It was officially here… the Denali National Park Road Lottery! I was lucky enough to have a super awesome friend, Beth (THANK YOU BETH!) pull the road lottery and sign it over to another friend, Jamie, who I got to go with! Jamie let me go with her three years ago when her name got pulled, and then when I had someone give me the permit two years ago I brought her! So we have been Road Lottery Permit traveling partners and I love it! Going into this weekend we were beyond excited as to what we would see and how far into the park we would be able to get to. Two years ago we had to stop at Toklat due to heavy snowfall. Looking back on all the Road Lottery’s of the past, I don’t know if I will ever beat the amazing wildlife we saw three years ago… so many bears AND so close! We were going to be grateful no matter what we saw but we hoped for some good views!
I got into the park as the sun was setting. The sky had some nice yellows and oranges and Denali was out for all to see! I had to stop in and get the camping permit for Savage River Campground. I also bought some firewood and beer. This was the first time we would be camping at this campground this year. I love this campground. It is about 12 miles into the park. It is generally quiet with some nice hiking trails right from the campground. I have seen great horned owls, moose, gray jays, red squirrels, and voles from this campsite before.
I pulled into the campsite and I was on a mission to find a larger site because I had the RV and Jamie was coming down in a van with Dave, her husband, and some friends, Tim and his girlfriend, Cassie. I found one towards the end of the loop and quickly put my permit up on the sign! I hung out in the RV until I saw some lights coming down the road. I got out and waved hoping it was them… it was not. A few minutes later I saw another vehicle coming and I waved… it was not them either BUT they were right behind the second vehicle. They pulled into the spot and we immediately ate the Prospector’s Pizza they bought. It was delicious! We enjoyed a nice fire, chatting, eating pizza, and drinking beer. I don’t think you can get much better of a fall evening. I offered to have the others stay in the RV with me and Jamie and Dave quickly accepted. We had a long day ahead of us. We got to bed dreaming of the day to come! ROAD LOTTERY DAY! (Disclaimer: Yes we are all investigating Tim’s foot, he badly hurt it while wearing sandals at the grocery store… Those carts are verocious)
We woke up to Jamie’s Birthday AND Road Lottery Day! I can’t imagine a cooler way to spend your birthday! Unfortunately, the RV was out of power. We determined we will need to buy a new battery for it, but leaving the stereo on didn’t help. We had some breakfast of donuts, coffee, and breakfast sandwiches. It was quite the spread! We then had to drive back to mile 3 to the visitor center to pick up the road lottery permit.
We easily got in and out and we were officially on our way! There was a line to get into the park from mile 15. We waited for over 20 minutes, but of course it was worth the wait. It was an absolutely gorgeous day in the park. Only a few clouds sprinkled across the sky. We had a van full of fun adventurists ready to take on the park and enough food for 10+ people.
On our way from Mile 3 to Mile 30 we had already seen Denali, a bull moose, and a bear! Denali was already not disappointing.
We continued on to see a spruce grouse, four bears, and remarkable scenery between Teklanika to Polychrome pass. Three of the bears were a sow and two cubs on the hillside of Sable. The other bear was a single bear who slowly made it’s way over a hill and out of sight.
In polychrome I spotted another bear! Our bear total was up to 6! This bear was far away but we still spent time viewing it. The scenery from Polychrome was also pretty darn epic.
We made our way past Toklat and saw some dall sheep three more bears! Another sow and two cubs!
On the way to Eielson the main attraction was Denali! She was OUT! We spent quite a bit of time posing with Denali! You can’t beat that backdrop.
It seems weird to turn into Eielson Visitor Center and see a parking lot of cars…
We decided to press on! We were headed to the reflection pond in hopes of some reflections of Denali. Most of the wildlife seemed to be taking the day off between Eielson and Wonder Lake. Once we got to reflection pond, we saw that there wasn’t a whole lot of reflection. We then made the decision to head to the north end of Wonder Lake. Between reflection pond and the North end of Wonder Lake we saw this guy:
I now seem to see these Northern Hawk Owls pretty often! We got to the North end of the lake and Tim volunteered to be my model for a photo I was hoping to get this year. He went to the pier in Wonder Lake and I set up my camera. He asked me, “What do you want me to do with my hands?” I was still setting up and responded, “Be You! Just don’t put your hands up over your face!” With that I asked if he was ready and he was off! He jumped into Wonder Lake! I think the photo was a huge success!
We all laughed and Tim dried off. I had accidentally stepped too far into the lake and gotten water in my boots. Oops! We headed back to the van and then the group talked about the idea of heading to Kantishna. Some of them hadn’t been to the end of the road so we wanted to go but then we didn’t know if we had enough gas… We ended up driving on down to Kantishna! We made it to the end of the road!!!
Tim and Cassie made us an incredible lunch in the van as we left the end of the road. I felt like we were at a gourmet subway! We also took some more photos while reflecting on reflection pond! Heading on our way the kind family who took our photo at the end of the road was pulled to the side with a flat tire! Oh NO! We stopped but they said they already were working on it.
On our way back to Eielson we were frantically looking for a spot for the fun bunch of adventurists to pose with Denali in their birthday suit! What a birthday for Jamie! We searched and searched until we found a little pull out. They wanted to see the mountain but also have some privacy! We found an absolutely perfect spot and we got an absolutely perfect shot.
