Denali Road Lottery 2016 / by Kevan Dee

Every fall, after nearly all of the tourists have migrated back south to warmer climates, but just before winter and darkness sets in, Denali National Park clears its single road of all buses and opens it to a lucky few to drive at their leisure. Below is a collection of my favorite images from my full day in the park, and a description of my day in the park, where the forecast called for clouds and rain but actually quite the opposite was experienced. 

The park allows drivers, in their own vehicles, to enter the park at 6am from the Savage River checkpoint, and 7am from the Teklanika gate. To maximize my time in the park, I found that you can book a campsite at Teklanika, which allows you to drive your vehicle in those first 30 miles (15 past Savage River) even if you don't have a permit or lottery pass to drive the rest of the road. So the night before my lottery day of Friday, I drove up under cloudy and rainy skies from Anchorage to head in for an early start the next day. Once I passed Cantwell and entered the Alaska Range, the rain ended and clouds soon were breaking up as the storm ran into the wall of mountains that surround Denali.

I received my lottery pass and campground permit upon checking in at the park entrance, and was soon slowly driving into the park keeping an eye out for the moose that hang around the first few miles of road. Sure enough, I spotted at least 3 bull moose (with a little help from all the cars stopped at each sight), and pulled into camp before sunset under mostly clear skies. My need to rest for the big day of driving I knew was coming over ruled my desire to stay up and photograph the night sky, so Lumi and I called it a night shortly after dinner. 

Expecting cloudy skies, I awoke to find them still mostly clear, as they were in the evening, except for a spattering of high clouds which were sure to make for a nice sunrise. Lumi and I loaded up and headed for the gate, just before the scheduled 7am opening. Turns out the gate was already open, who knows for how long, so I scarfed down my cold breakfast and hit the road, hoping to make it to Polychrome pass for sunrise at 7:30. It worked out nearly perfect, and I was able to get good sunrise colors both at the Toklat River below the pass, and up on top of Polychrome. The only thing I missed were the sheep that usually hang around, but I didn't spend much time looking as I really wanted to maybe catch the tailend of sunrise on Denali with the clear skies we had. 

Driving on to Stony Dome, the popular first grand view of Denali visitors get along the road, we only paused to watch a Grizzly grazing in the hills about 4-500 yards from the road. The view from Stony Dome did not disappoint, with small clouds surrounding Denali but not actually blocking much of the view. I set up shop here for a while, setting my camera up to work on extra-long exposures of 5 to 15 minutes, and setting myself down in a chair to practice some sketching that's been long overdue. 

My plan for the rest of the day included some hiking, but mostly taking it easy and not rushing through the more harsh light of midday. I would have plenty of time to make it to the end at Wonder Lake, only about 30 miles from the Eielson visitor center, where I was planning on setting up to shoot sunset. Eielson was getting busy when I arrived just before noon, but I found a parking spot and left Lumi to guard the pickup while I hiked up Thorofare Ridge, a short 1 mile and 1000 vertical feet above the visitor center. The steep hike was well worth it, with a close encounter with an owl part way up, and of course an incredible, unobstructed view of the Alaska Range. There was a little snow up top, and a stiff breeze, so it didn't take me long to shoot a large pano of the view and get headed back down. In all, it was less than 2 hours to return to the parking lot. 

The storms that are responsible for Alaska's heavy rain and snowfall slam into the Alaska Range and are literally stopped in their tracks. This doesn't leave much for the North side of the range, which gets far less moisture, resulting in much drier conditions. This was very evident during our day on the park road, where dust was probably the greatest threat to the many views along the road. I had planned on tailgating for lunch at Eielson, but the constant dust clouds sent me down the road searching for a clear place to park and enjoy my lunch in peace. Maybe 10 miles down the road I found a short maintenance road to a quarry, so I pulled off and parked on a small hill, a perfect picnic spot in the shadow of The Great One. 

