Sunday, September 25, 2011


This story starts a long time ago when we found a good airfare to Anchorage.  We thought, well heck, we can find *something* to do in Alaska for a long weekend, so we went ahead and booked it.  Several weeks later, Travis was researching ideas for the trip, particularly visiting Denali, and read about 'Road Lottery Weekend'.

There is only one road cut into the vast wilderness of Denali National Park, 92.6 miles long.  Denali employs a shuttle-bus system to limit impact -- the road is dirt, after all.  So most of the time, private vehicles can only travel the first 15 miles of the road, which are paved.  To travel beyond that, you are required to buy a ticket for the shuttle bus where you take your seat along with every other tourist.  During the last weekend of the season, however, just before battening down the hatches for the winter, they hold what is called 'Road Lottery' where they open the road to 400 private vehicles each day, for four days.  In order to be one of the lucky few, you have to obtain a permit through the lottery system.

And then Travis realized that the ONE weekend per year was precisely the weekend we were scheduled to be in Alaska!  Pure luck.  Now we needed to obtain a permit.....   and this is where we took luck into our own hands and decided to make this happen.  We knew they handed out a fixed 1600 permits.  Our research showed that typically 10,000-11,000 people apply for a permit each year, such that about 1 in 7 entries gets a permit.  Further, the rules state that only one entry can be made per person (a $10 non-refundable fee is due at time of entry), but the permits are fully transferrable, only requiring a note to be transferred to someone else.  A quick calculation (accompanied by some nifty Matlab plots) showed that 6 entries would give us approximately a 70% chance of winning one permit.  While 70% is far from a sure thing, it seemed acceptable.  So we entered both of ourselves, my parents, and Travis's parents.  We were going to call it good at 6, but at the last minute, Travis decided to submit an entry for Andrew and bump our chances to 75%.  And then we sat back and waited until mid-July for the results to be posted.

Plot of  odds of winning a road lottery permit vs. number of entries submitted

On the day the results were posted, July 12, Travis quickly scanned the winners names.  He almost panicked when he could not find any of us on the list.  Then he spotted Andrew!  Of our 7 entries, the only one to win a permit was Andrew!  Crazy.  Statistics works!  In total, they received 11,024 for 2011, of which 80% come from Alaska.  So overall, we spent $70 on permit entries, and then $25 for the permit itself, bringing the total cost to $95.  Meanwhile, a few searches of Craigslist Alaska showed that these permits can go for up to $200-$300.....   can you say stat arb?  (And beyond the $10 entry fee, and the $25 permit fee, you also pay a $25 park entry fee, but given that we knew we'd be visiting Shenandoah, Yellowstone, and Denali over the course of a month, we purchased an annual Parks Pass instead.)

So on Thursday after a short-ish day of work, we headed to the airport to catch our plan to Seattle, and on to Anchorage.  As I went up to the counter to request a stroller tag, I heard one gate agent mutter to the other, "Man, we're going to need DB's!"  (DBs = Denied Boarding, aka volunteers, aka bumps).  So I sent Travis up quickly to enquire, and just as quickly, it seemed, all three of us were bumped to the following day!  Any day's a good day to get paid.

Since we are Denver-based, they did not provide a hotel room.  But we live a heckuva long way from the airport, and as it turned out, we had planned to use an award night (through Marriott Megabonus) in Anchorage that night.  It would expire at the end of September, and we would not have many other opportunities to use it.  So we canceled our night at the Fairfield Inn Anchorage, and rebooked into the Spring Hill Suites Denver Airport.  We left the car in the parking lot at the airport, and just took the shuttle to the hotel.

After a nice dinner at Village Inn (with free pie!), we returned to the hotel to turn in. As I was putting Andrew down, I realized that we only had 3 diapers left.  (We normally use cloth, but switch to disposables on travel days, so when they are gone, they are really gone.)  Since we had left the car in the Pikes Peak lot, someone needed to walk to the store... which was 2 miles away.  As Travis had some work to get done, the task fell to me, and I struck out.  It was quite a hike, but I made it to the store and back in just over an hour and a half.