After all those fun shenanigans we saw a sow and a cub a few miles before Eielson. We started watching the pair of bears and they kept getting closer and closer. We kept moving the car in hopes to see them closer than the other bears we saw. While we were watching them, both stood up and looked up at the road where we were!
We moved up to where we thought the bears would cross the road but then saw that they snuck up to the road a little earlier than we had thought! I hung out of the van a bit but did manage to get a photo of the mom and little bear on the road, in front of the glacial moraine of the Muldrow Glacier. Whew! If anyone is counting, that is 11 bear sightings now! The bears then quickly made their way away from the road. We left them and headed onto Eielson.
The sun was setting fast as we made our way out of the park. The sun created some great shadows amongst the mountains. We sang and laughed while heading back. We were all a little worried on gas and ended up seeing one more bear! Our grand total ended up being 12 bears. The only wolf we saw was the sign… but it was such an incredible trip!
As we filled up our bowls with delicious chili and all the fixings, we got a little Aurora show! A great way to end the day!
We slept in the next morning and had a plan to hike the Savage Alpine Trail. We ate another amazing breakfast of breakfast burritos! We had a few camp robbers, a.k.a Gray Jays who kept coming for food! We tried to shoo them away but they were relentless! Tim also made me a modified jalapeño popper. It was AMAZING!
After an amazing breakfast, we got ready for our hike! It is 4 miles long, 2 up and 2 down. We went up the same way Josh and I had gone, going gradually up and hiking down the steeper part.
The first animal we saw was a spruce grouse. While I went after the grouse to get a photo, the rest of the group decided they needed to shed some layers!
We were stopped next when a red squirrel blocked the trail. It popped out of the grass and decided it needed a better grip on the giant mushroom it had found.
The next wildlife we came across was a nice sized lazy bull moose. It laid in the brush. We tried pretending we were moose, but this must have been a smart moose. We continued on our trail and later we saw it get up and move across the trail and into the tundra.
When we got above the tree line, we realized it was actually a really windy day. The wind ripped through us as we all scrambled to put on our wind breaker jackets. We made it to the top and it was hard to walk straight!
Right when we began our hike down a group of hikers said that they had seen a dall sheep ram. I hadn’t seen one other than a dall dot in SO long. I then asked our adventurers if they were down for some rogue hiking! It was time to make our own trail! We left the trail behind and hiked to where you could see the sheep! It was a giant ram! I was happy that it decided to lay in what was left over of the fall leaves.
After sitting in the wilderness with the dall sheep, looking out into the rolling hill and mountains, I thought about how lucky I was to get to have this experience. I headed back to the group who were all having a snack not too far away. We then made our way down the trail.
I love this trail when you get to the rocks and steep cliffs. Not only do the rocks add a beautiful element to the scenery but this is also where you can find Pikas! We kept on hiking down and came across quite a few pikas before one actually sat and posed for me! It nibbles on some grasses as it’s fur blew in the wind.
We made our way all the way down! We checked the bus schedule and ended up on the last bus of the day back to the Savage River Campground. We got back and then had to get ready. We were going to restaurant 229 on the Parks Highway. I have always heard how fabulous it is but haven’t actually had the opportunity to go. I totally forgot actual non-athletic clothes. Luckily I had a pair of jeans and a fitted t-shirt that I could try and make work. Jamie and Cassie looked super cute! We made our way out of the park and saw a bear! It was far away but still, a bear! We also saw a nice moose right on the side of the road.
We left Denali and drove on down to 229 and after 5 steps I fell in love. They had a desert-to-go section that made me giddy and salivate after just looking at the different items and reading the descriptions.
We were a little early for our reservation but they were able to accommodate us. We all got a drink and read through the menu. I could have closed my eyes and just randomly selected something, everything sounded so incredible! I thought the prices were going to be worse too. I ended up going with the steak. The first thing that came out was an appetizer of Crispy Parsnip Chips and Dip. I would recommend this to anyone and everyone. The chips were so light and crispy. The bread that came out was pretty darn amazing as well. I tend to fill up on bread. When the steak came out, I was elated! I ate it ALL! Then I had my heart set on a desert, or too!!! Jamie and I each got a homemade ho-ho with pop rocks as a topper. We got a smore’s cookie to go too…
After dinner we headed back to the park. Tim recommended us try and see if the Saloon in the park was open. We tried it out and we had a great time! We had a few beers and danced to the live music. We headed back to our campsite in the dark. I couldn’t help but think of all the animals that were out there. We got back to the campsite and made a large fire. It was so hot by the fire, one of the hottest fires I have had. We ate the s’mores cookie and played a game where we went through the alphabet naming musicians and bands. The first half of the letters were more comprehensive but we eventually made it through all of the letters. We were all pooped and went to bed after we thought of Led Zeplin for Z.
We woke up the next morning and cooked some bagels over the fire. After breakfast we packed up all of our stuff and headed to mile 15. We then went on the loop trail along the river.
While hiking we saw a moth, a lot of far away dall sheep, and an arctic ground squirrel. It was an easy, light hike. We got back to our vehicles and then started heading out of the park. Denali was out. We stopped to take some photos and then continued on our way.
To end the incredible Road Lottery long weekend we ended the trip on some 49th State Brewery food. Jamie and I split a pretzel with beer cheese chicken tenders, and then chocolate mouse! I want to say a HUGE special THANK YOU to BETH! You allowed us this incredible opportunity! I truly appreciate it! I also want to thank my awesome Road Lottery Adventurist Friends for making this one so great and memorable!