This stretch of road from Eielson to Wonder lake is the most scenic, with only a river valley and short tundra foliage between the road and the mountains. We made several stops along here next to some of the kettle ponds left over from former glaciers, arriving at the Wonder Lake area in the early evening with several hours before sunset. I checked out the McKinley Bar Trail, which takes you to the McKinley River, but only hiked part way since my real goal was to get Wonder Lake between me and Denali. The mountain was becoming shrouded in clouds though, so it seemed my great luck with the weather was starting to run out. I explored the trails around Wonder Lake, and depending on your preference, you can view Denali from the lake shore or head to higher ground, a small hill behind the lake. I opted for the hill and found a couple favorable compositions up there surrounded by the fall colors of tundra. 

The Park Service begins sweeping the road at 7pm from Wonder Lake, with the goal of ushering out visitors from Savage River at midnight. I set off just before 7 to head back and hopefully get some sunset images from Eielson or Stony Dome. The clouds, though hiding the summit from view, were very active and interesting, making for some good photos on the way out. Luckily though, nearing Eielson, the clouds began parting just as the sun was reaching the horizon. I snapped some photos and a panorama at Eielson, and then set off for Stony Dome, only to be happily stopped by a small crowd with lenses and eyes pointed down, below the road. I quickly swapped lenses knowing some animal was down there, and hopped out to find everyone watching a very round grizzly sitting in the tundra below, about 100 yards down the hill. A few of us stayed here, watching the bear graze parallel to the road, heading away from Denali. Finally realizing that I had the ultimate background subject, I quickly drove up in front of the bear a ways, setting up a good shot of him grazing below the summit of Denali, as the sun set behind that, lighting up the North slopes and the surrounding clouds. Of course now the bear is working his way almost directly towards me, so I got my pickup ready for action, rolling up the windows and leaving my door open, prepped for a quick exit! Sure enough, the bear wasn't too concerned with the photographers along the road, and split the difference between us, a very uncomfortable but exciting 50 yards, especially when we made eye contact! As with most National Parks, the local wildlife aren't too concerned with us yuppie tourists along the road system, so this bear just continued on his way with only a short, confident, top-of-the-food-chain glance back.  

There was one more grizzly between there and Stony Dome, but he was a little further off, so I continued on to capture the last of dusk on Denali with a few more long exposure shots. After those images I was ready to get back for dinner and a full nights sleep! It clouded up that night so I didn't have to worry about missing any starry sky photos and sleep came easily.

I had plans to drive the Denali Highway from Cantwell to Paxson with friends over Saturday and Sunday, so I was up at sunrise again, packing up and heading out as the next wave of lottery winners were entering the park. I kept my eyes open for wildlife on the way out, and a glimpse of something white stopped me part way out. I pulled up the binocs to find just the large shovels of a bull moose above a ridgeline several hundred yards off. I quickly saw he was moving at a trot, and almost directly towards me! As he approached I caught more movement, even closer, and realized bullwinkle was chasing his girl through the tundra, and she was now only a few dozen yards away, about to cross the road. She was lined up perfectly and I snapped one image of her in focus with her pursuer behind her just out of focus. She crossed the road about 20 yards in front of me and he wasn't far behind. Before he could cross, two cars showed up, and they might have kept going but I flagged them down to enjoy this moment as well. Despite my good intentions, the cars stopped just where the cow crossed, which then stopped the bull and almost made him turn around. The first car saw this and pulled forward enough for the bull to resume his chase, giving me a few last wildlife shots before I left the park. 

The last shot I had in mind before leaving was the Riley Creek railroad bridge, surrounded by orange and yellow birch trees at the peak of their fall colors. I pulled up to the spot I remembered from my last trip to the park, and tried pulling up the rail schedule, but it seemed I would have to wait too long to get a shot of a train. Before I got out though, a car pulled up behind me, and it wasn't until I got out that the other driver also exited and followed me to the viewpoint. I took my photos and started heading back when the other guy stopped me and said the train was about to pass by! Sure enough, only about 10 minutes later the train sounded it's whistle just before crossing the bridge and completing my photo. 

I couldn't have asked for better weather for my single day in the park this year, and was very happy with the images I recorded. The road lottery was well worth the 5 year wait, and even though I could probably get a photographer's permit to drive the road at other times of the year, getting the road without buses and with the perfect fall colors is a much better trip.