For Show Me Alaska: Conquering the Denali Park Road

Alaska, Online, Uncategorized

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.

For Show Me Alaska: Chitina a stop along the way

Alaska, Online, Uncategorized

Originally published in Show Me Alaska

You might miss it if you’re not paying attention.

Past farmland and through canyon country sits Chitina, Alaska: Nearly 250 miles from Anchorage, the town is noted for being the end of the Edgerton Highway and the beginning of the historic and seldom-maintained McCarthy Road. It may be the last place to get gas before journeying the next 60 miles to McCarthy, or a place to grab snacks on the way home from a weekend exploring the historic mill town of Kennecott. Chitina may seem unimpressive to the shallow traveler. However, when you dive beneath the surface, the town of less than 150 opens up, showing you a unique Alaska you may have never experienced.

Walk into Uncle Tom’s Tavern in the center of town to meet the people who call Chitina home. An old piano greets you at the door; a wood stove, taxidermy and plenty of rocks and fossils soon follow. Quintessential bar memorabilia adorns the interior. License plates, slot machines and posters of scantily clad women hang as ornamentation in the small, smoke-filled room. Old-timers and local folk sit at the bar with pints in hand and ash trays nearby. The woman at the end of the bar turned her generator on that morning so she could watch a movie with her friends that night. She lives in a one-room cabin with no electricity, no water and no heat. In a town where people are still talking about last year’s Fourth of July celebration, movie nights and new visitors are hot topics.

When Uncle Tom himself walks into the bar, he shows us some gold he found in the area, a nice small handful, telling my friend and me that the special rock is called “leavurite,” and if we find any we should “leave-it-right” there and let him know where it is — a joke he’s probably told 1,000 times to gullible tourists. What Uncle Tom didn’t know is that my friend is a student geologist. Needless to say Uncle Tom’s joke was quickly squandered.

The ladies at the bar know all the hidden gems and are eager to tell interested passersby about the hot spots in Chitina. Liberty Falls, just north of town, is a large, rapidly cascading waterfall, just off the Edgerton Highway. This state-run park is also a campground with 10 spots available. To the south of Chitina, at the beginning of the McCarthy Road, the canyon walls open up to the west bank of the Copper River, where fish wheels and dipnetters fight for the prized Copper River sockeye.

Once a thriving railroad post, Chitina was a stop for the Copper River and Northwestern Railway. The railroad hauled copper from the mines of Kennecott to Cordova, leaving Chitina a bustling and prosperous community in the early 1900s. When the mines at Kennecott were shut down and abandoned in 1938, Chitina was left a ghost town.

Remnants of Chitina’s past can be seen today. The old tin shop, now an art gallery, is on the National Register of Historic Places, while the Chitina Emporium pays homage to the old pioneer spirit. The gateway to Kennecott, McCarthy and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is unapologetically Alaskan. From the locals and their homesteading endeavors to the subsistence salmon fishing on the famed Copper River, Chitina leaves visitors coated in a gritty Alaska aura.