Gaming The Denali National Park Road Lottery

Filed Under: 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.)

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

In Part 1 of this series on the Denali National Park Road Lottery, I described the process for obtaining a permit. I also noted that the chances of winning the lottery are only 14% for each entry, which although better than your odds of winning the Powerball lottery, aren’t really all that good. In this post, I’ll describe our lottery strategy and our experience on Road Lottery weekend.

As I said, we really lucked into Road Lottery, meaning that our trip was planned for that weekend before we knew about Road Lottery.  That means that had we not been able to secure a permit, we wouldn’t have been able to visit the park at all since the buses don’t run that weekend. And neither my wife nor myself had ever been there before.

This caused a moment of panic as we realized that we really really really needed to obtain a permit. Odds of 1 in 7 weren’t going to cut it. (It’s funny how this world works — you can go from taking a random, unplanned trip to Alaska just because the fare is cheap, to suddenly having your heart set on seeing this one place, which you otherwise wouldn’t have cared about. But I digress.)

Mt. McKinely, highest point in North America.
Mt. McKinely, highest point in North America.

My wife and I are basically nerds so we started studying the system. It turns out that while you can only enter the lottery once per person, the permits are fully and freely transferable. So as long as you have enough friends and family members, you can basically enter as many times as you want.

In Part 1, I posed the question about how many entries you would need to make such that you would have a 75% chance of winning at least one permit. Two readers correctly calculated that 9 entries would result in a 75% chance of winning.  Awesome job! I’d really like to run through the derivation for this, but after 8 years of blogging Ben still hasn’t installed a LaTeX plugin for WordPress. And I refuse to do inelegant math.

So instead of a derivation, I’ll give you a graph of the situation. This assumes that each entry has a 1/7 chance of winning.

Odds of Winning at Least One Permit vs. Number of Entries
Odds of Winning at Least One Permit vs. Number of Entries

You can see that the plot asymptotically approaches 100%, which means that you need infinite entries to give yourself a 100% chance of getting a permit.

There’s A Cost To Stacking The Ballot Box

Each entry costs $10 and is nonrefundable, so while more entries will increase your chances of winning, they will also put a bigger and bigger dent in your bank account.

We briefly considered entering infinite times, but then we realized that would require ∞ × $10 which was more money than we had in our bank accounts, and worse, more than the credit limit on my Chase Sapphire card. So we needed to come up with a reasonable number of entries that would give us a good chance of winning while also not breaking the bank.

Somewhat arbitrarily, we decided to submit 6 entries, one each for my wife and I, our parents, and her parents. But at the last minute, I threw one in for our son who was less than a month old at the time. That 7th entry boosted our odds to 66%. [Looking back, I’m actually surprised that I didn’t buy even more entries!]

Around June 15th, the winners were posted on the website. I searched, and searched, and started to panic as I didn’t find any of our names. But then, sure enough, there was our son. We had won exactly one permit and it was in our son’s name! Whew. That year they received 11,024 entries, so the odds of winning were indeed about 1/7. And that’s exactly how many we won. Statistics works!

Not only is he cute, he's also lucky!
Not only is he cute, he’s also lucky!

The winning permit ultimately cost us $95. This was composed of $70 in entry fees (7 lottery tickets at $10 each) plus a $25 Road Lottery permit fee for the winning entry. Not surprisingly, there appears to be secondary market for permits on Craiglist. My notes say that there were postings offering permits in the $200-$300 range. Can you say statistical arbitrage?

With a permit in hand, we were ready to go to Denali and drive the road. Our trip was quick, because remember, it was planned more or less as a mileage run. We flew into Anchorage on Friday afternoon, drove up to Denali, and spent the night at the Denali Mountain Morning Hostel and Cabins. We had a nice private cabin along the creek called Highwater. (No Hyatts in the entire state, unfortunately.)

Who needs a Park Hyatt?
It’s a bungalow. And it’s near the water.

The next morning we showed up at the visitor center to pick up our son’s permit. We were a bit disappointed that they didn’t ask for ID since we had specifically brought his newly obtained passport along. They did laugh a bit at the youngest Road Lottery permit winner! The 2 on the permit indicates that our permit was for Day 2 (Saturday), just as we had requested.

The youngest Denali Road Lottery permit winner.  You'll smile like this too if you win!
The youngest Denali Road Lottery permit winner. You’ll smile like this too if you win!

And with that, we started driving our rental car through Denali National Park. It was awesome. We drove. And stopped. And drove some more.

Our safari-mobile.
Our safari-mobile.

We saw a lot of animals. Some of them are easy to spot.

Where’s Golidlocks?

Some not so much. The Dall sheep were usually on distant ridges, appearing mostly as clusters of white dots to the naked eye.

Dall sheep.
The Dall sheep were numerous, but always far away.

The wolves are very elusive. Unless they only have three legs.

This wolf only had 3 legs. He was still faster than me.
This wolf only had three legs. Hey, life in the Last Frontier is tough.