On Friday, we made our way to Anchorage via Seattle, arriving at about 3:30pm.  On final approach, we saw two massive mountains out in the distance which would turn out to be 20,000+ ft Denali and 17,000+ ft Mt. Foraker to its west.  Spectacular!  Our bag (with the extra diapers) was waiting for us at the baggage office, and after a stop at the grocery store to self-cater the majority of the rest of our trip, we headed north.  The traffic out of Anchorage on a Friday evening was awful -- there may not be many people who live in Alaska, but the few that are there all seem to live in Anchorage! We had intermittent views of Denali and the surrounding peaks as we drove through the long dusk.  The fall colors were just about at their peak, and the drive was just lovely.

We arrived at the Denali Mountain Morning Hostel just after 9pm.  Our lodging for the weekend was a tiny cabin along the banks of Carlos Creek, a tributary of the Nenana River.  The cabin had a full bed with a twin top bunk and just enough additional room to turn around.  As the temperature was dropping into the 20's at night, the small electric heater made the room cozy.  It was quite charming.  The hostel had a main house, which was a larger cabin with a big full kitchen and common space.  Many of the guests were there for the road lottery as well - this was the last weekend that the hostel would be open until next spring.  One couple gave us their impressive wildlife viewing tally from the first day of the lottery.

Our cabin: High Water

The view from our cabin

Cabin interior, and boys in bunks
The next morning, we got going early, but not too early.  We went to pick up our (Andrew's) permit and we were disappointed that they didn't check his ID, which we had brought.  We hit the road just before 9am and we returned just after 9:30pm.  The wildlife tally on the day was 8 grizzly bears, 11 moose, 3 caribou, 4 things that may have been either moose or caribou (too far away to tell), 11 sheep, 1 wolf, 1 arctic ground squirrel, and 12 ptarmigans - and yes, I kept a count on the backside of our park map so that I could keep track.

Andrew with his permit
Denali: "The High One"

This is the sign where the road access becomes restricted.  We drove right by.

Andrew was dressed for the brisk weather
Line of cars stopped to look at a bear

Arctic ground squirrel

Nursing with a view of Denali

Glacial riverbed

Polychrome Mountain

Wolf.  He was lame in one leg.  He ran across the road just feet from Travis.

The end of the road at Kantishna Mine.  92.6 miles

This big bull crossed the road right behind our car

Happy Andrew with Moose behind

At the Visitor's Center

After walking down the road in front of a line of cars, this grizzly ambled off into the sunset
There was a set of three bears that began about 120 yards from the road.  As they foraged, they got closer... and closer... until they crossed the road a couple cars in front of us.  

This bull moose was following this cow around making mating calls all afternoon.  She was completely ignoring him.


Dall Sheep
The next day, we drove back into the park along the beginning of the road, hoping for some more photo ops, and visiting the front-country visitor's center.

On our way back south, we stopped at Denali Viewpoint North in Denali State Park, for some beautiful views of the peak.  This meant we had views of Denali all three days that we were around.
From "Denali Viewpoint North" in Denali State Park

Fall colors
On the return, we stopped in the town of Talkeetna, the headquarters and departure point for Denali mountaineering expeditions (most climbers get to the base of Denali on a ski-plane which lands on a glacier), where we toured the Talkeetna Historical Society Museum.  They had displays on the history of the town, the Alaska Railroad, and Climbing Denali.

On our way back to Anchorage, we stopped to meet up with Aaron, a childhood friend of Travis's, and his fiancee Melissa, who we had moved to Alaska three months ago.  (Three weeks ago, while on our trip to Ohio, Aaron's mom saw us at Grandma's funeral and told us that he was living in Alaska.  She somewhat randomly, and with a laugh, added -- 'if you're ever there, look him up!'  People really shouldn't say stuff like that to us.......)  We went out for dinner, and then had a nap at their place before catching the 12:40am red-eye back to Seattle.  It was rather surreal to have dinner in Alaska with a friend who grew up a mile down the road -- and a real treat to learn about life in Alaska from the 'locals'.  Thanks, guys -- and best of luck!

