Guide: Denali Road Lottery

There are two weeks left in the month of May, which means you have two more weeks to enter the Denali Road Lottery. And you should! 

After years of entering myself, in June 2018 I finally won a permit, and my Dad agreed to join me on the trip. I had been to Alaska before, but never near Denali. And in conducting my own research (which might be my favorite part of traveling), I was surprised by the lack of resources for this short shoulder season once Denali’s Summer activities close down. So, here I am sharing with you what I know, where I found it, and what I learned through my Road Lottery experience last September.

What exactly is the “Road Lottery”?

In the majestic Denali National Park there is a singular road. It’s 92 miles long and cuts through much of the park. The public (you & I) are not allowed to drive on The Road beyond the entrance area (the first 15 miles where there is a visitor center, book shop, café, etc.). When you visit Denali in the Summer you may take a tour on a licensed private bus, or utilize the Park’s shuttle buses. If you want to hike, camp, explore the backcountry, etc.… you gotta take their buses. BUT, there are 4 days (plus 1 day for members of the military) in September, at the very end of Denali NP’s operating season when you & I are allowed to drive on The Road. To do so, you need to acquire a permit. How you get that permit is by entering the lottery. Each year more and more people enter, and the odds of winning decrease. But the odds are about 1 in 7, which is pretty great. 400 permits are given each day, totaling in 1,600 permits.

When is the “Road Lottery”?

You can enter through the month of May. The permit winners will be notified mid-June. (My card was charged for the entrance fee around June 16, and I received a congratulatory email on June 18th. In years prior I’ve received a sympathetic email on June 18th confirming my unsuccessful lottery attempt.)

The Road Lottery days are in mid-September, right after the buses stop running, and right before all services shut down for the winter. This year the dates are September 13, 15, 16, 17 (+ 14 for military). You can pick up your permit at the Visitors Center the day prior to your permitted day. You can also pick it up the day OF, but the Visitor Center doesn’t open until 8am, and the gate at Savage River (Mile 15) opens at 6am. Why waste your time with that?

How do I enter the “Road Lottery”?

Via THIS page on, you complete a simple form and pay the $15 entrance fee. You are able to select your preferred days. As they draw winners, everyone is given their first choice until each day is full, and they move on to your next choice. I received a permit for my first choice– woo!, which was Tuesday the final day, because I was shooting in Los Angeles on Saturday right before.

If you win a permit, you are automatically charged the $25 for the permit. You will still need to pay an entrance fee when you get to the park, or present your Annual Pass. And if you’re complaining about all these fees, I want you to shove it, and remember this is the National Park Service for crying out loud– shut up and give them your money, it’s the least you can do!

How Do I Get There?

If you’re not local, you’ll need to get yourself on a plane destined for Alaska. Denali NP is off of George Parks Highway AK-3 between Anchorage and Fairbanks. About a 4 hour drive from Anchorage, and a 2 hour drive from Fairbanks. Flights to Anchorage are often less expensive, but a much longer drive. We elected to fly into Fairbanks, and I’m glad we did. Everything went smoothly and I hadn’t yet been to Fairbanks.

Once you’ve arrived, you’ll need ground transportation. And the cheap-o economy class Kia Rio is not gonna cut it. Most of The Road is gravel, and you’re arriving at a time of year when it’s probably going to be wet, might be pretty muddy, and there’s a real chance of snow. It’s also VERY expensive to hire a tow truck to enter the Park to come help you. I have dreamed of driving my Forester from LA up to Denali for the Road Lottery, but that wasn’t going to happen this year! We rented our vehicle from Alaska Auto Rental. A Ford Explorer with 4-wheel drive, winter tires, 2 full-sized spares, and a CB radio. We ended up not needing any of these precautions, but were glad to have them. This was the one line item that was more expensive than I expected. 

Where Do I Stay?

The last day of the Road Lottery is when everything for visitors, and I do mean everything, around the park shuts down. Plan your time in Denali accordingly. Prior to the big closure you can find some available hotel rooms and you can still find campgrounds. But to spend time there afterward, you’ll need to be a bit more scrappy.

The closest town is Healy, about 13 miles north of the park on AK-3. We chose to stay in an Airbnb rental cabin in Healy the night prior to, and the night of our permitted drive. In the days following we camped at Riley Creek Campground, near the Park entrance area. Riley Creek is open year ‘round, and does not charge nightly fees outside of the summer season. Once everything closes for the winter, what that means for the Park is that the services end. But the park itself is still technically open to visitors, though not being able to drive to much certainly limits accessibility for most of us. 

What Will I Eat?

Food! You will eat food. We brought some dehydrated meals by ”Good To-Go” (a company founded in Maine! by a woman! who’s a chef!) for our camping days. We also purchased groceries in Fairbanks. There is a Three Bears in Healy, which is a grocery store + liquor store + gas station + general outpost (plus there’s a hardware store next door). Should you forget something you really need, this exists.

