super zoom (Sigma 150-500mm) and captured this stunning frame!
We thought about hanging here longer but the bear was a little too close for comfort and we knew there was more to see. Plus everyone was starting to get hungry for our picnic at Eielson. At this point, we were low in the valley and couldn’t see Denali but the road was clearly coming to a ridge.
Bear Country – Safety Tips
- Carry Bear Spray!
- Use Bear Canisters.
- Make noise, sing, shout “Hey Bear”
- Travel in groups.
- Stay 300 yds away (if possible) from any bears you encounter.
- If a BROWN bear attacks, use your bear spray.
If it’s on top of you PLAY DEAD!
- If a BLACK bear attacks, use your bear spray.
If it’s on top of you FIGHT BACK!
I have to admit that I got a little giddy knowing that we would have a spectacular panorama of Denali once we got to the top of the next hill and it was even nicer to know I didn’t have to hike all the way up!
There was a perfect pullout so naturally, we parked and snapped a few photos and contemplated eating lunch here when another lucky Denali lottery road winner told us that Eielson was just a few miles away. Everyone agreed to pile back in one more time, especially since some of today’s adventurous aardvarks were hoping to find an actual bathroom!
Denali Park Road, Exploring Eielson
The ride from this viewpoint to Eielson was short and sweet. We crossed the valley you see in the panorama above and were certain there were a few critters hiding among the foliage but didn’t see any and didn’t mind getting to Eielson quickly.
A ranger here reminded us to be “bear aware” during our picnic since the wildlife is known to walk right up to the visitor center. If that happened we should grab ALL our food and run inside asap! Luckily we were able to enjoy a sandwich and incredible view without being bothered by anything larger than a squirrel.
Denali National Park Facts
Did you know that Denali is actually the LARGEST mountain in the world? When you measure it from base to summit it is even bigger than Mount Everest!
The drive from Anchorage to Denali National Park is only 4-5 hours and can easily be done after work on a Friday to maximize your trip!
There are a couple of trails around Eielson visitors center and we thought about hiking one of the longer ones but instead decided to take the short loop so we could keep driving. Vibrant fields of red and yellow filled our path with the perfect foreground for such a majestic mountain. At one point I started looking away from Denali just so that I could turn around and look back at her again. Maybe I’m crazy, or maybe this mountain just is that awesome.
Emily noticed that Denali would be the perfect frame for anyone standing “just over there” so she shouted at Kim to head off that way. Shortly after Ben and Jenae found their way to that exact spot and I managed to snap a romantic photo for them!
Returning from this short loop we took one quick pit stop at the bathrooms before jumping back in the car for Wonder Lake. From here on out we had a perfect view of Denali in her full splendor. The road climbed around the northern mountain before winding down into the valley below.
It took another hour or so to drive this flat stretch and although the whole car was on the lookout for wildlife we made it to Wonder Lake without any other sightings. The group decided to go the extra hour to Kantishna and reach the end of the road. Our dirt road grew even more worn down and sported two small river crossings. Before long we found a sign declaring that we’d reached the end of the Denali Park Road. It wasn’t particularly special and if you’re short on time you can easily skip this leg of the Denali Park Road.
Kantishna, End of the Denali Park Road Lottery
Kantishna is an old mining colony and there isn’t really much to do except snap a photo and turn around. I’m sure you could find some amazing viewpoints and plenty of wildlife if you were spending the night in one of the remote lodges out here! This section of Denali has slightly different rules with a few private properties available to rent and hunting permits too. You can find out more info at ranger station near Denali National Park’s entrance.
Heading back means leaving the park but you still have amazing views and a great chance to spot wildlife. The first two hours of this drive provided everyone with a clear view of Denali and we even started our own “caribou jam” while I was driving when Ben shouted to stop and pointed out a lone stag.
We watched the buck graze from one pasture to the next before taking a drink at a nearby pond. He scratched his hindquarters with his antlers in an awkward dance before settling into the grass for the evening and giving us a queue to leave.
The sun began to set behind us as golden hour illuminated the mountains before us. Stunning reds and yellows filtered between snowcapped mountains. A sign warned “no stopping in 1/2 mile” and reminding us that we were close to the final cliff-filled road before Eielson visitor center. The view behind us was too good to pass up so I pulled off for one final stop before this forbidden stretch when suddenly a yellow flat tire symbol flashed on the dashboard!
Changing a Tire on the Denali National Park Road
Shutting off the engine, Ben and I jumped out of the car and could hear a whistle coming out of the rear tire. Ben jumped into action finding the leak while the rest of us unpacked the trunk to get to the spare. Jenae and the ladies got the coolers out and started cooking dinner so we didn’t have to stop again later which left me to… supervise? I dodged that leadership role by grabbing my camera and documenting this unique occasion to cook dinner and change a flat tire with Denali right behind us!
Before we knew it the salmon burgers were done and we had a donut on the car. Ben hopped into the driver’s seat and we were off in search of a viewpoint for sunset. Everyone debated staying at Eielson, but we opted for a quick bathroom break instead knowing that we could get a stunning sunset view closer to camp.
We still had another 2 or 3 hours of driving before we’d be back at camp. Even though the car had done all the work today we were all pretty exhausted and no one really wanted to stop again. We’d had an incredible road trip in Denali already and crossed off just about every animal on Jenae’s wildlife tally. Then I noticed an orange reflection in the side view mirror and quickly changed my mind!
I could tell it was going to be an awesome sunset and it wasn’t hard to convince Ben to pull over one last time. We joined another dozen cars to watch the orange glow spread far across the sky only to hear one of the neighbors talking about bears. Sure enough, there were two more grizzlies hanging out on the hill next to us! We could see them grazing about 150 yards away but with the distance, darkness and their natural camouflage, I couldn’t snap a decent photo so I quickly diverted my attention back to this fantastic Denali Sunset.
We couldn’t have asked for a better trip to Denali for this road lottery and I know I’m going to be entering for a chance to do it again next year! If you enjoyed this post please share it on social media using the buttons on the left side or pin the image below!
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