Your Complete Guide to Alaska’s Denali National Park Road Lottery

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Your Complete Guide to Alaska’s Denali National Park Road Lottery

Denali National Park - view of Denali peak

Explore Alaska’s Denali National Park and Preserve through the Road Lottery

Seeing the tallest mountain in the world in the morning light was really breathtaking. I’m talking about the peak of Denali in Denali National Park in Alaska. The mountain’s face was clearly visible and all the ridges almost looked distorted due to the fresh snow. It’s amazing how much power nature has over us.

This wasn’t my first time visiting Denali National Park and Preserve. I’ve been here multiple times with guests over the past two years and we took advantage of the park this summer with fewer visitors (the Denali Bus Depot told us that they got 3% of normal business this year due to COVID-19). Each time, the peak of Denali was hidden in the clouds. Denali often creates its own weather system, especially in summer, so only about 30% of Alaska visitors actually get to see the peak during summertime. I’ve seen Denali from other parts of the state but not actually from inside the park.

This summer, we had a great trip to the park despite not seeing Denali. We had memorable wildlife encounters, including brown bears and caribou herds. We didn’t even get a glimpse of Denali and I left the park feeling my experience was special enough. But now I take it back. Seeing Denali is such a surreal experience, I really want you to see it, too. Denali mountain is not only the highest peak in North America, but also it’s the tallest mountain in the world. Measuring from base to peak, Denali is about 18,000 ft., verses Everest, which is about 13,000 ft. from base to peak. (Everest, of course, is the highest mountain in the world at 29,029 ft.) More than 80% of Denali is taller than the surrounding foothills. It’s hard to understand this until you see this view.

We drove the entire 92.5 miles on a clear sunny day. Lucky us. Every turn we saw different scenery, went for a walk on a few trails, had picnics with a view, and drove back with amazing alpenglow on the mountains. We had a magical experience. Here’s a complete guide to Alaska’s Denali National Park Road Lottery, from application to execution.

 

Peak of Denali in the morning light

The peak of Denali in the morning light

 

Why is the Denali Road Lottery special?

Denali National Park might be a little different than other national parks you’ve visited. Although the park is 6 million acres in size (the third-largest in the US), there’s only one road, the 92.5-mile Denali Park Road. In this post, I will refer to it simply as the Park Road. The Park Road is open to only the official park buses (Narrated-Tour Buses and transit buses) except for a few occasions. And one of those exceptions is the Denali Road Lottery. During the bus tour, there are only a few designated stops that you’re allowed to be out of the vehicle and the buses are usually full. There are more options if you’re using the park shuttle buses to camp or bike inside the park, but still, you don’t have the freedom to explore like during the Road Lottery. That’s why thousands of people apply for the lottery each year. In the past, the chance of winning was 1-in-7. It’s a chance worth taking!

 

What will I see in Denali National Park if I win the Lottery?

Denali National Park is a great place to experience the wild and vast wilderness of Alaska. Every time I visit, I’m always reminded that we are just a small part of this world. The land here seems endless. It’s the home of countless animals and some of the biggest mountains in the world. You will have an opportunity to look out for wildlife such as bears, foxes, Dall sheep, and many kinds of birds. Also in autumn, there are more chances of clear skies, which means you might be able to see the stunning peak of Denali!

View of Denali from Denali National Park's Park Road Mile 9

View of Denali from Denali National Park’s Park Road Mile 9

 

How to Enter the Denali Road Lottery

  • Look out for the Road Lottery announcement
    This year the application period was June 1 – 30. It could change next year.
  • Apply at recreation.gov
    Make sure to have an account at recreation.gov for a faster transaction. The non-refundable application fee is $15. Applying on the first day doesn’t increase your chance of winning. The winner will be drawn in July. Recreation.gov will automatically charge a $25 permit fee if you win. All applicants will be notified either way.
  • You won but can’t go?
    Permits are transferable but cannot be sold. To transfer, print the email you receive from Recreation.gov, write the transferee’s name on it and then sign it. This must be presented at the Denali Visitor’s Center in order to pick up the Road Lottery permit. Once picked up, permits are not transferable between vehicles.

 

Enjoying the beautiful view of Denali National Park

Enjoying the beautiful view of Denali National Park


 

You won the lottery! Now what?

