At the end of every season, the NPS allows 400 private vehicles for each of four days to drive the 92 mile Park Rd. This year over 10,000 people entered "the lottery" and I was fortunate enough to be able to drive the road on three of the four days!
by MilwVon on September 27, 2011
This was my third trip to Denali National Park in five years. On my prior two visits to the park David and I used the required NPS shuttle bus service to enter and explore the park. This trip, however was different as it was during the annual "Road Lottery Weekend" when 400 cars per day (for four days) are allowed to drive the entire 92 miles, weather permitting. This entry will chronicle my first-time experiences utilizing some of the park services and programs during my lottery weekend.I had camp reservations for four nights at the Teklanika Campground (aka TEK), located inside the park at MM29. This is the same location where we camped last summer and as luck would have it, I was able to get the exact same campsite next to the bathrooms and food container, that we had last year.I arrived to the park on Thursday, the day before the lottery was scheduled to begin. Driving down from Fairbanks, time would allow me to schedule a ride into the park on the very last shuttle bus of the season. With the "Tek Pass" campers at the TEK campground can ride the shuttle buses throughout their stay at a significantly discounted rate. For me and just one ride, the price was the same as a one ride Eielson Shuttle ($31.50).My pick-up time was 1:40p but the driver Travis was a bit early. No worries, however, as I was ready at the shelter outside the campground. It was a lovely day and the bus was less than half full. It was nice to have not only a full seat to myself (and my camera equipment) but also the seat across the aisle was empty allowing for easy back-n-forth access should a wildlife viewing be sighted on the other side of the bus.The shuttle ride to the Eielson Visitor Center was rather uneventful as midday is not the best time for animal viewing. We did see a pair of bears, a small herd of caribou and some dall sheep . . . all at some distance from the road. Mt. McKinley was out in full view, making this a first for me at Denali National Park. Having been inside the park some five or six days previously, I had never seen "the mountain" before. The best photo op from the shuttle bus was at the Eielson Visitor Center, where we stopped for about an hour.At Eielson, there are opportunities to hike up into the hillside or down on the tundra. They also have some very nice exhibits inside, along with flushing toilets and running water. This stop is the highlight for many on the shuttle bus system.On Friday I enjoyed my time at some of the other park exhibit areas that I had not had the opportunity to do during past visits to Denali. At the Visitor Center "Campus" there are a number of exhibit areas including a small theatre where they were showing a 20 minute movie "The Heartbeat of Denali". While I enjoyed the movie and the beautiful scenery, I was shocked at the rudeness of several who talked through the entire thing.After my time there, I headed over to the Denali Kennels for their 2:00pm demonstration. Arriving early enough to enjoy the place to myself, I got to see most of the 34 dogs that call the Denali Kennel home. It was especially fun to see Pingo and her three pups since I'd been following them on the webcam for the past seven weeks since their birth. They were so big now; ready to be weaned from momma.The "demonstration" was more like a 20 minute show, featuring a historical explanation on what the dogs mean to the operation of Denali National Park and how their role is to help preserve the park's wilderness and heritage. There was a demo with a park ranger riding a sled being pulled by five dogs. These dogs, like all other working dogs I've seen in Alaska, really enjoy their work of pulling the sled.We were told that their training was just beginning for the upcoming winter season. By late October or early November, they would be used to help patrol the park as well as to move park rangers throughout the park with supplies necessary to live remotely in the harsh winter of Denali.The last "new experience" I had during this trip was the Riley Creek Mercantile showers. After camping without running water for a few days, being able to get out to the mercantile for a shower was very nice. Ordinarily when camping at TEK, vehicles are not permitted to depart the campground until leaving making this shower run impossible. Many will use the shower facilities in their RVs as we did last summer, or simply sponge bath for the time they are in the park.The showers at Riley Creek cost $4 per person and are located inside the restrooms. The ladies side had six shower stalls; I'm guessing the men's had a similar number. For your $4 you not only get a hot running water shower, but also a towel. It did take a while for the hot water to come, but when it did, it felt very good. If you are considering this, be sure to have your own soap and shampoo as there is none provided. A nice feature of the restroom area is the electrical outlets available. I saw several women using curling irons and blow dryers on their hair. Me? I used the outlets to recharge my camera batteries while showering!I really do like Denali National Park not only for its natural beauty but also for the services the National Park Service provides there.