There are restaurants in the commercial area outside the Park, and a handful of restaurants in Healy. Less and less will be open around the Park closure towards the end of the Road Lottery week. I keep mentioning this and it sounds quite dramatic, but it’s true! We ate at 49th State Brewing Co. a couple times, not just because it was delicious (which it was) but because on the night of our road lottery drive it was pretty much the only open restaurant in town. And their beer selection was quickly dwindling because they had stopped brewing and were closing for the winter in only a few days time. We also enjoyed a breakfast at Rose’s Cafe where the salsa is house-made, and the portions are enormous. 

But also. ummm… People live here. Year round. You might not be able to eat exactly what you’re craving or what you always have at home. You may have to step outside of your comfort zone, or cook it yourself… but you will survive.

To recap, while we were in Healy we ate at restaurants. For our time inside the park, we packed our meals (lots of oatmeal breakfasts, and sandwich lunches). And while we were camping we… well, we ate like we were camping. We cooked over the fire (and our BioLite CampStove) and tried out some Good To-Go’s dehydrated dishes. 

My dad is certainly not a vegetarian, and I don’t eat much meat, but we didn’t use any meat in our packed meals or our camp cooking. By mid-September most critters (especially bears) are pretty prepared for the winter ahead, but it wasn’t worth the risk or hassle. It was nice to not have a cooler, or worry about keeping meat/dairy stable. While we were camping we did keep all food in our vehicle, though the campground did have bear boxes.

How Long Can I Drive The Road?

Since you’ve picked up your permit the day before, you can drive beyond Savage River (Mile 15) at 6am, and must be back there by midnight. At this time of year sunrise is at close to 7:30am, and sunset 8:30pm. Unless you are fortunate enough to experience clear skies, you probably won’t have the opportunity for much star-gazing when it’s dark. I was told to expect a long line at Savage River at 6am, but when we arrived there was no line at all. 

People often say to give yourself 12 hours to drive the complete 92-mile road, there & back. You’ll be making lots of stops, and driving pretty slow. In fact the Denali bus tour that does the entire drive, all the way to Kantishna, is 11-12 hours long. We were there driving for probably around 11 hours.

What Else Should I Know?

• You can plan your freaking heart out, and still the most consequential uncertainty will be the weather. It could be straight up wet autumn, drizzly overcast, snowy winter, or maybe perfectly sunny (haha, I mean… probably not that). There is a reason people joke about the 70% club; only 30% of visitors see Denali’s peak. Even if you don’t see The Mountain— we didn’t until our very last day— you’re sure to see wildlife, beautiful views and have an adventure you’ll always remember. In preparing yourself for a number of weathers, also know that if there’s enough snow and conditions warrant it, they will close the park road, and you will only be able to drive up to that point regardless of your special permit. And no, don’t bother packing your snowmobile. They’re not allowed inside the park. During the winter you’d have to travel like the rangers do: via dogsled team.

• There is a campground at Teklanika River (Mile 29) which is open through the Road Lottery, AND you can drive to it (if you stay at least 3-nights). 

• Invest in a pair of binoculars! I have a pair of Athlon Optics Midas 8x42mm (thanks for your help Wirecutter!) and I am absolutely happy with them. My parents also have a pair now. Though 400 permits are given each day, it doesn’t feel like you’re spending the day with 400 people. It never felt remotely close to crowded. There was a wonderful camaraderie; when you’d see a car pulled over and folks looking through their binoculars or spotting scope, they’re happy to tell you or gesture what they they’re watching. In fact, our first grizzly bear sighting wouldn’t have happened were it not for the couple (who’s car the bear initially walked right in front of) pointing out the bear down the hill. 

• Spoiler alert: in Autumn, Denali NP is painted colors I didn’t expect and wasn’t ready for. Bright mustard yellows, fields of mauve-pink shrubs. No one told me! I didn’t know. And it’s absolutely gorgeous. I spent my childhood in New England, where people feel like they themselves created the standard of beautiful autumnal foliage, but geezus. Denali NP takes it to another level. 

• The oldest building in Denali NP still being used for its original purpose is the dogsled kennel. Fun fact for ya. You can visit the kennel, meet the canine crew, and see the PUPPIES

Where Can I Learn More?

Read all the information the Park Service shares about Denali NP and the Road Lottery. Each year they share a bit more detail. Start here: Road Lottery & Denali NP homepage.  

By a mile (or by 92-miles if you’re into dad jokes), the greatest resource I found was Bill Sherwonit’s book “Denali National Park: The Complete Visitors Guide”. I enjoyed the context & history his book gave of both the park as a modern entity, and of the peoples who lived in the area before white people decided climbing mountains was a thing they needed to do. The lists of wildlife and plants were very useful. The mile-by-mile guide is wonderful; It was a nice treat to read again aloud as we made our way along The Road. Buy a copy, read it cover to cover, and mark it the hell up.

In doing my own research last year, often I would read about what it was like towards the end of the summer season, and what it was like when things were closed in the winter… and would kind of connect the dots in my head. I hope I’m taking out some of that guesswork for you.

Why Didn’t Henry Join You?

Yes, you are allowed to have your pet dog inside your car (so long as they don’t disturb wildlife, with things like barking), but you can’t bring them along for hikes or outside at lots of stops. If you’re making this worthwhile journey to Alaska, it seems so silly to limit your schedule & experience by dragging your dog along (who’s not going to have the best time themself). It wouldn’t be a rewarding experience for either of you. 

