My husband and I won the lottery. Our prize was a permit to drive a 92-mile road in the middle of Alaska. Not just any road, the only road in the six-million-acre Denali National Park and Preserve. It’s usually only accessible via shuttle buses, but for four days in September, at the close of the tourist season, the Denali Park Road is open to private vehicles. Only 400 vehicles are allowed each day, and demand is so great for the coveted permits that they are awarded via a lottery system: one entry per person during the month of June; winners announced in July. We were ecstatic to be among the 1,600 winners out of more than 11,000 entries.
Alaska proudly bills itself as the last frontier and nothing showcases its untamed wildness more than the stretch of land that parallels the park’s narrow, mostly unpaved road as it twists and winds through taiga forest, tundra, rivers, glaciers, and pass Denali, “the High One,” the 20,320 foot mountain, the highest peak in North America, known to most as, Mt. McKinley.
We had fallen in love with Denali in July the year before. Then at summer’s peak, the park was verdant and lush, its treeless tundra affording sweeping views of magnificent vistas that only hinted at the area’s vastness. The intertwining channels of its glacier-fed, braided rivers shimmered beneath the sun’s rays, and wildflowers filled the landscape. Aboard the shuttle bus we had jockeyed and contorted our bodies into pretzel positions to capture photos from the bus’ windows of the abundant wildlife—moose, caribou, Dall sheep, grizzly bears, even wolves and lynx. All of that on a single bus ride. Later, during a hike across the tundra, our group had witnessed a National Geographic moment as two gray wolves circled a grizzly bear fiercely protecting a kill. The chance to drive the Denali Park Road on our own was too irresistible not to try our luck.
The last of the cruise line buses had departed by the time we arrived that September, and seasonal shutdown was in full swing in the little community of hotels and restaurants just north of the park’s entrance. Everywhere we went the talk was of road lottery—in elevators, in gift shops, and nearby resorts. A woman shared her thrill of winning a permit after 10 unsuccessful attempts, while a motorcyclist was looking forward to his 12th solo ride, and hotel employees discussed plans to pile their group into a van.
We arrived at the Savage River start point at 8:00 a.m. The ranger greeted us, instructed us to be back across the river by midnight, noted that east bound traffic had the right of way, and waved us on our way. Our journey began with a slight climb up Primrose Ridge, a favorite hiking locale. Gone were the lush greens of summer; the tundra was now ablaze with the rich shades of autumn—yellows, gold, reds, rusts, browns and orange blanketed the treeless landscape.
We soon reached Sable Pass, an area known as bear country—and it didn’t disappoint. Cars pulled to the side alerted us to activity. We easily spotted the big grizzly less than fifty yards from the road, foraging its way through the bushy willows and dwarf birch in search of blueberries, seemingly oblivious to people standing besides cars, some with cameras on tripods and others with cameras in hand. Thrilled and mesmerized, I joined in the photo session outside our car.
It wasn’t long, though, before the situation took a sudden turn. The large bear abruptly moved from the hillside onto the road, and began plodding directly toward us. Everyone scrambled, rushing back into vehicles. The bear, ignoring the onlookers, stopped beside our car, turned, and crossed in front of us before wandering off down the hillside. Hearts racing, adrenalin pumping, the adventure was off to an exciting start.
That close encounter assured us the trip would be worth it even if we saw nothing else, but we did see at least a dozen more bears during our drive. There are an estimated 350 grizzly bears in the park, and during this season they prepare for winter, consuming as many as 30,000 to 40,000 calories a day.
Next up was Polychrome Pass, breathtaking not only for its spectacular views, but also its nerve-wracking drive. The narrowness of the road is accentuated by tight turns and a thousand foot drop on the south side, but the grand views of the Plains of Murie and the Alaskan Range are worth a few skipped heartbeats. The braided river, so called because of its shallow, multi-channels, deposits glacial silt as it makes it ever shifting way across the valley floor. The hills here are noted for their varied colored bands—yellow, orange, lavender, black and white—the result of volcanic deposits from millions of years ago, and small glaciers, nestling in the hills, can still be seen. Looking out across the vast terrain and the remnants of ages gone by, the distant past didn’t seem that distant.
And, as if the views of the Polychrome overlook weren’t engaging enough, we were in for an extra treat. As we rounded a curve we encountered a herd of Dall sheep resting on a small outcropping just south of the road. These stout, white sheep with their beautifully curled horns are the only wild, white, mountain sheep in the world. They usually remain high on the rocky slopes to avoid predators, but with winter’s approach they migrate to areas of less snow accumulation. The Dall sheep have a special place in Denali history. It was these animals that served as inspiration for naturalist Charles Sheldon’s call in 1908 to establish the future wildlife preserve.
We arrived at Eielson Visitor Center, Mile 66, by early afternoon, having clocked about six hours of road time. From here Mt. McKinley’s summit is just 33 miles away, but as with our summer visit clouds obscured the mountain peak, and our most desired view would have to wait for another trip. Great mountain views, restroom facilities, and nearby hiking trails makes the center a popular stop. The parking lot was packed and the area bustling. Food service isn’t available, so picnic lunches were in progress. Despite the crowd we bumped into our new motorcyclist acquaintance, and compared road notes. He had an earlier start and was already on his way out, but reported a caribou herd further west. Many consider the Eielson as the endpoint on the drive thus avoiding the next harrowing stretch of narrow, twisting roadway, but we were committed to drive the entire road. Making quick lunch of our packed sandwiches, we continued west.
The terrain changed; this portion is lower, flatter and wetter than the dry, open tundra. Small ponds dot the landscape, and not too far down the roadway the taiga forest with its spruce and aspen trees appeared. Wonder Lake is beautiful in its own right, even without the perfect reflection of Mt. McKinley on its often photographed waters. Private, back-country lodges are located in this area, too, including Camp Denali, the small, family-owned lodge we stayed at the year before.
We never found the caribou, but did discover a small flock of willow ptarmigan scurrying about in the tangled brush at road’s edge. These birds, members of the grouse family, are the state bird of Alaska. They, too, were in seasonal transition. The flock’s brown-mottled plumage of summer was molting into snowy, winter white coats.
It was nearly six o’clock when we finally reached The End, Mile 92, nearly ten hours after our start. We had not paced ourselves well and had to fore go the hikes we envisioned, but the drive had been a rewarding day of adventure and excitement. As we began to retrace our route, Denali had yet another surprise in store—a light rain shower delivered just enough moisture to dampen the ground, followed by a double rainbow arching across the road. Another reminder of the day’s magic.
Despite the looming midnight curfew, we took our time heading back, revisiting the day’s earlier sights. As the sun faded, a mantel of darkness slowly dropped over the park—a sight we had not seen during the long, extended sunlight days of summer. Only a few cars remained now and they, too, were soon gone ahead, leaving us alone in solitude and with the entire park to ourselves.
With one last look back we put the park to bed that night, and crossed the Savage River with only a bit of time to spare. Our lottery win had left us exhausted, but exhilarated, and rich with memories.
Author’s Note: This is appearing in the November/December 2012 Life Is Good Magazine.
For more information about the Denali Road Lottery please see the companion piece: Denali Road Lottery – Things You Need To Know.
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