The Denali Park Road Lottery occurs annual in mid September, at the end of their season, weather permitting. The National Park Service conducts a drawing whereby 400 people are selected for each of the four days of the road lottery. This year there were more than 10,000 people who paid the $10 entry fee at a chance to drive the Denali Park Road. Those selected in the random drawing are also assessed an additional $25 for their road pass. Since entries are limited to one per person, David and I enlisted some family members (seven of them) to enter the lottery too as winning passes are transferable to others. Out of our nine entries, my sister's mother-in-law did win a Saturday pass. Hurray!I had previously made my plans for this weekend that would include staying four nights at the Teklanika Campground (TEK). I also planned for camping using a rental car from the Fairbanks' Rent-a-Wreck office. Since many rental agencies do not permit their vehicles on unpaved roads, the Rent-a-Wreck option seemed most suitable for me. Driving car and sleeping vehicle all in one, for $100/day.With one day inside the park secured, I then set about trying to make arrangements for additional passes to drive the Park Road. While the sale of passes is strictly forbidden by NPS policy, there were several being offered and sought for prices as high as $200-$300 on Craig's List. I refused to pay anything more than the face value of $35 which seemed to be acceptable in the eyes of the NPS. Unfortunately, there were none going for such a low price, which left me to more creative solutions.I was able to secure a ride swap with a couple from Juneau. They had a pass for Sunday, but unfortunately no camping reservation as TEK was already sold out. We worked it out so that they could camp in my campsite and we'd ride together on Saturday on my pass and then on Sunday on theirs. Perfect!The week prior to the lottery weekend, I had someone from another travel website offer me their pass for Monday as their plans had changed. We had previously communicated about the possibility of a ride share too, so they knew I was looking for a Monday solution. With my check for $35 off in the mail to them in California, I was now set for three days inside the park.My original plan was to try to secure a ride for Friday once I arrived at TEK on Thursday, but it worked out well to not have any plans Friday as I used that day to see and do some things that I had never been able to do before. I especially enjoyed the Denali Kennel visit and demo . . . and my hot shower at Riley Creek Mercantile.On Friday I was in bed by 9:00p and up around 5:30a the next morning. I awoke to a nice shimmering aurora curtain to the north. It lasted around 15 minutes as the twilight grew and probably faded out whatever was there. Friday night/Saturday morning was bitter cold. I was starting to question my decision to sleep in the truck!Lottery Weekend: While the plan was for us to ride on "my pass" on Saturday and ride on "theirs" for Sunday it turned out the guy had "riding issues" so they drove both days and I paid for gas. That worked out for me since the Suburban was getting around 12-14MPG.On Saturday 9/16 with them driving, it seemed they were more interested in seeing the mountain than wildlife, so our drive "in" was a bit more hurried than I like. We stopped long enough to get the photo, but not long enough to see what else developed. This included a stop & go where the three bears were at in the distance around MM64. We did arrive at the Stony Dome overlook of Mt McKinley in time for a full view photo op. It was breathtaking, as clouds seemingly appeared from the north. Just beyond there, we also saw a small herd of caribou . . . probably 12-15 animals of all sizes.We continued on to the Eielson Visitor Center for a short stop, and then onto Wonder Lake and to the end at Kantishna. By Eielson the mountain was starting to be covered and at Wonder Lake, no view at all. BOO! While the drive to Kantishna was interesting, it was a long way to go to see no wildlife. For that matter, we saw nothing beyond Eielson until our drive "out" to Riley for showers. We saw moose along the posted "rut" area at MM9-10 but none very close to the road.It was breezy and cold all day on Saturday. I was concerned about sleep that night, so I went to bed with double layers of thermals inside my 0 f rated sleeping bag. Saturday night was warmer; in fact, I woke up a bit on the "hot" side on Sunday morning.Sunday 9/18 we got a late start because the gal of the couple was not feeling well. She went with us, but slept in the backseat for the entire trip . . . except for when she was barfing. ARGH . . . not a fun way to spend the morning.The guy and I decided to take a bit more time with wildlife viewing, and was fortunate to see the momma + 2 cubs just before the McKinley Overlook at MM62, at approximately MM58-59. We spent some time there photographing, including when she and cubs wandered up the road right in front of us. Very cool.We also saw a porcupine run in front of the car where the park road crosses the TEK River (around MM32) and a fox near Polychrome. The car in front of us stopped first, with their two kids and mom running AFTER the fox (who had gone behind our car). I could not believe it! I did get a quick photo as the fox run up into the bushes on the hillside.We then headed on to Eielson where we filled up our water bottles and used the facilities. We headed back to camp, without much to see along the way. There were sheep up high on the cliffs near the Toklat River Visitor Center and a pair of bears again around Sable Pass, but very far away.We arrived back at TEK campground at 12:30 and they broke down their camp and packed everything up. With them leaving the park, they left their road pass with me, which had been the prearranged plan.Continued in Denali NP - Road Lottery Weekend (part 2 of 2) . . .