Where can I see more of your photos from the Denali Road Lottery 2018?

I thought you’d never ask! Here ya go:

Any questions? Did I forget anything? I’m happy to answer any friendly faces’ questions.

a Weekend in Twin Peaks, CA

Hello March 👋🏼

In a month’s time two people I’m pretty darn fond of will be getting married. And a month ago we celebrated their pending nuptials the best way we knew how: by drinking a case of prosecco in the mountains!

The drive from Los Angeles to the San Bernardino Mountains can be either beautiful or barf-inducing… depending on how much traffic you hit and where you’re sitting in the car. 

If you were expecting the cabins to be rustic jewels covered in wood paneling, plaid, pine trees and endless bear decorations, you would be correct!

In the morning I noticed the artwork hanging above my bed— two sweet duckaroo guardian angels, haha. How perfect.

After surveying the damage, filling up on cinnamon rolls & bagels, we ventured out to walk off our hangovers. Which turned into bowling off our hangovers and a little hair of the dog.

The final morning I Irish-goodbye’d my way to the airport to catch a flight to New York… more on that later! 

I wish I had a solid list of places to recommend where you should eat, and things you “must do” in the Big Bear & Lake Arrowhead region… but all the countless weekends I’ve been up there have been to spend time with the people I went with. Pretty cheesey huh. Absolute 12-month-aged, grass-fed, English Cheddar cheese right there. 

Seafood Fest

While I’ve been hibernating this month, I’ve been thinking a lot about what seasonal tourism workers do in the offseason, and about buildings that are boarded up for months. 

There are lots of destinations where the offseason is my preferred time to visit. Greek islands are incredible summertime hotspots, but they’re also flooded with fellow tourists. In the offseason it’s chillier, but nice and quiet, and those who make their living catering to tourists have the time to share their attention with you. You won’t be working on your tan, but you have the chance for a more immersive cultural experience. But what do I know.

Which brings me to Hampton Beach in Hampton, NH. Currently in January the main drag called “The Strip” is dead. The arcade, the waterslides, and the fried dough stand are all closed. The guy who has made his career drawing caricatures is …elsewhere. Everything is currently boarded up. Not so during summertime. 

At the tail end of the summer people travel from ALL over to Hampton Beach for the annual Seafood Fest. You can walk through tent after tent with wall to wall seafood vendors. You can also dress up as a crustacean, and you won’t be the only one!

But the crown jewel of the day is the lobster eating contest, or what many people refer to as “a huge waste of lobster meat”. 

It’s a thing. Folks (okay, mostly guys who look 7 months pregnant) from all over the North East enter the contest. They play the national anthem before it begins. I repeat, they play. the. national. anthem! before it begins. As if this were a legit professional sporting event. And the winner is presented their prize by the local beauty queen and the Governor of New Hampshire, Chris Sununu, who’s a real turd of a public servant if you ask me. 

I don’t know that I’ll be in attendance at the next Seafood Fest, but I do now know that the secret to an amazing hot lobster roll is to add sherry to the butter. A total game changer! 

Hello Hong Kong

Where to begin? Last month I spent time on an island which has been a reoccurring character in my thoughts for the past 2 years: Hong Kong.  

One of the first observations which struck me and had intrigued me were the colors Hong Kongers have chosen for their landscape. So much pink and colorful pastels! 

My days were full and of course I only scratched the surface. What I wanted most was to just walk around this pastel vertical city beside the jungle. On an island. I had never seen anything like it with my own eyeballs. Some days I stuffed myself with dim sum, and others with “modern Chinese” dishes which rank on the list of best I’ve ever eaten. I loved every day and can’t wait until I return. 

Eat/Drink/See/Do lists forthcoming. For now here’s a first glimpse:

Ice Castle: Opening Weekend

A “bomb cyclone” (how is that even a real weather term?) couldn’t keep us away from visiting Ice Castle’s only east coast location. So long as you didn’t remove your fingers from its glove or mitten, it was still enjoyable in the 0˙ weather of Lincoln, NH. 

The sculpted structure was pretty remarkable. And the recent snowfall added a picturesque layer of what looked like frosting. 

ice slides! ice thrones! an ice maze! Elsa & Olaf! non stop photo ops.

We arrived during daylight in late afternoon to see the Ice Castle in all its glory. Soon after the sun drifted away, behind the White Mountains and the ice sculptures began to glow. How cool to see these giant ice walls lit up in bright colors. 

As we piled back into the car and finally removed excess layers of outerwear, we were glad we made the trek. For about the price of a movie ticket it’s a fun outing. We were able to see all it had to offer without needing to stay long enough to get frostbite. 

It does feel like nowadays any feast for the eyes has been reduced to just a series of photo-ops. Vaguely reminiscent of the Museum of Ice Cream and The Color Factory. Maybe it’s always been that way– so long as the technology existed parents have always taken photos of their kids. Only now with the rush of selfie sticks it’s become tiresome to observe? I guess, what is life but a series of photo-ops, amiright?? Coming at you with all the deep thoughts, guys. Stay warm!

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