Denali, north America’s tallest mountain, and the parks that surround it are the highlights of a trip to Alaska. Abundant wildlife, snow-capped peaks, and spectacular vistas make it worth a visit while you’re here. While Denali National Park is one of the most popular destinations in the state during the summer, a bus tour through the park isn’t the only way to experience this amazing area.
Denali Road Lottery
The mountain itself is located within Denali National Park, in the middle of its 6 million acres, and the lone park road is the only way into the park with a vehicle. During the main summer months (usually Memorial Day to Labor Day), private cars are not allowed on the 90-mile park road, unless you’re camping at one of the campgrounds inside the park. You must take a tour or shuttle bus in order to reach the Eielson Visitor Center at Mile 60 or the village of Kantishna at nearly the end of the road.
However, at the end of the season, park officials open the road to private vehicles during a 4-day event known as the Road Lottery. You must apply for the lottery during May. Winners are announced in June, and then if you’ve won, you can drive your car all the way to the End of the Road sign at Mile 92 on your designated day.
It’s a long day—the road is 90+ miles, but the speed limit is only about 30mph, and that’s only in the flattest, most open sections. The rest of the gravel road is characterized by steep drop offs, rough terrain and constant views of spectacular scenery that you just can’t drive past without a little staring and picture-taking. As Denali is known for its abundant wildlife, you’ll also have tons of photo ops of animals like grizzlies, wolves, fox, caribou, moose, ptarmigan, eagles, and so much more.
The road lottery application period is open May 1 – 31, so submit your application and pay attention the first week or so of June for the winners to be announced. You can only submit one application per person, but everyone in your family who is over 18 can apply, and lottery passes are transferable, so if the member who wins can’t go, they can sign it over to you, and then you can take as many people as will fit safely in your car.
The road lottery usually takes place around the second weekend in September, though it varies. This year, it’s the 13 through the 17, and the 14th is Military Day, set aside for active duty military and veterans along with their families.
(Travel vans are perfect for the road lottery. Camp overnight before and after, drive in comfort during the day, stop to make lunch at Wonder Lake, keep your snacks cool in the fridge. Perfect!)
Denali State Park
While it’s not a little-known park in Alaska, it seems to be a well-kept secret among non-Alaskans: Denali State Park is just as spectacular as the National Park. The state park straddles the Parks highway south of the National Park, so you’ll drive through it as you head north from Anchorage. From the State Park, you’ll have the opportunity to view the mountain in all its glory, something you can’t do from within the National park until you’re about 60 miles in!
At more than 325,000 acres, the park offers plenty of opportunities for camping, hiking, outdoor recreation and wildlife photo ops.
The K’esugi Ken campground is the newest one in the park, first opened in May 2017. It has 32 sites and also has an overflow section if the main campground is full. A few sites can be booked online, but most are first-come, first-served. From here, you can follow a gentle interpretive nature trail, or hike above the ridgeline on the Curry Ridge trail to Lake 1787 (named for its elevation). The Curry Ridge Trail is about 3 miles one-way, and 1100 feet of elevation gain.
If you’re up for a long hike with spectacular views, try the K’esugi Ridge trail. Accessed via connector trails from Upper Troublesome Creek on the south end, the Little Coal Creek trailhead on the north end, or the Ermine Hill trail somewhere in the middle, the whole trail is 21 miles long end-to-end (not including the connecting trail distances). The views of Denali and the wildlife viewing opportunities are unparalleled. Most people say starting on the North end and hiking South is better, but it’s not a one-way trail, so hike it in the direction you want! (Note: The Cascade Lake trailhead at the Byers Lake campground is currently closed along with the campground for Summer 2019, unfortunately.) Or, if you’re looking for a challenge, sign up for the Kesugi Ridge Traverse!
The Denali View North campground, near the northern boundary of the state park, offers a smaller campground experience with 20 sites. All are first-come, first-served, and this campground offers amazing views of the mountain from within the spruce and birch forest. The Little Coal Creek trailhead is across the Parks highway to the north from this campground.
National or State Park?
You don’t have to choose! You can rent your travel van in Anchorage, camp in the state park on your way to the road lottery, camp in the national park on your way out, and then return to Anchorage, or vice-versa. Sounds perfect to us!