Continuing with Sunday 9/18 . . .I went back into the park, in hopes of seeing those sheep and the bears closer. I was fortunate to arrive at the location for the afternoon bear jam before there was anyone else (other than a park ranger) there. She said that the three had been sighted but headed down a ravine, not to be seen since for about an hour. I told her I would just park and wait to see what might happen. About 15 minutes later, they all appeared. Hurray - the bear jam was on.I stayed for just under an hour, until the bears crossed the road and headed up high into the hillside. I got a lot of nice photos of them eating berries throughout this little valley area.I was also able to photograph the sheep much closer (in both directions) at Toklat which made me happy.I got back to TEK around 6:15pm and decided to head "out" of the park maybe for a shower, but for sure, for dinner in Healy or Glitter Gulch. Initially I was thinking of Rose's Cafe again, but instead opted for the Prospector's Pizzeria & Alehouse. They were very busy, with a long wait, but I was offered a seat at the bar so I took it.Dinner was good - - minestrone soup and a steak/cheese sandwich. Got back to camp around 9:30 and went right to bed.Monday 9/19 . . . busy day! Got up early and headed out at 7:30am. The mountain was out but with some clouds collecting nearby. It was very windy at the MM62 overlook. Headed on to Eielson. Not much in the way of animal sightings so far other than three caribou on the tundra just before the visitors center. Decided to use the time at Eielson to download photos from cameras to laptop and start packing up my car (rolling sleeping bag, bedding, etc). After about 90 minutes, headed east back out towards TEK.Bears were seen up high just below Stoney Dome (MM63) so I stopped to see if they would come further down. They did, resulting in another hour or so of up close viewing of the mom + cubs. This bear jam was huge! People reported being caught in the back-up nearly a mile away, for a long time. Some of the best photographing of these three was during this time.I continued on east, stopped at Toklat for lunch. Enjoyed watching the sheep work their way down about halfway from the top of the cliff. They still looked like "dots" to me, but I took a few photos just the same.Once out at the entrance, my plan was to take a shower at Riley before heading to Fairbanks for my evening/red-eye flight. The mercantile was to be open until 4:00pm so I thought arriving at 3:15p would be plenty of time for a shower. NOPE - the laundry dept. needed all the towels at 2:00pm so the showers were closed. Because I had my own towel, I talked them into letting me take a shower . . . thank you! I couldn't imagine getting on a plane having not showered in three days. (I later found out I could have gone to an RV park nearby so it would have worked out.)After my shower, came back to a dead car. It had been running but conked out while I was on my cell phone with my hubby. I called the rental company in Fairbanks, they thought I was out of gas (no way - - had a quarter tank when I got to Riley). They called someone and after a three hour wait, he arrived with 5 gallons of gas. "NOPE - you have plenty of gas" he told me. Seems it was the fuel pump going out and that the fuse was shorting out due to "cold gas". YES that is what he said "cold gas". WTH . . . I'm in Alaska in September and the gas is cold enough today (it was near 55f) to short out the fuses???Anyway, he got it fixed up enough that I could limp the truck back to Fairbanks. I was told not to buy more than three gallons of gas at a time and that I should actually have enough to not worry about buying any more before getting to town.The 130 mile drive was a bit nerve-racking since I had to worry about it cutting out again and getting stranded. I didn't dare stop along the way, just in case, as much as I wanted to take some photos of probably the most beautiful sunset I had ever seen in my life. OMG was it beautiful. The reds in the sky, the glowing affect on the yellow birch trees along the hills . . . it was spectacular. Thankfully my friend Susan got some wonderful photos on her return from Denali that evening which will serve to refresh my memory in the future.Anyway, I got back to Fairbanks without incident. I stopped for a chicken sandwich at KFC on Airport Way. I was feeling confident about the car, so I headed out to Susan's place in North Pole for a short visit before making my way to the airport for my 1:30am departure.All in all, in spite of some of the inconveniences along the way, it was a wonderful weekend! I was fortunate to find the couple from Juneau to do the ride share with on Saturday & Sunday . . . and to obtain the Monday pass from another couple the week prior to the trip. Having the three days on the park road was perfect, especially since I made good use of Friday without a road pass.I don't know if or when I might ever do this trip again, but I can say without hesitation, that it was great and I would recommend it to anyone interested in seeing the park at your own pace and comfort level.p.s. I'd be remiss to not mention that the folks at the Fairbanks Rent-a-Wreck were very good in working through the fuel pump issue with me; assuring I'd get back in time for my flight that evening. They were very accommodating and "took care of me" in terms of my inconvenience that afternoon/evening. Thank you Peter & Andrew!!!
