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 Recreation.gov, 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.


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