In Alaska, you can never really know what to expect. What I imagined to be a smooth and sunny drive on a paved road turned out to be a foggy and snowy six hour dirt road tour of some of the best sceneries that Alaska has to offer.
The Denali Park Road of Denali National Park is an 85 mile stretch that offers some of Alaska’s most stunning and impressive views. Giant mountains, vast valleys and wildlife are present through the entire drive. Most Alaskans, however, have never experienced this. Besides being open to buses belonging to tourism agencies during the summer and the park service, this route is only open to permit holders for four days in September.
Originally open to general public during the 70’s, travel was allowed for anyone willing to brave the road conditions. As time went on, the experience became increasingly popular and eventually road traffic became unmanageable. With just about 2000 vehicles entering a day, the National Park Service decided to put in place a lottery system for road permits. Now, the NPS allows for 400 cars per day to enter for four days (with an extra day designated as Military Appreciation Day).
When I found out this year that my friends and I would be able to make this drive, I was beyond ecstatic. It’s something I wanted to do for a for long time and wanted to make sure I did it right. The night before leaving for the trip, I charged all my batteries and made sure to double check my camera bags. I packed with me a Canon 5D Mk III paired a Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 lens, a Canon 7d Mk II paired with a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8, and an additional Canon 7D Mk II paired with a Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3. I was told there would be a lot of wildlife, and I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss anything.
My friends and I met at my house and left at 2 a.m. We knew it would take us about 4 hours to get there. We planned to arrive at the visitor’s center and get about an hour of sleep in the car before finishing our permit registration paperwork at 7 a.m. We must have been driving slowly — I’m not completely sure since I slept for most the drive — as we didn’t get to the visitor’s center until about 6:45 a.m. We used the restrooms, got our permits and started our adventure.
Upon entering, the first thing we noticed was how completely socked in it was. There was barely half a mile of visibility. I started worrying about not getting to truly experience the awe-inspiring views of the park. We thought maybe it would clear up just a little bit if we waited it out. We pulled over after driving for about 20 miles and decided to take a 30 minute nap. We didn’t wake up for an hour and a half, but fortunately it did clear up a little bit.
The rest of the day consisted of stopping every five minutes or so to snap some photos of the atmospheric fog blanketing the mountains. When it started to snow, it just added to the desolate mood of the landscapes. I was enamored by the surrounding views.
Every so often we would see 10 or 15 or so cars lined up on the shoulder of the road. People would get out of their cars and observe the animals. On this trip we saw five bears, six moose and one caribou. It was nothing short of amazing.
Even though the weather didn’t provide the blue bird skies I originally anticipated, I am still very pleased with how the trip turned out. The Denali Park Road took us roughly six hours, but even that did not feel like it was enough time.
With opportunities to get out of the car and hike almost anywhere along the road I feel as if I could spend weeks in this place. I will just have to keep applying for the lottery every year.