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Denali Road Lottery: Everything You Need to Know

Denali

Have you ever visited Denali National Park and yearned to drive the 92-mile dirt road yourself? During the Denali Road Lottery, one week is dedicated to allowing a select group of lucky visitors to do just that. After entering the lottery, if your name is drawn you earn the golden ticket to drive your own vehicle on the road for a full day. 

Below, I dive into the details of how to enter, what happens if you win, how much it costs, the rules, and everything else you need to know about the Denali Road Lottery.

This post was updated on May 29, 2020. This page may contain affiliate links.

 
An image of Denali reflected in a lake below it. The text on the image is encouraging you to download a checklist of what to do while visiting Denali National Park by signing up for e-mail notifications.

How the Denali Road Lottery Works

Scenes from day two of Denali Road Lottery on Saturday, September 16, 2017. Visitors stopped along Sable Pass to view bears throughout the day.

NPS/Emily Mesner

Each year, thousands of people apply online to enter the Denali Road Lottery. Winners are able to drive the Denali Park Road in their private vehicle for a full day.

How to Apply

From May 1 to May 31 each year, the lottery is open for entry. You can apply as soon as 6 a.m. AKST on May 1 and as late as 11:59 p.m. AKST on May 31. During this time, visit Recreation.gov to apply. You’ll need to select the specific date you wish to drive the road, then list the remaining dates in order of your preference. There will be four days to choose from, which vary from year to year but are always in mid-to-late-September. 

You can also call to apply at (877) 444-6777. Applications are only accepted over the phone or online; no mail-in applications will be counted.

You cannot apply outside the application period of May 1-31. If you try, Recreation.gov will allow you to complete the first few steps of the process but eventually show an error message.

Note: In 2020, the Denali Road Lottery entry period is from June 1 to June 30.

You’ll typically find out whether or not you won about 2 weeks after the termination of the application period. All applicants are notified by e-mail whether or not their name was drawn.

Three grizzly bears cross the road between cars during Denali Road Lottery

NPS/D. Gualiteri

Cost

There is a non-refundable $15 application fee that every entrant is required to pay. If you win, you will be charged an additional $25 permit fee to drive the road.

Important! This $25 permit fee will be automatically charged by Recreation.gov when your name is drawn. If there is an error, Recreation.gov will disqualify you and give your permit to someone else. Make sure the credit card you have on file is valid! 

When Is the Denali Road Lottery?

Dates vary every year, but always fall sometime from mid-to-late-September. In 2020, the Denali Road Lottery will take place on September 18, 20, 21, and 22 with September 19 reserved for Military Appreciation Day.

Scenes from day two of Denali Road Lottery on Saturday, September 16, 2017. Visitors stopped along Sable Pass to view bears throughout the day.

NPS/Emily Mesner

Military Appreciation Day

Every year, one day of the Denali Road Lottery (usually a Saturday) is reserved for currently-serving military members and their families. In 2020, this is September 19. No applications from the general public are accepted for Military Appreciation Day.

Denali National Park does not handle applications for Military Appreciation Day. If you are currently serving in the United States military and you are interested in applying, speak with your base commander to learn about the permit distribution process. Most road passes are given to military bases in Alaska.

What Are My Chances of Winning?

A line of cars on Denali's Park Road during Denali Road Lottery

NPS Photo

Each day, 400 tickets are given to lottery winners to drive the road. Because the Denali Road Lottery lasts four days, this amounts to 1,600 available road passes. An average of 11,500 people enters every year, giving you a 1 in 7 chance of winning the lottery.

Changes For 2020 Denali Road Lottery Amid COVID-19 

The first major change for 2020 is the application period. Usually, you would apply in May. For 2020, it is June 1 to June 30. You can apply any time from 6 a.m. AKST June 1 to 11:59 p.m. June 30, 2020.

Furthermore, Denali National Park will hold additional, smaller road lotteries in July and August. This is to accommodate visitors to the park amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In order to comply with CDC regulations, fewer buses will be operating in the park.

Rather than a traditional lottery, reservations will be accepted on Recreation.gov beginning June 1. You will be able to select a date and time you wish to drive Denali Park Road. If you do not have a reservation, you won’t be able to drive beyond Mile 15 (Savage River), where the paved road ends.

What to Do if You Win the Road Lottery

A sign reads "Denali Road Lottery check-in" with an arrow pointing to the visitor center

NPS Photo

First off, congratulations! Celebrate your big win and get ready to participate in one of Denali National Park’s most unique and celebrated events.