We drove all the way to the end of the road, 92.6 miles.  Because we could. (Wouldn’t you expect that if you had just driven 92 miles to the end of the road, and you were standing next to a sign proclaiming such, that you would probably want ALL of said sign in the picture?)

The road ends here.
The road ends here. And so does the picture.

The road is rather slow going, just the way it should be out in the middle of nowhere. And 400 cars spread out of 90 miles is actually a really low density, so it’s quite common to go long stretches without seeing anyone.

Denali is vast.
Denali is vast.

And then you arrive at the next rest area or pull out and meet up with folks that you chatted with during the last bear sighting. So there’s a social aspect to it as well, especially for those who load their grills on the back of their pickup trucks for convenient tailgating. It’s almost a party that slowly meanders for over 90 miles. A party designed to celebrate the end of the tourist season, the point in the year when everyone else goes home and Alaskans get their state back to themselves. Yet somehow, we were right in the middle of it.

We eventually exited the park at 9:30pm after 185 miles of driving. It was a big day but an absolute blast. The final wildlife tally was 8 grizzly bears, 11 moose, 3 caribou, 4 things that may have been either moose or caribou (do I look like a wildlife biologist?), 11 sheep, 1 wolf, 1 arctic ground squirrel, and 12 ptarmigans.

We stayed one more night in our cabin by the creek before driving back to Anchorage the next day where we stopped to have pizza with some friends of ours who live up there.

Continue to Part 3 in the series:  9 Tips To Maximize Your Denali Road Lottery Weekend

Have you been to Denali National Park? Ever done Road Lottery? What was your experience?

  1. Nice haul. I drove all the roads in great smoky mtns over a labor day wknd, and saw one bear.

  2. I did this trek in the green national park school bus tour in August of 2000. Alaska is great! Funny how lots of points people don’t venture there. …….cause you have to pay I guess. $250 p/night rooms 15 years ago that are too roughing it for the Hyatt crowd.

  3. I have 24 hours free in Anchorage. 12 noon when we land until 12 noon the next day when the float plane picks us up.

    Any recommendations for a good day hike near Anchorage? I wish we had time to run up to Denali. Maybe next trip.

  4. Yes, but think how many Ultimate Reward points you would earn for spending $10 x an infinite number of entries! I’m pretty sure you could go *anywhere in the world* with that balance. Maybe farther.

    And with regards to the picture at the end of the road – that is what happens when you let your 6 month old take the pictures.

  5. James, try the Matanuska Glacier. It’s about a 90 min scenic drive but isn’t a hike so much as traipsing all over a glacier, which is still pretty awesome.

  6. Thanks for the post, Travis. I’ve added this to my 2016 calendar.

    On a side note, long-time FlyerTalker (and trip reporter extraordinaire) Seat 2A is a bus driver on one of those green school buses. Well worth the trip just to meet up with him!

  7. One summer back in college, I was a tour director for one of the cruise lines up in Alaska, and took groups all up and down the state when they did the land-based tours (part of their overall cruise package). Was able to take the Tundra Wildnerness Tours a few times on the school busses and loved it!

    Thanks for the very informative post… also adding it to my to-do list for this summer! 🙂

  8. Well, Travis, I must say you got very lucky…on the weather. Some summers it rains just about every day and even on sunny days the mountain can be covered in clouds. And, on those rainy days, the mud from the road covers your entire car (or the bus) making it hard to see out and you end up missing a lot of wildlife. So, you were lucky… twice!

  9. Question: did you use your card for all the different entries? I can use my siblings emails and addresses but my card info to pay. Will that disqualify me for doing multiple entries? Make sense?

  10. @ Garrett, your question makes perfect sense and no, that will not disqualify you. I live in Alaska and have entered for years. My family never takes the time to enter but they allow me to enter for them under their names. Only one entry per person is allowed. They are not addicted to it like I am so I enter for them under their names and pay for the entries with my credit card/debit card. (Sometimes they go with me if they win and other times they do not. If the entry under one of the other family members is the one that wins, you just have to make sure you get their written authorization, i.e. their transfer of the permit to you.) The other advantage is that once the winners are drawn, the $25 entry fee will automatically be deducted from the credit card used on the winning name’s account so I frequently know that I won (under mine or one of my family member’s names) before the names are actually posted on Denali’s website. I just don’t know under whose name I won until the winning list of name’s are posted on the website OR until I log back in under my various family entries. Hopefully, my response makes sense.

  11. so question. I live in the NC mountains and planning a trip to visit your mountains in AK. I have read about this lottery….and wondering….(as a tourist…yes…sorry…we have tourists here too in our mountains 🙂 ) if its worth trying to get this permit or just take a bus ride into the area? Yes I do like to stop and I love nature, (and photograph) so I like to meander around, explore and savor it all, but are there areas like that to do on this road? from the movie on the NPS site it shows many narrow areas so I am doubting you can pull over and get out. is this true? Do you think one should experience this? Again I love nature and our beautiful mother nature…..but since I don’t live up there not sure if going all the way in is…well worth the time and effort. Thank you for any feedback about this. I want to soak up so much when I get there….and well your state has a lot to offer! 🙂

  12. oh and I would like to add I dislike large crowds with noise and disrespect for our environment and the animals. so saying that the bus thing would probably be…too many people.