Travis's Notes:

It's pretty seldom that you hear me say something like this, but Denali Road Lottery was one of the coolest things I've done.  Denali National Park is really unlike any other in America.  It is essentially a North American safari that, oh by the way, has the highest point on the continent in the background!  Now I'm sure that Denali is cool even if you see it from the shuttle buses, but there seems to be something special about driving your own car, setting your own schedule....  it's a park that inspires freedom and adventure, and I just have trouble getting that feeling from a tour bus.

Oddly enough, Denali reminded me most of the national park that we visited in Chile -- the one that we're still not quite sure what it was!  The taiga / tundra landscape just goes for miles, with a narrow ribbon of dirt road snaking off into the horizon.  Nowhere in the Lower 48 has the same feeling of vastness, of untrammeled ground.  It's truly amazing.   Of course, in Chile we were virtually the only one's there, and here we had 399 other cars on the road, but the scenery, vastness, vegetation, and mountains were similar.

While we really don't like to refer to any trip as 'once in a lifetime', we really thought that the challenges of a.) being in Alaska, b.) being in Alaska on the precise weekend of road lottery, and c.) obtaining a permit might just render this a 'one-of' type of trip.  Of course, we hadn't even exited the park yet when we were already planning our return so that Andrew can experience it (and remember it) too!

A few tips for future reference:
1.  I had read that you should take a pair of binoculars for each adult.  We debated just taking our own, but borrowed Terry's at the last minute, and are glad we did.  Thanks!
2.  92.6 miles is a long way..... and it's just as far out as it is in!  The speedlimit is 35 mph, but if you drive that fast, you'll either shake your car apart or miss the best sites.  Bottom line:  plan to be there all day.
3.  Don't take view of Denali for granted.  Denali is hidden in clouds 70% of the time in summer and 60% in the fall.  (I'm not really sure how those stats are calculated -- it's sort of like what does 50% chance of rain mean?)  Anyway, we got lucky and saw partial or full views on each of our three days.  But the first day, we didn't realize how rare the unobstructed views were and didn't take many pictures.  Bottom line:  If you've got a view, take a picture....  it might be gone in 5 minutes.
4.  Stay near the park for Road Lottery.  The hostel was 13 miles away, which was fine.  But considering that you've got 184 miles of driving in the park, alone, you don't want to drive very far to get there.
5.  Take food and water -- that should be obvious.  There isn't much (read: anything) out there.  Better yet, stock up in Anchorage.
6.  Don't ask someone who's primary camera is an I-pad to take your picture, especially if you have a DSLR camera.....  they have no concept of a what a viewfinder is, and will almost surely cut-off your head or your feet -- or the bottom of the sign that says 'end of the road, 92.6 miles'.
7.  400 cars really isn't that many over the course of a 92.6 mile road. The eager beavers pick up their permits at 6AM and others (those with kiddos) start at 9AM.  That disperses the crowd.  We didn't really feel like we were part of a caravan, at least most of the time.  And given that you are scanning literally 10's of square miles for wildlife, having the extra cars (and eyeballs!) really makes it easier.  Usually about 10-20 cars would stop for most wildlife viewings, and it tends to be the same people so you build a little camaraderie along the way


  1. *wow*. wow, wow, wow! such an awesome trip. :D you know that i tend to "lurk" here -- but this time I *have* to say something: your family photo (IMG_5314.JPG, just before "Andrew was dressed for the brisk weather") is FANTASTIC. I hope you frame and display the hi-res version. I cannot WAIT to see you in France in just a couple of months!!! I am really, really looking forward to re-meeting Andrew -- now that he is, what, twice as much boy as he was in May? ;) XOXO to all three of you! love, mag