The area of the Parks Hwy near the entrance to Denali National Park is known as "glitter gulch" and is full of the trappings of any popular tourist area. There are several gift shops and high priced gasoline ($4.69/gallon vs. $4.20 just eight miles away). This area near the park entrance mostly caters to the cruise ship land tour crowd who are herded in from Anchorage or Fairbanks on either end of their Alaskan cruise vacation. Most of the large lodges in the area are also owned by the cruise lines (Princess or Holland America).For me, all of these touristy aspects of glitter gulch is reason enough to avoid the area at all costs. That said, I fought my instincts to skip it, opting instead to head on up the road to Healey where I knew I'd get a great meal at Rose's Cafe. I stayed in glitter gulch and gave Prospector's Pizzeria & Alehouse a shot. Truth is, I was really pretty tired and didn't want to add the extra time to head further up the Parks Hwy to Rose's. I'm glad I chose Prospector's.They are located in what was the Old Northern Lights Theatre building. The walls are covered with old photographs of an era long passed, providing guests with a peek into what Alaska was like back in the times of the gold rush and prospectors . . . hence the name I suppose.It was a Sunday evening, shortly before 7:00pm when I arrived. There were large groups of people hanging around outside at the entrance. Not a good sign if you're hungry and want to get in and out quickly. At the hostess stand inside, I was told it would be at least an hour and probably closer to an hour and a half before they would have a table for one. She suggested I consider sitting at the bar.Even the bar was packed, but I did find one lone chair at the near end, by the servers' area for orders and dirty glasses. I took the seat and looked for a menu on the bar. A few minutes later a young fella by the name of Luke stopped by to offer me a drink. I asked for a menu and a diet coke.With my order placed, I got involved in the large overhead television screen that had the Sunday night football game on. It was near the end of the game so they were not showing game scores from earlier in the day, but Luke was able to confirm that the Green Bay Packers had won . . . all was good in NFL land!I struck up a conversation with the lady next to me, part of a couple in Alaska from San Jose for the road lottery. They had won a road pass for the next day and were looking forward to their first "drive" of the park. I shared my experiences from my two days in the park. She was excited at the opportunity to see so much and thanked me for the tips on where I had seen the momma bear + 2 cubs.Their food arrived before mine, and I have to admit, I was almost sorry I hadn't ordered a pizza. Theirs looked so very good, with the bubbly crust the way I like it. While I had already eaten my bowl of minestrone soup, I had no regrets however. The soup was outstanding, very hearty and flavorful. When my steak and cheese sandwich arrived, it was equally good and very filling . . . too much to eat in fact. Perhaps it was the large steak fries that put the meal over the top for me? Not sure but everything was very good, just too much to finish.My meal came to $23 including tip to Luke. I would not hesitate to stop in here again if I'm in the area "in season". If you are planning to visit, be sure you know what their hours are. Given this is in a tourist area tied to the Denali National Park season, they open in early May and close mid to late September. For 2011, their season ran from May 7th through September 22nd.A word about their "alehouse" side of the business . . . they feature some 49 beers from all across the USA and even some foreign imports. I chuckled however at two items on their beer selection list: (1) Pabst Blue Ribbon being credited as from Illinois and (2) no Budweiser offered. If you want to sample some of Alaska's most well known brews, this may be the place to do it. They have Sleeping Lady (Anchorage), Denali Brewhouse (Talkeetna), Kenai River Brewing (Soldotna) and Glacier Alehouse (Anchorage) to name just a few. I seriously considered the root beer from Sleeping Lady having had it before there earlier this year, but figured without vanilla ice cream, I'd take a pass.Being a responsible alehouse, they promote "do not drink and drive" and offer a free shuttle service. I doubt they would do pick-up and drop-off inside Denali National Park, but for those staying in the Healey/Glitter Gulch area, it is worth considering.