  13. Sandy — Just to be clear, I don’t live in Alaska so it’s not “my” state. That said, I love your Smoky Mountains too. 🙂

    As for Road Lottery — this only really matters if you are going to be there over the specific weekend in September. If you are there that weekend, you need a Road Lottery permit to drive the road, cause the busses don’t run. If you are there earlier in the season, you have to take a bus to access the park.

    As for whether it’s worth it– there is plenty of space to pull over and wander across the tundra. The road is somewhat narrow in places, but there’s not much traffic (400 cars per day), so it’s fine. We thought it was an awesome day. But everyone will have different opinions.

  14. THANKS!!! I have decided to go for it and see what happens. I just booked a room for 2 nights near the entrance. Wish I had the duckies to stay at those nice lodges in the park…but….got a lot to cover! Appreciate your response.

  15. Hi Travis,

    While googling for the denali national park, I found this blog post and came to know the road lottery. It was a perfect match since we are going to visit alaska this september and so we decided to take part in the lottery with your tips in mind.. 😉

    After the drawing, we were so happy because we won a permit.. Now I am really looking forward to september and the denali national park.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences..

    Best Regards from Switzerland

  16. We were awarded a permit through the military for military appreciation day. I was wondering what TIME you started your drive??? How long did it take you to get to the end of the road?

    I wasn’t sure if we should be there right at 6am when it opens or if we can show up later and it won’t be as congested still?

    I too was curious about 400 cars on the road and being stuck behind a long line of traffic. Thank you for your help!

  17. I forgot to his to notify me of follow up comments so I am posting again here- please respond here to my above post! Thank you 🙂

  18. Congrats on the permit Jen. You’ll love it.

    1. We had a 5 month old or so at the time, so we didn’t get an early start at all. I want to say we were at the visitor center at maybe 9-ish. We had hoped to start early, but didn’t happen.

    2. We drove all the way to the end, and were coming out around 9 pm. So maybe about 12 hours? And that was pretty leisurely.

    3. I would not worry about the 400 cars. It’s a 92 mile long road, so 400 cars are going to get dispersed very fast. I guess it could be busy at the start, but by the time we showed up, it definitely wasn’t. We had many long stretches where we saw no one. In fact, the only time we were really with other people was when their were animals nearby and then maybe there would be 5-10 cars stopped to look.

    Have fun, and please come back to share your experience.

  19. Thanks for the quick response! We are traveling with my parents (the grandparents) and our 4 children- 10,8, 4, and almost 2. I am worried that we need to be there super early to avoid crowds and that it would take a HUGE feat to get us all out the door and up there by 6-7am! So knowing that we can show up at 9ish and not be stuck behind long lines is great. And I’d like to try to go the whole way- once in a lifetime, then why not? 🙂 We’ll be packing tons of food, layers, foot gear, etc! I’ll let you know how it goes!

  20. “Not only is he cute, he’s also lucky!”

    Maybe lucky, but definitely not Lucky 😉

    “The road ends here. And so does the picture.”

    I bet the youngest lottery winner, lucky not Lucky, was the photographer 😉

  21. Thanks for this blog post. We followed your lead and just got back from this awesome drive.
    I entered 9 times for a 75% chance and got lucky with one entry pass granted.
    The transfer of the letter from a family member to us personally was easy.
    We travelled for free with our points from South Carolina. The cash outlay was for a rental truck from Enterprise, which was a deal for $250 for a week, our dining and the stay at Denali Hostel.
    The drive in the park was incredible and we were lucky enough to hit the park on a clear day with freshly fallen snow.
    We also combined a trip to Seward, which is a great drive also.
    Thanks for your tips on this awesome travel opportunity.
    When you tell people in Alaska that you won the road lottery they think you are someone special. I guess a lot of folks have been trying to win the lottery for many years and few are successful. Because of the quick turn around from lottery winning and planning of a trip, not many people enter from outside of Alaska (Anchorage).
    We made our travel plans as if we were going to win. Either way we were going.

  22. If you win can you get your pass before you arrive in ALaska? If I were to win on my grandson’s name I assume he does not have to be there for me to use the pass.

  23. Hi Ken,
    No, you have to pick up the pass during the days of the lottery, e.g. the day before your pass is issued for.
    If the lottery winner is not you personally, you have to present a transfer letter that the winner allows you to use his ticket.
    When you win the lottery, you get detailed information about that..

  24. I have been unsuccessful for a few years, so I am trying your strategy. Do I need different email addresses for each “person” to register at Thanks.

  25. I had 7 people enter for me this year and ended up winning 2 passes! Was kind of weird that both ended up being friends and no one from the immediate family. Yay Alaska!

  26. Sucks rich people get better odds than poor Alaskans like me. Sucks it’s a National Park instead of State. Phff!

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