Apply Now For A Denali Road Lottery Permit

Filed Under: Travel

At just shy of five million acres, Denali is the third largest of the American national parks. Yet with only one significant road, it’s relatively inaccessible — and you can’t even drive on that one road most of the time. Instead you have to take a park shuttle bus which helps to reduce the environmental impact on this pristine place. It makes sense, but as much as I like to reduce my footprint, I’m not the biggest fan of touring in a group. I suppose it’s just my personality.

So you can imagine that my wife and I were pretty excited to discover that there is one weekend a year when you can drive private cars on the Denali park road. It’s called Road Lottery weekend, and it occurs at the end of the season in mid-September. We did it a few years ago and had a blast.

The reason it’s called Road Lottery weekend is that you need a permit for which is issued through a lottery. The application period for that lottery is now open, so if you want a chance of participating, this is the time to enter.


Denali National Park during Road Lottery Weekend

Applications are now open for Road Lottery Weekend 2018

I wrote an extensive guide to the Denali Road Lottery a couple of years ago. Here’s what you need to know for 2018:

  • The 2018 Road lottery weekend is Sept. 14, 15, 17, and 18 (Sept 15 is military appreciation day)
  • The application period is May 1 – 31
  • You specify your preferred day on the application
  • It costs $15 for each application (it was $10 when we did it)
  • If you win, you then have to pay an additional $25 for the actual permit
  • Then you pay a $10 per person admission fee when you arrive at the park (or you could get a National Parks Pass)
  • You can only submit one application per person
  • Permits are transferable prior to use
  • The lottery is open to everyone
  • Entries must be submitted via the recreation.gov website (they no longer accept them by mail)
  • Winners are contacted in June
  • 400 permits are issued for each of the four days
  • The odds of winning are about 1 in 7


Denali Road Lottery at Recreation.gov

How many lottery tickets should you buy?

The National Park Service estimates the odds of winning at 1 in 7, but I think they might actually be worse than that. Either way, the odds aren’t great. But here’s how you can (legally) increase your chances.

The rules say that each person can only enter the lottery once. So you can’t stack the deck by yourself.

But the rules also explicitly state that permits are transferable. Specifically, the person transferring the permit must provide the original notification and a short note explaining the transfer to the new permit holder, who must bring that documentation to the park when they check in for the road permit.

That means you can essentially get as many friends and family members as you want to apply for a permit. Then you just need to have them transfer it to you if they win. Of course you’ll want to reimburse each of them $15 for the entry.

In our case, we were already going to be in Alaska that weekend when we learned about Road Lottery. Since we were already booked to be there, we wanted to significantly enhance our odds of winning. We decided to enter 7 times, once for each of us, my parents, my wife’s parents, and our — at the time — only son.  We calculated that seven entries gave us a 66% chance of winning at least one permit, at a total cost of $70.  (Entries were cheaper then.)

Here’s a graph of odds of winning one or more permits for a given number of entries. As you can see, you will never be guaranteed to win a permit, no matter how many entries you make. Your odds just get better and better, but never quite 100%.


Odds of winning a Denali Road Lottery permit versus number of entries

Well, sure enough, it was our two month old that won! We figure he was the youngest winner in the history of Road Lottery.

An arguably more sane strategy might be to just buy one entry each year. I mean, you’re bound to win eventually, right? And then you can book your plane tickets after you win the lottery. That’s probably how most people do it. But whatever, I think my way was more fun.

Denali Park Road during Road Lottery, with the namesake mountain in the background

Bottom line

Denali National Park is a special place, and in my opinion, there is no better way to experience it than during Road Lottery weekend. I figure that if you love the outdoors, wildlife, and truly unique experiences, you should do it at least once.

It’s basically North America’s version of a safari, and during this event, you can even DIY it.

Have you ever been to the Denali Road Lottery?

Comments
  1. I’ve been entering it for ~8 years or so.

    I’ve won once, the first year I tried it. That year I put in a single entry. We had a good time but we weren’t super prepared so it was kind of a gong show.

    Every year since I’ve put in multiple entries and have not won again.Though living in ANC we can just pack up the car and go if our number is called .

  2. Thomas — I guess 1 permit in 8 tries matches up fairly well to what you’d expect from the expected probabilities in the aggregate. Bummer you haven’t won again lately, but seems you are about due!

  3. ITST — Indeed. If the results are plotted in MATLAB, the underlying analysis must be right!

  4. Another great alternative: bicycles.

    Allowed all summer long and very easy to catch a ride back on the buses whenever you tire from the ride.

  5. We also won the first time we entered. It worked out perfectly because we had already rented an RV for a 10 day road trip from ANC, prior to leaving on a 32 night cruise from Whittier, AK to Bangkok. What a trip!!