Having dined here back in 2006, I knew that if I had the opportunity to get "out of the park" during my road lottery weekend, I would make my way back to Rose's Cafe. The opportunity presented itself on Friday morning, so I took it for a wonderful breakfast.Not only does Rose's Cafe have location going for it . . . the owners who are active in the operation of this restaurant are very friendly and service oriented. Whoever you are, you are greeted as though you were a long-time family friend. Even if they don't know your first name, they treat you like a local stopping in their home for coffee over the kitchen table. This visit was no different.As I entered the relatively small dining area I was immediately welcomed and offered coffee by Rose. Not a coffee drinker, I passed and asked for a diet coke. With menus on the table I was able to quickly decide on my breakfast choices, which were taken when the soft drink was brought over.Within ten minutes my meal was brought to me, still steaming having just come off the grill. My eggs were prepared perfectly; the breakfast potatoes delicious. Having seen the "plate sized pancakes" I had given them brief consideration, but chose not to be weighed down with such a heavy breakfast. I was happy with my meal selection, knowing this would probably be my only cooked breakfast for the rest of my time in Alaska.Rose's Cafe is a full service restaurant offering lunch and dinner. They also have the one pound "Grizzly Burger" for those with an Alaskan sized appetite. Eat the whole thing and get your photo up on their wall of fame. Currently they have record holders posted on their website: King Grizzly having eaten a five pounder and the Queen Grizzly a two pounder. They invite challengers who think they can bypass these record holders . . . so be sure to stop in if you happen to be traveling between Fairbanks and Anchorage on the Parks Hwy (Hwy 3).For more information, including their hours of operation and the current menu, check them out at http://rosescafealaska.com/ .
This was not my first time staying at the Comfort Inn in Fairbanks. I have often been able to book here at close to half-price using AARP Travel and they did not disappoint for this trip.The Comfort Inn provides free shuttle service to and from the Fairbanks Airport as well as the train station. This convenience alone makes a stay here worthwhile, especially if you are not planning to stay in town long. They are a bit out of the way, about 10 minutes from the downtown area and with no services (restaurants, etc) within walking distance. That said, to come to town, pick up a rental car and head out the next day . . . they are perfect.The rooms are comfortable with small dorm sized refrigerators and mini-microwaves. Bathrooms are adequate with the appropriate toiletries to make your stay easy. They do allow pets in the rooms, something I've learned is pretty important to Alaskan travelers who seem to take their dogs everywhere with them.There is also an indoor swimming pool and they provide complimentary breakfast that includes fresh waffles, fruit, hot biscuits w/ gravy and an assortment of breads and pastries. I also enjoy the fact that they provide hard boiled eggs and plenty of hot drink choices (coffee, tea and hot chocolate).Since my last stay here in August/September 2010, they have had an ownership change. I was a bit concerned given that my reservations were made and my transportation needs confirmed under the former owner/manager. And while I had also confirmed my ride on my check-out morning to my rental car company downtown, there was some issue at check-out.Seems the current owner/manager did not know about nor approve the arrangement for them to drive me out to pick up my rental car. Given that this was an important aspect of my stay with them, I voiced my concern. The front desk girl spoke with the on-duty manager who said he would give me a ride to the car rental office in town. I was very happy that in spite of the change in ownership, the current staff did what they needed to in order to assure a happy customer.All in all, a very good night's stay. Prompt pick-up at the Fairbanks Airport and a ride in the morning to my rental car. I would stay here again in a heartbeat!
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