92 Miles of Awe: Driving the Denali Park Road
The odds were not in my favor. Out of over 12,000 applicants, only 400 lottery tickets per day are given out during the annual Denali road lottery. And of those, only one of the four days is over the weekend- the others on weekdays, so you’d have to take time off. And then, once you’ve been lucky enough to secure a spot (some people apply for years without success), the issue of weather comes into play. Denali, the mammoth, is so large it creates its own nasty weather system. If you can believe it, the famous mountain that people travel across the world feel small beside is only visible 30 percent of the time.
So you can imagine my utter shock to find myself on the Denali Park Road last month, staring across a bracing fall day at “the High One” in all its unencumbered 20,310 foot glory. The night beforehand, at the Denali Outdoor Center, we had rocked up without reservations to score a campsite by Otto Lake just as the sunset lit the fall foliage around us into a raging inferno of color. We got an early start the next morning. Under boundless blue skies, our car kicked up dust over braided rivers and somber forests to Savage River, Polychrome Pass, and beyond- all blanketed with the intense patchwork of fall tundra hitting its peak. Even the born-and-raised Alaskans in our midst agreed; it was a once in a lifetime chance.
During the summer season, visitors to the park can only drive their cars about 15 miles of the 92 mile road. The rest is only available by bus tour or shuttle, and in the winter the road is closed to vehicles entirely. To have the luxury of driving your own car down that wild road is an experience not easily beat . The sight of brake lights ahead periodically signaled wildlife sightings. We stopped in awe to see our first grizzly bear, a hulking mass of power and ease eating berries with indifference to the click of shutters and car doors. By the end of the day our count was impressive: nine grizzlies, two Dall sheep, a lone caribou, plenty of moose, and some endearingly dim-witted ptarmigans.
It’s a long 92 miles to the end of the road and after all the stops on the way in, we made it out of the park in about half the time. After about eight straight hours of driving (still four hours from Anchorage), we had only one thing on our minds: pizza. (P. I. Z. Z. A). By the third “closed” sign we passed, the prospects weren’t encouraging. It became increasingly obvious as we became increasingly hungry that our one and only option for a pizza dinner (or any dinner) that night was pinned on a greasy Tesoro gas station.
Forty-five minutes and five frozen Digiorno pizzas baked impatiently in the gas station microwave later, things looked a lot brighter. I collapsed into bed that night counting grizzlies instead of sheep and thinking of the millions of acres of wild land in Denali that no road will ever reach. Let’s keep it that way.
“It would be fitting, I think, if among the last man made tracks on earth would be found the huge footprints of the great brown bear.”
– Earl Fleming