Originally published in Show Me Alaska
One moment we were enjoying the ride through Polychrome Pass. The next, we were nearly teetering on the edge of a cliff with the wind rocking the car and a sandstorm brewing right outside our windows.
In September 2012, my parents won their first ticket in the Denali National Park road lottery. A rare opportunity afforded to several hundred lucky Alaskans every year, the ticket allows you one day in the park with your own private vehicle. My stepmom, my grandmother and my aunt packed up the Subaru and made our way north. Binoculars, cameras and a sense of adventure accompanied us on what was sure to be a memorable drive.
The weather was windy and rainy but we were determined to get the most of Denali. We made our way to Polychrome Pass, a beautiful and unforgiving stretch of narrow dirt road: hanging rocks and steep slopes on one side and at least a 500-foot drop on the other. We continued on. Loose gravel from the mountainside was picked up by what were now hurricane force winds. Lack of visibility was becoming an issue, but we persisted.
Then there was no visibility whatsoever. We began to panic. The wind got stronger and stronger and with one large gust, the car shook and the rear window of my stepmom’s new Subaru Forester shattered. Dirt and rocks blew inside. In the back seat, I ducked my head as my stepmom stepped on the gas and propelled the car into the sandstorm’s abyss.
Getting out of Polychrome Pass felt like an eternity. I kept my head on my grandmother’s lap, covered with a jacket to recover from the ferocious windstorm we passed through. We duct taped a garbage bag over the rear window and made a beeline back home to Anchorage. My parents have won the lottery and visited the park every year since. They always invite me and I always decline; too soured by the memories of being a little too close to the edge.
But this year I’m back.
A unique opportunity reserved only for Alaska residents, the Denali Park Road lottery began in 1990. In the 1980s the road was congested with over 2,000 cars a day, according to the National Park Service, and NPS decided to implement a lottery system, capped at 300 cars a day at the time, to reduce the amount of traffic on the narrow dirt road. In 1994, the cap was raised to 400 vehicles a day, where it remains today. The National Park Service receives around 10,000 applications annually for the 1,600 tickets offered in September of every year.
To enter the lottery an Alaskan will pay the $10 entry fee, and if that Alaskan’s ticket is chosen, an additional $25 road lottery fee. Upon entering the park, the driver and attendees will visit the visitor’s center and pick up their permit and pay the $10 park fee. Winners of the road lottery can forfeit their tickets to friends and family with a small note and signature on their printed confirmation. Each ticket is good for a permit for one private vehicle or, for the more adventurous, motorcycle. The permit allows the vehicle and its passengers access to the park road for the entire day (6 a.m. – midnight). The lottery takes place on a Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday in mid-September.
This year I drove with my cousin Quinn and his girlfriend Tressa. We rallied our way to the park entrance, excited for wildlife and whatever lay ahead. We packed the Subaru with snacks and drinks. Quinn, a first-time road lottery participant and experienced mountain climber, made a successful trek to the summit of Denali back in 2013; Tressa was a park newcomer, eager to see the mountain in all of its glory.
It is important to check the weather before you go and to plan accordingly. It is not uncommon for the weather to change dramatically in a short amount of time.
As we rounded the corner into Polychrome Pass, the golden-colored canyon rocks came into view, sparking an immediate flashback to that unforgettable drive four years prior.
This year, we made our way to end of the dirt road, driving more than 90 miles, socked in by a mild snowstorm; the landscape dusted white, the mountain as mysterious and elusive as ever. This year, I saw Wonder Lake, the remote ranger station and the historic cabin of Joe and Fannie Quigley, famed miners of the early twentieth century.
One bear and three bull moose later, we left the park and were back on the Parks Highway headed home; this time with great memories of the Denali Park Road.