DENALI NATIONAL PARK, Alaska (AP) -- Being one of the 1,600 winners in the Denali Park Road Lottery doesn't carry a cash prize, but the reward is priceless.
Winners of the annual road lottery receive a permit, for which they actually have to pay $10, to drive their vehicles into the heart of the 6-million-acre Denali National Park and Preserve. The 91-mile route is normally reserved for crowded tour buses and park vehicles only.
You can't put a price tag on Alaska's beauty, and there is no prettier place than Denali National Park and Preserve, especially on a glorious fall day in September.
Just ask Linda McLean of Guthrie, Okla., a two-time winner in the road lottery. McLean, who also won a permit in 1998, has visited Alaska in September for the last seven years. This year, McLean rearranged her entire vacation in order to drive into the park after she found out she had won a permit. A seven-day trip to Kodiak turned into a 14-day Alaska adventure centered around the drive into the park.
McLean and her partner, Don Tennill, drove into the park on Monday, Sept. 16. They saw moose, eagles, ptarmigan, a grizzly bear and a wolverine. The highlight was watching four wolves follow a small herd of caribou at Igloo Creek around Mile 34.
''I saw the alpha female throw her head back and howl,'' McLean said.
The grizzly they observed near Eielson Visitor Center took a liking to them, prompting McLean to retreat to their rented Ford Explorer. After she shut the door, the bear charged the sport utility vehicle and rubbed up against the side.
McLean and Tennill drove into the park at 6 a.m. and didn't leave until 10 p.m. Being in the park after dark was a special treat.
''The sunset lasted a long time,'' she said. ''I'm a big fan of sunsets, and it was magnificent watching the edge of the mountain grown dark. I was just standing outside and breathing that air.
''I love the smell of that air.''
The Denali Park Road Lottery has become a popular game since it was instituted in 1990 by the National Park Service. This year approximately 18,500 entries were received, up from last year's 12,000 entries. That means about one out of every 11.5 applicants wins a permit.
Of the 1,600 winners, 1,439 were Alaskans and 161 were out-of-staters, including three people from Germany, said pork spokesman Doug Stockdale.
The park is opened to lottery winners for four days on the third weekend in September after tour buses have stopped running. Winners are assigned a specific day -- Friday, Saturday, Sunday or Monday -- and 400 vehicles are allowed into the park each day.
Prior to the lottery, the park was opened to public traffic after the buses stopped running. That policy was changed in 1989 when 1,600 vehicles crammed into the park in one day.
''Accidents occurred, cars went off the road, wildlife was harassed and some animals were killed,'' Stockdale said. ''The park instituted the road lottery to protect wildlife and other resources. Controlling road use also enhanced visitor experience for those driving the road.''
To apply for the lottery, applicants send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to the park during July. Both winners and losers are notified in August.
While the park doesn't keep track of the number of winners who actually show up to drive into the park, Stockdale said the majority of winners use their permits.
The sight McLean will always remember was 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, in all its glory. While it had rained the night before and the day began with clouds, the sun eventually broke through.
''It was one magnificent sight,'' she said of their clear view of the highest peak in North America. ''It looked like you could walk to it in a few minutes.''
McLean, an amateur nature photographer, shot 15 rolls of film inside the park.
''It was one of the best days of my life,'' she said. ''I wouldn't trade it for anything. The wildlife was perfect, the mountain was spectacular and the timing couldn't have been better all day.''
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