For more than 20 years Denali has loomed over me and I’ve felt a sense of pride from living near North America’s tallest peak. However, Denali always seemed like an attraction for non-residents, so I’d done little more than admire it from a distance while driving to and from other places. On clear winter days in the vicinity of my hometown of Wasilla, Denali adorns the horizon. Occasionally, a summer drive to Talkeetna on the Parks Highway yields a closer view, though it is still quite a distance away. Seeing the grandeur of the mountain from afar has felt insufficient, and I’ve longed to experience a closer look.
My opportunity came in 2018 when Christian Hollums, founder of Wayfare Collective (a locally based North American adventure photography collective), offered me the chance for a quick escape to Wonder Lake in Denali National Park and Preserve. I eagerly accepted.
The tour van arrived early one morning in Wasilla. After I loaded my camping and photo gear into the back, our driver opened the passenger side door and I was met by a sleepy cabin of Wayfare members. I greeted those who woke up from my intrusion with a quiet hello. Several passengers were still trying to come awake, while another was stretched out fast asleep. We had a long day of driving ahead and I didn’t blame them for wanting to rest before reaching our destination. Pulling out of the Carrs/Safeway parking lot, we headed north on the Parks Highway.
After a while members of the group stirred a bit, and conversations commenced. Air Force acquisitions officer, Chris, originally from Texas, and I found we both enjoyed our Sony A7 cameras. Melody from Anchorage, KG, and son Cayden from Eagle River, conversed about their past group photo adventures with Wayfare. Two more, Leslie and Genevieve, were fast asleep in a mash of jackets and photo gear in the front row next to Christian. I soon felt the sense of a close camaraderie amongst the members. One thing we all had in common was our silent wishes and audible requests for the weather to cooperate so that we could catch a glimpse of Denali. Rain was in the forecast.
After a long and sleepy ride, our driver exited the Parks Highway onto Denali Park Road—we were halfway to our destination, Wonder Lake Campground. Only about 85 miles separated us from the campsite, but the travel would be much slower, and we hoped photo opportunities would be the only cause for delays.
Clouds partially covered the Alaska Range. The midday sun burned the thinning cloud cover encompassing the mountain and much of the range. Our group would let out hopeful and energetic appeals to the mountain and the weather every time a new ridgeline or partial view of the peak would make a brief appearance.
We descended into a deep valley and Denali’s summit disappeared behind a ridgeline; it was anybody’s guess as to what we would see at the next viewpoint. Our van motored back up from the valley, and at about 1:45 p.m. we exited the dusty road to a small parking lot—the Stony Hill Scenic Overlook. Elation and joy spread quickly throughout our group. Denali, in all her glory, was on display like an actor on a stage, and we were the audience. We stood amazed at the performance before us, but suddenly remembered we weren’t here as mere spectators, but to capture the show. We gathered our gear and raced to find an angle, a leading line, or a subject to frame within this surreal scene.
Our group was on a mission to photograph Denali. Everyone went their separate ways, searching for unique angles. Little did we know, this was only the beginning of a long incredible afternoon and evening for photography.
Upon our return to the parking lot, a lady with a pleasant but tired voice talked with several of us. She, a tourist named Leesa, had long wanted to see this sight. She conveyed her sense of satisfaction, but then began to tell us her troubled story. As we were on a mission for amazing photos, she also was on a mission to save her life. She needed a kidney replacement, and her time was running short. In this moment all our wonderment of Denali took a pause … life: our trouble, our joy, our desires are given a new perspective when learning of the challenges others are facing. Leesa’s journey was resting upon hope—hope that she could find a match that would allow her to continue life’s journey.*
We parted ways with Leesa at Stony Hill, and continued down our bumpy course to Wonder Lake. Suddenly, a new set of characters entered the stage. As if the view of Denali wasn’t spectacular enough, we were now offered a grizzly sow and two playful cubs in the warm mossy tundra at a low spot next to a marshy creek. We excitedly climbed back out of the van, and staying within arm’s reach of safety, once again began capturing this wild and dangerous, yet somehow serene, setting on display about 150 yards off the road. Mama and her cubs plodded gracefully across the hummocks. She kept an eye on us and her cubs, and occasionally peered off into the distance to a line of figures walking down a ridgeline. She closely watched the unsuspecting hikers until they finally caught sight of her. This was a reminder that in the backcountry one must be observant and take every precaution to preserve life and limb, as this sow was ready to do so as well.
Later, in the early evening, we arrived at a wide spot in the road where our driver let us out. We hiked our photo gear, tents, sleeping bags, and food down a small park road to the Wonder Lake Campground. The clouds around the Alaska Range had almost entirely dissipated and the scenery was stunning. So much for the forecast of rain. Upon arrival at the campground, we set about erecting our tents, and then scouting Wonder Lake, as well as a trail above the ridgeline east of the lake. Before venturing too far we prepared needed sustenance so we’d be ready for our evening adventure—finding the perfect shot of Denali at sunset. In late July the glow of the sunset is still on the mountains at 11:30 p.m.
A light breeze kept the mosquitoes slightly at bay, but it also meant Wonder Lake would have surface ripples. The group’s goal was to find a body of water large enough and properly situated in elevation to capture the desired composition of Denali with alpenglow and a glassy reflection. All signs pointed to Reflection Pond as having the most potential in our vicinity.
Warm sunset hues began to cover the Alaska Range. We gathered our gear and hiked uphill to the Denali Park Road, and west to the pond. Excitement reached a fever pitch as the mountain, adorned with tinted clouds and a soft glow, stood silent, ready and waiting to be our glorious subject. The dusty single-lane road finally led us to an overlook of Reflection Pond, elevated above and to the side of Wonder Lake. We hooped, we hollered, we exchanged animated comments laden with colorful descriptors at the sight we now beheld. Our long journey was rewarded by a view that so many visitors, residents and tourists alike, long to see.
Denali reflected with alpenglow across the pond for what felt like an eternity as we squeezed our shutter buttons, resituated our angles, and continued capturing the illuminated mountain. We were immensely grateful for this glorious sight. Yet, a part of me didn’t feel worthy. Tourists spend thousands upon thousands of dollars to get this view, many times completely missing it because of cloud cover. We locals have endless opportunity to stroll into the park all year long to take in this breathtaking sight. Unfair? No. Incredibly blessed? Definitely! My gratitude is said best through the lyrics of a Tracy Byrd country music song: “I tip my hat to the keeper of the stars.”
The next morning we packed up early and hauled our gear to the road where our driver was to meet us for the journey back home. Our window for sleep was narrow, and most of us had an ache here or there, but no one was complaining. We were each gratified with what we were bringing back from our short 20 hours in the park. We were bringing back memories of an evening that could only be described with the overused adjective, ‘epic,’ and photos that would rise to the top of our personal portfolios. Yes, epic is the definite descriptor of our experience with Denali—in all her glory.
*Since this article was written, we’ve followed Leesa’s story. She received a kidney transplant and is regaining her strength daily. We hope to see her again on her next Alaskan adventure.
Thank you to Wayfare Collective member Melody Anne for her inspiration for writing this article, as well as Aurora Expeditions for the transportation to Denali and back.