Denali National Park: Fall and Winter are Winners with Alaskan Families

A carpet of red and gold, by Lia Keller, AK Skedaddle

Last weekend was the golden opportunity for hundreds of Denali National Park Road Lottery winners to redeem their prize of independent exploration along the Denali Park Road. For years, the National Park Service has offered individuals the chance to drive their personal vehicles along the entire 85-mile stretch of gravel road after the last shuttle bus has exited for another season. An annual lottery application process takes place months earlier, in May, and tons of folks click on their computer keyboards and pray they’ll be one of the lucky. They should; autumn in Denali National Park means red hillsides, antler-clad moose, fat bears, and mile after mile of precious Alaska wilderness.

I’ve not yet been among the lucky.

Ready for action! (courtesy Lia Keller, AK Skedaddle)

However, my pal Lia over at AK Skedaddle, has. Lia, her two sons, and a set of grandparents made the long drive from Anchorage to the park with a bundle of food, a camera, and high hopes for this stretch of Interior Alaska. Below are her observations and suggestions for those who come after her, in next year’s annual spin-the-wheel contest.

Getting there: Lia suggests adding an extra day in between the drive north or south (depending upon your original location), and the day slated for the park drive. The lottery gives visitors one single day, chosen by the Park Service, so give careful consideration to a three day weekend. Be prepared for any sort of road condition; snow to construction delays can and do occur this time of year, so build in additional time for your journey to or from the park. The drive takes, on average, five hours with kids (stops, photos, snack breaks).

Accommodations: Lia and her family stayed at the Grande Denali Lodge, perched on a mountaintop above Nenana Canyon, or “Glitter Gulch,” just outside the Park entrance. Even though most of the canyon area is closed for the season, some hotels do remain open through lottery weekend. The Denali Chamber of Commerce can help with lodging options for fall and winter seasons in the nearby communities of Healy (12 miles north), or Cantwell (30 miles south), and any possible location in between.

If camping is your thing, Riley Creek Campground  is open year-round, and NO fee is charged through mid-May. Have an RV? This is a great opportunity for some fall camping. Like to camp in a tent? No problem, but be bear aware and add lots of extra layers at night. Brrrrr.

Don't forget to check out the exhibits!

Need a backpack? No problem - borrow this pack full of kid-friendly activities for a few hours! (courtesy Lia Keller, AK Skedaddle)

Redeeming the lottery ticket: Winning the Denali Road Lottery is one thing, obtaining the actual pass for a day of exploration is another. Lottery winners must go to the DNP Visitor Center at Mile 1.5 to obtain a pass, no earlier than one day prior to the scheduled visit. The pass entitles your carload of folks, each of whom must still pay the $10 park access fee, entrance between 5 a.m. and midnight of the scheduled visit.

Cars can still drive from the park entrance to Savage River, however, just as any other day, and the Savage River shuttle will continue to run between the visitor center area and Savage River’s bridge throughout lottery weekend. Spending a few days? Take the shuttle and hop off at Savage River for a hike around the rocky meadows near the river; excellent for kids.

Hey – while you’re in the Visitor Center for your lottery pass, don’t forget to check out the displays and exhibits, AND the great backpacks for kids that can be checked out for a few hours of nearby exploration. AK Kid loved this during the summer months, and I’ll bet the same would hold true for autumn.

Rocks? River? Both combine to make happy kids along the Denali Park Road. (courtesy Lia Keller, AK Skedaddle)

Driving the road: As beautiful and novel the concept might be, for many kids, driving the Denali National Park Road is still just that – driving along a road. How did Lia and her family make it work with a two and five-year-old? Planning, she said.

– Regular stops made wiggly boys happy, because 85 miles of road at 35 mph was a long day. Lia did wish her family had taken it slower and easier, without feeling as if the actual end of the road was the goal. Good point; the journey is often the destination with kids in tow.

– Snacks, drinks, and mealtimes were critical. No food is available in the park, with concession stands closed for the winter. Bring a well-stocked cooler, Lia advises.

– Dress kids in layers so the out-of-car moments will be warmer, and cozier.

– Entertainment was crucial. DVD player, books, toys, all the good stuff for a road trip came in handy for Lia.

– Wildlife was everywhere, as you can see from the photo, below. Cars must pull off the road if they stop, so Lia and her family just followed the crowd and came across some pretty spectacular sights.

"Can I help you?" Wildlife abounds along the Denali NP Road. Just make sure you slow down and take it all in. (Lia Keller)

Other Denali National Park info: Now that lottery weekend is over, the Park Service opens the road as far as Mile 30, and will keep it so until snow makes the roadway impassable for cars. As every day brings us closer to winter and snow, it is advised that all travelers check the DNP website, weather forecast, AND Alaska 511 road condition report before setting out from Fairbanks or Anchorage.

This week the Denali Visitor Center closed for the season, and the Winter Visitor Center (also known as Murie Science and Learning Center), became the hub for all things DNP in the fall and winter. A must-visit for anyone entering the park during these seasons, one can take a guided snowshoe hike, read books, explore the park via computer, and talk with rangers who spend the winter in this magical, quiet, and definitely off-the-beaten path destination.

DNP Winter Visitor Center is cozy, warm, and perfect for a day of family fun in the wilderness (nps.gov)

 

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