    The year we won was also only entering via snail mail, and I was given the “tip” to make the envelope as colorful as possible (as the winners were still picked by a “human” hand!) My husband and I actually won with both our entries but, unfortunately, for the same park day. So, I was able to make another couple very happy by gifting them our second winning voucher. They were on their honeymoon and hadn’t won, but somehow (??) had contacted me via eMail and asked if we would be needing our second pass. To this day I still have no idea how they were able to get my address.

    Our rented RV turned out to be 3 ft. longer than was allowed to enter the park (22′ was maximum and we had already reserved and paid for a 25′). I put out an S.O.S. on FT and a couple of other sites to anyone that might be in the area on that day (or who had entered and not won), and offered to pay their gas and all other expenses if they would spend the day driving us in the park. We had two offers, and had a phenomenal time spent with a good samaritan and the dog he was “dog sitting” for a friend. (Still grateful to you, Andrew & “Gus”.) The second volunteer even set up his tent on the pad of the Denali campsite that we had reserved, and stayed overnight to be sure that our G.S. actually showed up.

    What great memories & fantastic photos of a perfect day!!

  6. Even the group tours in Denali are fantastic, and you have a 100 percent chance of getting one of those. Anyone driving a rental car in Alaska should triple check their insurance coverages especially if doing any off-road driving.

  7. My comment about off-road driving and insurance coverage should have referred to driving on unpaved roads. The Denali road was primarily unpaved last time I was there.

  8. John — I’ve also driven a rental car to the summit of Mauna Kea. And that was back when you weren’t even supposed to take them on the Saddle Road….

  9. Although not a resident (yet) I am up there more than often. Have entered twice over the years without winning, perhaps three times is a charm? Also I will second what John said above, both the bus tour and the insurance point; and will add that almost ALL the known national rental car agencies (Hertz/Avis/National/Thrifty/et al) forbid their rental on unpaved roads (e.g. Denali, McCarthy, Coldfoot, etc…). The 92 mile road out to Kantishna is long and winding and quite a bit tight in some places, definitely not for drivers who are nervous or have fear of heights (as well as passengers) in looking over a cliff from a road with no barriers or fence, but for everyone else it is magical! 🙂

    If you happen to be up there at the time and have things planned out (and with one of the few local rentals that allow it) however it is amazing. In fact if you are truly lucky you might get to glimpse The Great One (Denali, formerly/incorrectly named Mt McKinley) and join the 30% Club; aptly named since only 30% of people that visit ever get to see it (perhaps that is where my own luck resides in lieu of not winning the road lottery, as each and every time I have ever been in the Interior I have seen the Great One from every angle).

    Enjoy!

  10. Troy — Totally agree about seeing Denali. That’s actually one of my tips for people — when you see it, shoot it. Don’t wait even 5 minutes. Stop the car, pull over, shoot. No matter where you are.

    We had cloudless views on the drive up, and then it sort of deteriorated from there. But all of the pics in this post are mine, so I guess we’re part of the 30% club!!

  11. @Travis, i also did the Mauna Kea drive several years ago. I don’t know any other place where you can go through so many ecosystems (sea level to the Martian landscape at 14,000 feet) in about two hours. Given the religious significance the summit has for native Hawaiians, I’m not sure how much longer the whole drive will be open. Ayers Rock (Uluru) is closing this year. Are there any similar concerns about Denali?

  12. we’ve done it , both by bus and car (car is ONLY the last ) weekend of the season) before b the lottery came in to effect.
    It’s a great time, but earlier in the season is better for animal watching AND mid September in Alaska can be cold and wet, and is certainly one or both.
    I would NOT recommend this as a fly to ANC, rent a car adventure.
    If you don’t live in Alaska, you are better off taking the bus trip in the middle of the summer. You are much more likely to have a good time, see a lot of interesting animals, while not freezing your … off.

  13. Clearly you don’t do a lot of NPS permit lotteries. You kid isn’t the youngest person to have won. When we do them as a group everybody enters. Adults, kids, grandma, everyone. And there are still some unicorn permits I’ve never been able to score.

  14. it is an unpaved road, and most car rentals will not rent to people driving either the Denali road or the Denali Highway….another unpaved road not too far away…There are also size limits on the vehicle, and they are strict to the inch. I have been almost every year, but have never won….Thank goodness, most of my friends have…I will add this…People from all over the US and Europe enter the lottery, and then attempt to make money from the lottery. Not exactly fare….

  15. Good Moorning, We are 4 people who are going to travel to Alaska from Spain. We participated in the Denali National Park – Road Lottery 2018 for September 18 and 19 but We did not successful in securing a permit . If someone who had sucessful in securing a permit of this lottery for any of these days can not go or have a same more permit (because it is a group and have been lucky more than one member of the group) and wants to transfer your permit, please contact me. Thank you very much

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *