A wide range of trips throughout Southcentral Alaska.
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The round-rumped grizzly bear ambled toward us, and I swallowed a scream and the urge to run. It had 6 million acres of Denali National Park and Preserve wilderness in which to roam, yet somehow this bear had managed to find my backpacking partner and me, alone on the Savage River.
Southcentral towns outside Anchorage often have a wide selection of lodging to accommodate visitors who come to town for a weekend's relaxation, to fish or to show off the state to relatives.
Western Alaska's grand expanse of terrain, water and wildlife attracts many visitors with an interest in the outdoors. Its larger cities -- Kodiak, Bethel, Unalaska/Dutch Harbor and Nome -- put up quite a few visitors and governmental and commercial guests for the night.
Hotels in Barrow and Kotzebue, in Northern Alaska, cater to tour groups, which arrive by plane from Anchorage or Fairbanks.
Annual fall lottery allows lucky few to motor down the scenic park road
EIELSON VISITOR CENTER -- Back at the Polychrome Pass overlook, where we had huddled against a bitter wind in winter coats and hats, the park visitor in Hawaiian shorts seemed crazy, stupid or both.
But at a visitor center 20 miles deeper into Denali National Park, we were the ones overdressed.
The sun was out, as was 20,320-foot Mount McKinley. Inside, the center felt luxuriously warm, like a greenhouse. Outside, the parking lot buzzed like a beach party. People stood outside their cars -- yes cars, not buses -- stretching and chatting. Some picnicked or took short hikes; others snapped photos and pressed on. A few dogs ran around on leashes.
Meanwhile, one of the most spectacular vistas in the world loomed behind.
Not everyone who drives into Denali is lucky enough to see the mountain, but on a mid-September Saturday this year, McKinley was mostly clear -- unobscured except for a mysterious drape of clouds swirling around both summits.
It doesn't get much better than this.
To win the road lottery that annually lets 1,600 people drive their vehicles into the park over four days in September is luck enough. But if your day to drive into the park happens to come when the weather is good and the mountain is out, well, you feel blessed.
Dr. Nicholas Deely, a pediatrician from Fairbanks, was basking in that good luck this year. With his rented Ford Traveler van parked along the road, he and his family stood transfixed with binoculars at a pond's edge, watching two beavers glide across the water as they hauled sticks to build a lodge.
Each year since the lottery has started, he has sent in an application. And each year, he waits expectantly to see whether he or anyone in his family has been drawn. ''We keep our fingers crossed,'' he said.
Deely, his granddaughter and her boyfriend spotted the beavers first. Soon several cars had stopped and a ranger ambled over. Deely pointed out the beavers to other bystanders.
''Look, there's one now in its condominium,'' he said, eyes crinkling in amusement.
Deely said he loves the road lottery because it offers a chance for his family to poke through the park in the comfort of their own vehicle, stopping wherever they choose. Later that day, they planned a cookout at Wonder Lake.
''It's a tradition if we win,'' said Deely's granddaughter, Brenna Redick, a freshman at University of Alaska Fairbanks. ''You never get tired of it.''
Though the road lottery now seems like a long-established Alaska tradition, it's really just 13 years old. Prior to the 1970s, the park road was open year-round to everyone. But in 1972, in a move to protect wildlife and prevent traffic jams and accidents, the National Park Service closed the road to most vehicle traffic.
From then on, buses became the way most people visited the national park. The road was open to private vehicles for only a couple of weeks each fall. Eventually, though, the park service decided even that limited driving adventure had grown so popular it was disrupting the park's wildlife.
Thus began the road lottery in 1989. The idea was to limit the number of vehicles but give all visitors, particularly Alaska residents, the opportunity to visit the park the way everyone once did, by private vehicle.
The first year of the lottery was a disaster, said Denali park spokesman Doug Stockdale. The Park Service let in about 1,600 cars on a single day, and the result was mayhem. Accidents occurred, cars went off the road, and some animals were killed.
The agency has since worked out the kinks. It now lets in 1,600 cars but only 400 per day. Lottery winners are each assigned a specific date for driving into the park.
Not everyone shows up. This year, Stockdale said, about 60 permits went unused each day. The park service does not reissue those permits. Instead, the vacancies simply lessen traffic on the road.
Accidents still sometimes happen, as do occasional collisions with wildlife. But the most common problem is vehicle breakdowns. Not even that happened this year, Stockdale said.
''It was remarkably problem-free this year,'' he said.
Not bad for a year when a snowstorm just days before the road lottery had park officials preparing to plow the road. The road sometimes closes temporarily during the lottery because of snow, rain or ice.
As word of this driving opportunity has spread, interest has increased. Stockdale said the lottery used to attract between 9,000 and 11,000 people, but that jumped to 12,000 last year. And this year, applications were up to 18,500. At the same time, general park visitation was down approximately 4.5 percent.
It's not hard to figure why a car trip into Denali is gaining in popularity. This is one of the state's great road trips. It is only made more special because you can do it once a year, and then only if you're selected.
''It's great to be able to do this, but I'm glad you can't do it every day,'' said Lori Chase, another Fairbanks resident and a West Valley High School teacher touring the park with family members and friends. ''I've been to Yellowstone, where they allow private cars, and it's nuts.''
''I wouldn't want to see them open it up (to cars), ever,'' added Deely. ''And the road should be maintained as primitive as possible so people don't dash around.''
Anyone can enter the Denali road lottery, but most applicants are Alaskans.
That turns the drive in a uniquely Alaskan party. All are in a good mood because they can roam the park at will and perhaps because Alaskans like to be in groups but also want the freedom to do what they like when they like.
For us, it allowed a drive to Wonder Lake with two babies aboard. That would have been difficult, at best, by bus. Our son, Bennett, who is just 4 months old, was most interested in trees and a ground squirrel. Our neighbor's daughter, Clarice, who is 16 months, held up her hands like claws each time she saw a bear. Both kids were content to stay strapped in car seats for most of the 12 hours it took to go to and from Wonder Lake.
Another bonus of the road lottery is that it takes place in fall, when willow thickets have turned yellow and aspens are shedding their leaves. Some people say fall is the best time to see wildlife too. The moose are entering rut, and plump bears amble across mountain slopes, eating continuously in preparation for winter.
Our day in the park started slow. Our first wildlife sightings were groups of ptarmigan being videotaped by visitors on the side of the road.
From there, the suspense built. First a moose in the distance, then Dall sheep, visible as tiny white dots on black rock, and finally bears.
Near Wonder Lake, we spied a bear about 75 yards from the road. Standing next to an adjacent van, Kennett Fussell, visiting from Washington, D.C., and traveling with a Park Service group, became nervous when the bear moved closer.
''OK,'' he told his traveling partners. ''He's pretending to ignore us, but he's actually 300 feet closer now. OK. It would take him five seconds to get here and 10 seconds for us to get in the van.''
As if on cue, the bear romped off and scratched its back on a spruce tree. The top of the tree swung wildly.
At sunset, we stopped to watch a bear that looked back warily at us. After several minutes, it took off scampering, eventually coming down the slope to cross the road in front of us. It was so close, a truck and a herd of minivans took off in pursuit. Then the bear slipped away on the other side of the road. It was the only time the crowd was unruly.
A few miles later, we spotted a glorious bull moose after the sun glinting off his antlers gave him away. Within a few more miles, two more bull moose ran across the road, perhaps in rut and hot pursuit.
And with that, the last light faded and darkness settled on the park. We drove on in silence, the babes asleep beside us.
TAKE A DRIVE IN SEPTEMBER
(Reporter Elizabeth Manning can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 907-257-4323. This story appeared Sept. 29, 2002, in the Anchorage Daily News.)