Visit Denali National Park Like A Local During Road Lottery

Filed Under: Advice, Travel

Travis is my first new contributor to the blog, who will be posting a couple of times per week. The idea behind adding guest contributors is to add different perspectives to the blog. Travis has a unique approach towards travel, given that he travels almost exclusively with his wife and young children, which is in stark contrast to my travels, which are usually alone.

(Note: All the photographs in this post were taken by my wife and I, except for the shuttle bus picture.)

Visit Denali National Park Like A Local During Road Lottery
Gaming The Denali National Park Road Lottery
9 Tips For Maximizing Your Denali Road Lottery Experience

A visit to Denali National Park is a bucket list trip for many. About the size of the state of Vermont, Denali is vast – the tundra just stretches for miles and miles. It is home to Mt. McKinley, a stunningly beautiful mountain that is also the highest peak in North America at 20,320 feet. (I once figured I’d climb it someday — after my mountaineering accident last fall, I’m not so sure anymore, though I do have a friend going for the summit as we speak!)

Rule #1: When you see Mt. McKinley, shoot it! This is a very shy mountain.
Mt. McKinley, highest peak in North America

The wildlife viewing is also incredible and is often referred to as the Great North American Safari since you are likely to see the Denali Big 5 of grizzly bears, moose, caribou, wolves, and Dall sheep. I’ve been to Yellowstone a few times, and while the opportunities for viewing wildlife there are great, they still don’t compare to Denali.

We spotted this moose from the road. (20x optical zoom)
We spotted this moose from the road.

During most of the season, visiting Denali entails riding on the park shuttle buses that ply the park’s single 92 mile long road as no private vehicles are allowed after the first 15 miles. It has been this way for decades and is done to minimize the environmental impact on this fragile region as well as ease congestion on what amounts to a narrow, windy, minimally improved road. Honestly, it makes sense. But still, we’re talking about seeing the greatest mountain our country has to offer while riding in coach (literally!) with 50 or so of your closest friends.

On a school bus. With no food service. And no bathrooms. (OK, it does make many stops along the route.) For as much as 184 miles. That sounds almost like flying Spirit!

Who doesn't want to ride this bus for 184 miles? (Photo courtesy
Who doesn’t want to ride this bus for 184 miles? (Photo courtesy

Don’t get my wrong, I’m sure it’s still spectacular. But it turns out that there is an alternative that mostly only the locals (as in everyone who lives in Alaska) know about.

It’s called Road Lottery and it occurs for four days every September.

During that time, and only that time, you are allowed to drive your car, van, motor home, convertible, motorcycle, what have you, all the way to the end of the road and sight see at your leisure. See a bear over there? Great, pull over, get out of the car, take some pictures. (Well, maybe don’t get out of the car.) For as long as you like. There’s no schedule. And no pressure. The only real rule is that you have to be out of the park by midnight.

Suggest not getting out of your car when you see a bear on the road.....
Suggest not getting out of your car when you see a bear family on the road like the people ahead of us….

As you might guess from the name, Road Lottery involves a.. lottery. You need a permit to drive the road and they are in very short supply as only 1600 are issued for the weekend.

My family actually lucked into visiting Denali during Road Lottery weekend in 2011. I say lucked because we didn’t plan to be there for Road Lottery, we just jumped on a mileage run cheap ticket to Anchorage for that particular weekend and then learned about Road Lottery after the fact as we researched what to do on our trip. But we managed to secure a coveted permit (more on that in a bit) and had an absolute blast. It is seriously one of the cooler things we’ve ever done.

We flew into Anchorage on a Friday afternoon. Rented a car, drove up to Denali that night, went into the park on Saturday, and then drove back to Anchorage on Sunday afternoon where we had pizza with some friends of ours before flying back on the red-eye. Yes, you really can see Denali on a weekend from the Lower 48. Sure, you will definitely want to spend more time than that (and certainly should), but those in the miles and points world know that you can always go back.

It turns out that Alaska planes aren't just in Seattle.
It turns out that Alaska planes aren’t just in Seattle.

The rest of this post will cover the details of how Road Lottery works and the process for obtaining a permit. Then in Part 2, I’ll show you how we gamed the system and how you can too.

In other words, this is not a comprehensive post on visiting Alaska, or even Denali — there are plenty of other resources for that — but rather a description of this very unique event and how you can make it happen for yourself and your family.

What Is Road Lottery?

On the last weekend of the season, before the snow starts to fly (hopefully!), Denali opens the gates and allows private cars to drive the entire length of the Denali Park Road. The trick is that a permit is required and they only issue a limited number of them. For these reasons, this special event is referred to as the Denali Road Lottery, or within Alaska, you can refer to it simply as “Road Lottery” and everyone will know exactly what you are talking about.

When Is It?

Road Lottery weekend 2015 will be taking place on Sept 18, 19, 21, and 22 which is a Thursday, Friday, Sunday, and Monday.  Saturday Sept. 20 is military appreciation day when presumably the permits are reserved for the military and their families.

With a Road Lottery permit, this sign won't apply to you.
With a Road Lottery permit, this sign won’t apply to you.