Know more about the Park Road

The Denali National Park and Preserve only has one point of land access: the 92.5-mile Denali Park Road. The mileage-markers are the best and simplest way to describe points of interest. For example, the main checkpoint of the park is Savage River at Mile 15.

Before you leave for the trip, make sure to watch this Rules of Driving the Denali Park Road video.

 

Important rules to remember

  • The Road Lottery winners are allowed to be in the park past the Savage River checkpoint (at Mile 15 on the Park Road) between 6 am – 11 pm. No overnight stay in the park is allowed during your Road Lottery. There’s a way to maximize your time on the park road which I’ll talk about later in this post.
  • Vehicles traveling the Denali Park Road during the Road Lottery must be within the following maximum dimensions: 22′ long x 8′ wide x 12′ high. This is inclusive of side mirrors and bumpers and is strictly enforced at the Savage River Checkstation.
    If you are drawn in the lottery, you may bring as many people with you that can (legally) fit in your non-commercial vehicle (though note vehicle size limits above).
  • Day hikes are permitted during the Road Lottery. You will have to park the car where it doesn’t disturb traffic.
    Pets (that fit inside your vehicle) are welcome. However, please note that a pet that impacts wildlife behavior—like a dog barking at a moose as you pause to view it from the road—is unacceptable.

 

Make a plan

Denali National Park entrance and visitor center area – image from Denali NPS

Denali National Park road map – image from Denali NPS


 

Denali National Park entrance is about a 5-hour drive away from Anchorage. To ensure your maximum time at the park, you’ll have to make a plan to stay near the park the night before and the day of your lottery. Riley Creek (Mile 0.25), Savage River (Mile 14), and Teklanika River (Mile 29) Campgrounds are open during the Road Lottery. Reservations are required (at recreation.gov). Most of the private hotels are closed by this time but it might be different in the coming years.
 

My recommendation: Stay at Teklanika Campground and save two hours of driving
You’re allowed to travel past the Savage River Checkstation (Mile 15) at 6 am and exit by 11 pm. The second checkpoint is at the Teklanika River at Mile 30. The travel hour through this checkpoint is from 7 am until 10 pm. So if you are staying at Teklanika (‘Tek’ for short) Campground, you can save 30 miles and 2 hours of driving. We stayed at Tek for two nights and it worked out perfectly. It was a relief to finish driving at 10 pm and of course, it’s always a pleasure to sleep in one more hour in the morning.

Pick up your pass when you enter the park. Preferably do it a day before your lottery day. Your pass will be ready at the Visitor Center. They will check your photo ID. The park staff will give you the pass so you can attach it to the passenger side of the window.

 

You’re allowed to travel past the Savage River Checkstation (Mile 15) at 6 am and exit by 11 pm. The second checkpoint is at the Teklanika River at Mile 30. The travel hour through this checkpoint is from 7 am until 10 pm. So if you are staying at Teklanika (‘Tek’ for short) Campground, you can save 30 miles and 2 hours of driving. We stayed at Tek for two nights and it worked out perfectly. It was a relief to finish driving at 10 pm and of course, it’s always a pleasure to sleep in one more hour in the morning.

Pick up your pass when you enter the park. Preferably do it a day before your lottery day. Your pass will be ready at the Visitor Center. They will check your photo ID. The park staff will give you the pass so you can attach it to the passenger side of the window.
 

Denali and Alaska Range

Denali and Alaska Range (it’s a caribou antler in the foreground)

 

Time to hit the road!

There are about 300-400 winners picked for each day during the Road Lottery, so the checkpoints can be busy. Be at the gate on time if you want to maximize your day. You will start driving right around sunrise, so expect to see some great morning light and colors.

We drove into Tek Campground on a sunny day with a beautiful view of the mountains, including Denali.

 

Pay your respect for the land and its people

While you are visiting this amazing place, please remember that this is the land of several different Alaska Native culture groups. No fewer than nine Native groups, from time immemorial, have used unique names for the mountain, including Koyukon, Tanana, Upper Kuskokwim, Ahtna Nenn’, and Dena’ina. There are five Athabaskan languages surrounding the park, each with its own place name. The name “Denali” stems from “deenaalee” meaning “high” or “tall,” which is from the Koyukon Athabascan language traditionally spoken on the north side of the park.

 

Recommended stops

Polychrome Overlook (Mile 46)

As the name suggests, you can see a beautiful view of multi-color mountains from this overlook. Although it might be covered with snow by the end of September.

