The Denali National Park road lottery is a gamble in more ways than one but well worth the risks. It all starts in May. Do I enter? What will I be doing mid-September? I tell myself, “Just enter already. It’s worth $15 to give it a go.”
Then you find out in June if you’re a winner or a loser. If the latter, you forget about it and move on (until September when you see friends posting fantastic road lottery pictures on Facebook and you turn green with envy). If you win, you rejoice and think you are definitely one of the lucky ones!
After I won this year, I posted on social media what a winner I am. Alaskans got the gist, but people Outside were confused.
By August, I started wondering what the weather would be on my assigned day. What if it’s bad and the road closes? Who should I invite to ride along? Should I make reservations for lodging now or later, and where? “Just deal with it,” I told myself sternly.
After all this consternation, the 2019 road lottery proved a highlight of my Denali National Park experiences. I invited a friend, Liz Wood, an emergency room nurse who also happens to be an outstanding photographer (and a huge road lottery fan; she’s been in the park every year), and she asked if her brother, Dr. Jim Wood, a retired ER physician and whom I had never met, could join us.
Our day, Sunday, dawned gorgeously in Glitter Gulch, with a big fat bright moon and clear skies. Liz and I had spent the night at a hotel near the park entrance and Jim drove down from Fairbanks early that morning. By 8 a.m. we departed the park headquarters and wound our way to the Savage River check-in station. After about 45 minutes of waiting in line, a park ranger greeted us with an enthusiastic “Congratulations!” and gave us oral safety rules, along with a dose of cautionary advice, then released us into the park.
Right out of the gate we could see some of the Great One, not the clearest view any of us had ever gotten, but still thrilling. “The mountain is so elusive that even longtime Alaskans still get excited about it,” Jim said.
We were on edge watching for wildlife and laughed when the first thing we saw was a squirrel, followed by a magpie. “I’m just glad to be alive and enjoying each day,” Liz said. “What a gift; what a day.”
The way the lottery drive works is when you see cars pulled over you pull over to see what people have spotted. Our first pullover experience involved a grizzly bear, which set the overall tone for the day, as we eventually had 11 grizzly sightings. We also saw 15 Dall sheep and four eagles. Not one moose or caribou.
Even through the awe of seeing animals, Jim saw something else. “It’s quite an experience watching the people.” For the most part, visitors are friendly and share their viewpoints, all the while aiming their expensive binoculars and fancy cameras with telephoto lenses. “The camaraderie is constant,” Liz said.
“I think people recognize it’s a gift and they are lucky to do it.”
Near the east fork of the Toklat River we spotted a traffic jam and could go nowhere but right into the middle of it. Liz jumped out to see what the hubbub was and a ranger yelled through a loudspeaker for everyone to get back in their vehicles. Jim, in the driver’s seat, could see a bear’s head poking out behind the next car over and yelled for his sister to jump into the car. Two young grizzlies were attempting to cross the road and chose the area inches in front of our car to do so.
When our hearts calmed down a bit we resumed our journey and saw even more incredible views, more bears and sheep and enjoyed a quiet picnic lunch inside the Eielson Visitor Center. We turned back at Mile 71 and enjoyed the ride out as much as the ride in. It was an amazing 10 hours in the car.
“I can’t complain,” Liz said.
Nancy Tarnai, a local freelance writer, has done the road lottery three times and is looking forward to the next adventure. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.