How Do I Obtain A Permit?

The application period for Road Lottery is May 1-31 of the same year. That means that now is the time to enter the lottery for this fall! The application process is relatively straightforward, and open to anyone. The lottery is held in early June with the winner’s names posted on the website shortly thereafter. That gives sufficient time to plan a trip for the fall, should you be one of the lucky winners.

Here are the key points of the application process:

  1. Each entry costs $10 and is nonrefundable (you pay that fee, win or lose).
  2. If you win, you are automatically billed an additional $25 for the Road Lottery Permit fee, meaning a winning permit will actually cost $35. NPS Park entry fees come are not included and must be paid separately.
  3. Only one entry per person. (Duplicates will be disqualified.)
  4. Permits are fully transferable.
  5. Each permit is assigned a specific day. You rank your preference for each of the days on your application.
  6. In the case of inclement weather, there are no refunds. And this is a very real possibility as some years the first snow of the season closes the road before Road Lottery weekend occurs.
  7. Entries can be submitted online. Or by phone. But not by mail.
If you are out of your car, this is the end of the bear you want to be looking at.
If you are out of your car, this is the end of the bear you want to be looking at.

What Are The Odds?

There are 400 permits issued for each of 4 days, so 1600 in total. The published odds are 1 in 6, though I think that is slightly optimistic. Looking at the past results, it appears that it’s closer to 1 in 7, or 14%. That means there are about 11,000 entries for only 1600 permits.

This is a good view of a bear if you have a big lens.
This is the end of the bear you want to be looking at if you have a big lens.

This Sounds Awesome But Those Odds Suck!

Yes it is and yes they do.

If you enter once, you’ll clearly have a 14% (1 in 7) chance of winning. That’s better than your odds of finding saver award space on Delta between Atlanta and San Francisco but nowhere near a sure thing. Let’s say you really want to go this year. You’ve got the time off.  Award tickets booked. You just need the permit.

Since the odds are 1 in 7, does that mean that if you enter 7 times, you’ll have a 100% chance of getting a permit? (Hint:  The only way to give yourself 100% odds is to enter infinite times. Do you have that many friends?)

The laws of probability dictate that we can’t give ourselves a 100% chance of winning. But certainly the more times we enter, the better our odds get. Let’s say we want to give ourselves a 75% chance of scoring a permit. How many times should we enter?

Read part 2 of the series, Gaming The Denali National Park Road Lottery.

This place is vast.
This place is vast.
  1. This post is informative and hilarious. Thanks for the laugh! I see that the permit is transferable, that’s cool.

  2. I think you need about 10 entries for a 75% chance of getting a prize.

    It’s a more difficult calculation than it first appears!

  3. Anon — yes, in theory you could buy them on the open market. But remember, this is a tiny market — 400 permits are issued per day. And the market is located in Alaska, where not everyone is going to use Craigslist. I’ll have a couple of comments in Part 2 regarding this, but as I recall I only saw a couple of permits posted for sale our year. And they were pricey.

  4. Just FYI, for anybody taking the park bus on all other dates, you do get to hop on or off the bus whenever you want, not just at official stops. Anybody can ask off any time, the only rule is you have to get yourself back to the road in time to catch the last bus back in for the night. Denali doesn’t have hiking paths/trails, it’s just wilderness everywhere, and it is so amazingly free and beautiful and quiet. I’ve spent several days out there with small kids, and the bus isn’t bad as it looks : ) One day, we did ride the bus all the way out to Wonder Lake, but another day, we just asked the driver to stop when it looked pretty and we wandered away from the road, eating blueberries off the hillside. Great times. OK we also picked blueberries around Wonder Lake, and around the Eisleson visitor center as well. Really you can’t go wrong if your kids like fresh air and wild blueberries, they’re everywhere : ) Alaska is amazing, Denali especially, and we can’t wait to go back.

  5. I think takke is close; I get nine entries to have about a 75% chance of getting a ticket.

  6. I visited Denali twice, both on Labor Day week, and lucked out on both occasions with the weather. On the second visit, I took my parents with me, and it was a real treat for them. I redeemed SkyMiles for both trips, 32K5 for the first trip (the back end was on domestic business – not my choice, that was the only availability), the second trip was 25K each for a total of 75K. Both trips are AUS to ANC, with various connection points. On both trips, it was quite easy to get award seats since the availability were good on both times.

    It’s better to buy bus tickets in advance, and also know which turn-around point that you want. I took the bus to Wonder Lake on day 1, and Eielson visitor center on day 2, on both trips.

    The advantages of traveling during Labor Day week are the crowds are not as heavy, the tundra starts turning red, making the scenery even more spectacular, and the bears are more active due to their prep for hibernation. On one of the bus trips, we counted 8 grizzlies!

    One of the posts have mentioned that you can get on/off at any spot. And yes, there is no trails, or very limited. There are trails closer to the entrance, but very limited. There was a trail near Savage River where the rangers like to take visitors on guided hike. On one of these hike, a fellow bus passenger was able to take video of a wolverine!

  7. For a once in a lifetime trip, I wouldn’t mind paying $1000 especially if its per vehicle.

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