Stony Pass Overlook (Mile 62)

Denali peak in the morning light. View from Stony Overlook at Denali National Park

This is where you can see the iconic view of Denali and the Park Road. This was the first time seeing this view for me, even after visiting the park many times. It’s truly a magnificent view. It’s worth driving here during the sunrise to see the light hitting the face of the mountain.
 

Eielson Visitor Center (Mile 66)

View of Denali and Alaska Range from Eielson Visitor Center

Yes, the view is really that great from here. There are walking trails here to explore the tundra and enjoy the view from different perspectives. It’s also a great place to get fresh water, use the restroom, charge your electronic devices, talk with the rangers, get warm, and learn more about the park through the exhibits. The inside of the visitor center was closed this year (due to COVID-19) but it’s usually open for visitors all season long. After the Eielson Visitor Center, the summit is visible for the next 15 miles.
 

Wonder Lake Campground (Mile 85)

View of Denali and Alaska Range from Wonder Lake

I’m inspired to camp at this campground next summer. Look at this view! The peak is about 25 miles from here. If you’ve visited the park before, you might understand how special it is to see the view like this. It would be amazing to wake up to this scenery right outside of my little tent. It’s a perfect place to stop for a picnic or float on the lake if you have your own canoe or kayak. The McKinley Bar Trail (5-mile round trip) is a nice place to walk, especially when it’s sunny and clear. You will be walking toward the mountain with a direct view.
 

Reflection Pond (Mile 85.5)

This is where you can get a photo of Denali’s reflection. It was too windy for us to try but make sure to take a look if you make it this far!
 

Fannie Quigley’s historic cabin (Mile 92)

Fannie Quigley's historic cabin (Mile 92)

The end of the Denali Park Road, in Kantishna, is still a mystery to me. There are private properties here and it feels like a totally different area. That’s because it has a different history; it was a small mining town before it became a national park. At Kantishina, there is a historic cabin that belonged to Fannie Quigley. An early pioneer and miner in the area, Fannie’s life history is particularly colorful. Her restored cabin helps us understand what life was like living year-round in Kantishna.
 

End of the Road sign (Mile 92.5)

Denali National Park - End of the road at Mile 92.5

Get your photo here next to the sign to commemorate your trip. There’s an airstrip, private properties, and not much else to do. But hurray, you made it!

 

Denali peak at Denali National Park

Denali peak at Denali National Park

 

To meet the Road Lottery rule, make sure to leave Wonder Lake by 6:30 pm at the latest. That will give you some time for a few photo stops on the way back. Soon you will be surrounded by alpenglow, so you will want to have enough time to enjoy the view on the way back. Seeing Denali with the evening light was really special. One last reminder, you will have to be east of the Teklanika River Gate by 10 pm, and Savage River by 11 pm.

 

Restroom locations

Teklanika Rest Area (Mile 30)
Toklat Rest Area (Mile 54)
Eielson Visitor Center (Mile 66)
Wonder Lake Campground (Mile 84.5)
Wonder Lake Ranger Station (Mile 86.5)
Boundary Gravel Pit (Mile 87.5)
Moose Creek Bridge (Mile 89)
Kantishna Airstrip (Mile 92)

If you use the outdoors, please leave no trace.

 

Need more information? Please visit the Denali National Park Road Lottery webpage. Make sure to read about the history of the Denali Road Lottery in the FAQs section.

Denali at sunset

Denali at sunset

 

That’s your complete guide to Alaska’s Denali National Park Road Lottery. It’s a special experience. I witnessed so much more than expected. This is one of those places that will draw you back again. One visit is not enough. Keep an eye out for the announcement for next year’s Road Lottery. If you win, make sure to use it or transfer it to someone else. A park ranger told us that not everyone shows up but I would hate to see this special opportunity unused. There’s no wrong way to explore this amazing place. Good luck!

 

Juno Kim
Juno Kim
Juno Kim, Originally from Seoul, South Korea, Juno set off for the wider world to pursue her passion for travel and storytelling. She traveled the world as an award-winning travel blogger and photographer, witnessing the everyday life of different cultures. Currently based in Anchorage, Alaska and exploring this amazing Last Frontier. Follow my journey through @RunawayJuno and Instagram .

2 Comments

  1. wow it looks so epic! What a place!

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