Receiving Your Permit: The first thing you’ll want to do is pick up your road permit at the Denali Visitor Center (located 1.5 miles into the park). Expect long lines and be patient during this process. You can pick up your permit beginning September 11 (no matter which day you are permitted to drive the road). I highly recommend picking up your permit in advance rather than the morning of your trip.

What to Bring: To check-in and receive your permit, you will need a valid driver’s license with a name that matches the name of the person drawn. If the permit has been transferred to you, you should have your driver’s license in addition to a letter from the original winner stating they have transferred their permit over to you.

Rules of the Denali Park Road: When you pick up your permit, park rangers will review the rules of the road with you. This may be done individually or in groups while you wait in line. You must receive an orientation to the rules of the road regardless of how many times you have won the Denali Road Lottery.

It is critical that you listen carefully and adhere to the rules while you are in the park. I highly recommend watching this video on driving the Denali Park Road before your trip. Don’t hesitate to ask the park rangers any additional questions you have: your safety is paramount! If you do not follow the rules of the road, your permit could be revoked and you will be asked to leave the park.

Erica Stephens and Cass Ray greet visitors going into and out of the park during Denali Road Lottery at the Savage River Box on Sunday, September 17, 2017.

NPS/Emily Mesner

Savage River Check Station: On the day you drive into the park, rangers will stop your vehicle at the Savage River Check Station to make sure you have your permit. This is another time to ask questions if you have any. They may also cover a few more important road rules with you. Expect long lines here, especially if you arrive first thing in the morning, and be patient.

Weather: If inclement weather results in the closure of the park road, no refunds or exchanges will be distributed.

Denali Road Lottery Rules

2015-09 Denali Road Lottery-40.jpg

Transferring Your Permit: If you win the lottery but are unavailable for the day you are selected, you are allowed to transfer your permit to someone else. You are not allowed to sell it; it must be transferred free of charge. Give the person you are transferring your permit to a signed letter stating that you are transferring your permit. Be sure to include both of your names in this letter.

Camping During the Road Lottery: Riley Creek, Savage River, and Teklanika are the only Denali campgrounds open during Road Lottery. You may also receive a backpacking permit during Road Lottery, but you cannot park your car on the road for multiple nights. Unlike the main summer season, there is not a minimum stay of 3 nights to drive your vehicle to Teklanika Campground. If you are camping at Teklanika and you’ve won the Road Lottery, you are not permitted to drive beyond Teklanika Campground until the date stamped on your permit.

Vehicle Restrictions: The road is very narrow from Mile 30 to Mile 92. Therefore, vehicles may not exceed 22′ long x 8′ wide x 12′ high. Dimensions may be checked at the Savage River Check Station if you are driving a large vehicle.

Pets: You may bring pets with you, however, they are subject to many rules. First, dogs cannot bark at wildlife. If this occurs, you are required to leave the area immediately so as to not disturb the animals. Furthermore, as usual, pets are only allowed in parking lots, on the Park Road, and on the Roadside Trail/Bike Path. You may not bring pets into buildings, on any other trails, or off-trail. An easy way to remember this: pets can only go where cars and bikes can go.

Hiking: You are allowed to park your car and day-hike during Road Lottery. Be sure to leave your car in a designated parking lot of pull-off due to the narrow road. For suggestions, check out my list of the best hikes in Denali National Park.

Wildlife: It is important to view wildlife responsibly. Do not approach, feed, pester, call to, yell at, or disturb wildlife in any way. It is best to view wild animals from your vehicle, though you are allowed to leave the vehicle as long as the animals are at least 25 yards away. It’s important to remain close to your vehicle at all times in case of an emergency. For more, check out my tips on staying safe in bear country.

Why Does Denali Have a Road Lottery?

A wolf walks in front of cars during Denali Road Lottery

NPS/D. Gualiteri

Before 1972, visitors could drive their private vehicles on the Denali Park Road freely. Then, visitation skyrocketed with the establishment of the George Parks Highway (Highway 3). Prior to its construction, visitors accessed Denali by train or plane. Therefore, the use of private vehicles on the road was restricted in order to protect park resources and visitors. Buses took visitors into the park in the summer while private vehicles were permitted in spring and fall.

In the 1980s, the number of private vehicles was difficult for the park to manage. Nearly 2,000 vehicles were on the road daily. This caused major traffic jams and problems with pets, wildlife, food storage, and sanitation. As a result, the park created the Denali Road Lottery in 1990. Originally, 300 vehicles per day were permitted. In 1994, the number was raised to 400, its current rate.

Planning Your Trip to Denali National Park

There are plenty of things to do in Denali National Park during your Road Lottery visit. For more information, check out these helpful posts:

Pin Denali Road Lottery

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