Denali National Park: At Wonder Lake


Wonder Lake Campground, located at mile 85 of the Denali Park Road and thereby the closest campground to The Mountain, is comprised of twenty-six tent sites mostly arrayed along a gently sloping amphitheater beneath a low ridge. Amid the campsites and stretching beneath the campground into the middle distance is a landscape sparsely studded with tall, thin Black Spruce amid low tundra brush.


Image: Sean M. Santos

Twenty-six miles south of the campground the Alaska Range rises as an immense wall stretching east-west along the horizon.




On the afternoon of Sunday, August 23, at the conclusion of our memorable, wildlife-filled bus ride out out to the campground from Denali’s visitor center campus, driver Thomas backed the camper bus to a point where the road’s incline steepened to make it easier to unload gear out of the back.

We were in no particular hurry and were just glad it was warmer than it had been at the higher elevations along the road. Most of the other hikers grabbed their things and hurried up the sloping road to select good campsites. We sauntered up and were the last of our busload to choose a site. Ironically we ended up with what was one of the most magnificent sites in the campground. It was the site lowest down and farthest out into the basin of the amphitheater, which meant that we had a 180-degree view into the Denali wilderness toward the Alaska Range. Next day, some other campers would refer to our site as “the private estate” of Wonder Lake Campground.


In addition to the campsites, Wonder Lake Campground features a few shelters with picnic tables and a large bear locker. Campers are required to store food and toiletries (anything with a fragrance) in the bear locker. Camp stove fuel must be stored in a special metal locker. The fun thing about this situation (besides the safety aspect) is that it created central hubs of activity within the campground. Instead of everyone cooking and eating in their own campsites, we came together communally. It afforded a much better chance than would be usual to meet your neighbors.


It was also a fascinating opportunity to observe at close range the approach people took to being at a remote campground like Wonder Lake. As you can see in the image above, some folks let it all hang out. The woman who owned that bra was traveling with two male friends, one gay, one straight. They were in their early twenties and taking a trip at the end of a season of working at some sort of camp in Alaska. They drank a lot of vodka that evening.

A family we’d been on the camper bus with had their gear in roller suitcases and had a giant hibachi grill that they’d lugged up the hill from the bus drop off point.

But most folks were outfitted largely as we were: essentially in backpacking gear because of the walk-in nature of the site.


There was also a “free” shelf in the locker, where campers left items they wanted to give away. Sean discovered a paperback mystery novel about a cat detective there. It became a souvenir of Alaska.



Despite the communal feel, Wonder Lake Campground is still a rigorous campground to get to and to be at. Obviously there are no RVs, and there are enforced quiet times (as at most campgrounds on public lands). But there was also a sense of respect for where we were and the other campers that was palpable. People were having fun, and in the shelter they were being friendly and enjoying conversations with other folks from all over the world who were in this place with them, but it was also a quiet place where, even with the permanent structures, it felt like we were all momentary interlopers in Great Nature.


The path from the shelter to our campsite


Wonder Lake Campground was far warmer than Eielson Visitor Center or other high elevation spots along the road. There was a nice breeze, and the sun appeared semi-regularly through breaks in the swiftly moving clouds. The combination of breeze and sunshine meant that we were able to dry our tent, section by section, and thoroughly, as we made camp. This was a huge relief. Even if it got quite cold overnight, I knew we’d be fine as long as we were starting with a nice, dry tent interior.


In the bright afternoon, making camp was a leisurely activity, punctuated with long stretches of taking in the view or checking out the tundra flora surrounding our campsite. In the image above, the gently curving, somewhat triangular “cloud” at the bottom of the largest patch of blue sky is, if not the summit of Denali itself, quite likely some cloud cover hugging The Mountain’s summit. At the time, though, we did not know where on the horizon Denali was hiding behind the clouds.




Dwarf Birch


Gray Jay, Black Spruce



Black Spruce


Black Spruce


After making a dry, cozy, well-organized camp and having lunch, we were able to sit and relax and read (or snap more photos, like that of my favorite tree, below).


Black Spruce

And given the placement of our campsite, when we were facing southeast with our backs to the rise of the ridge, there was nothing but wilderness stretching out in front of us seemingly forever.


Black Spruce


Despite the rents in the cloud cover revealing blue sky, the clouds did occasionally spit a few drops of rain on us, which caused a beautiful rainbow to appear above the campground. After our cold, wet morning and sleeting, misty adventures on the road, the arrival at Wonder Lake was toying with Biblical metaphors. Or conversely, out here we were being treated to the original inspiration in Great Nature for such mythological images.


Wonder Lake Campground


Either way, it was perfection itself.




Tundra foliage


Tundra foliage


Tundra foliage





Dogwood and Lowbush Cranberry

As the afternoon progressed, we decided to take a walk over the low end of the ridge and have a look at Wonder Lake.




The path, which was part of the road/trail network of the campground and therefore wide enough for tour buses to travel on to reach the picnic area next to the lake, descended gently through a forest of Black Spruce, Aspen, Willow, and Dwarf Birch.


Aspen and Black Spruce


Black Spruce






Wonder Lake


Wonder Lake

Wonder Lake is a kettle lake, which was formed when a huge block of ice broke off of glaciers retreating south toward the Alaska Range at the end of the last ice age. The block of ice would have been surrounded by glacial till (sediment from the retreating glacier), creating a depression. When the ice melted, the depression filled with water, forming a cold, clear lake.


Wonder Lake


Wonder Lake


Lowbush Cranberry




Image: Sean M. Santos

As we walked back up the low ridge, a second rainbow appeared above the higher ridge above camp.








We noted the location of that evening’s ranger program, some benches facing out from the ridge toward the Alaska Range. Although it said that it was a campfire circle program, fires were not allowed at Wonder Lake Campground, and the name was more a reference to Park Service tradition than to actuality. In any case, we decided that we would have some dinner and then attend the program.




We dined on a dehydrated backpacker meal of chicken risotto, cooked in the shelter with the other campers. There was a low-key pace to dinner as the campers at the various sites near the shelter leisurely took turns using the picnic tables. The atmosphere was friendly and collegial.


The campfire talk at Wonder Lake Campground that evening was “Our Wilderness Heritage,” presented by Ranger Andy Keller. After beginning with the standard bear and moose safety notes, Ranger Andy launched into the tale of the rise of large-landscape conservation in the United States in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with a particular focus on the perspective of Alaska and Alaskans: John Muir (the wilderness prophet); Charles Sheldon (the member of Teddy Roosevelt’s Boone and Crockett Club who urged protection of the lands around Mt. McKinley); Bob Marshall (who explored and advocated for wild Alaska); Adolph, Olaus, and Mardy Murie (the naturalists who revolutionized our understanding of Alaska’s wildlife); Aldo Leopold (who urged conservationists to embrace an ethical relationship with the land); Howard Zahniser (who penned the Wilderness Act); and the push for and passage of the Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act (ANILCA) in 1980, which ultimately designated millions of acres of National Parks, Preserves, Monuments, Wildlife Refuges, and Forests in Alaska.

Ranger Andy’s presentation of such a huge amount of material in only an hour was lively, passionate, and extremely engaging. Because we were outside, sitting on split log benches with the Alaska Range sweeping across the horizon behind Ranger Andy, he used handouts, maps, and posters attached to a homemade framing structure, rather than a projector and screen. I tried not to be the guy who raised his hand every time Ranger Andy asked questions such as, “Does anyone know who Aldo Leopold was?” or “Who has heard of Howard Zahniser?,” but I couldn’t resist.

Ultimately, it was a hopeful presentation, culminating with the preservation of vast swaths of Alaksa land to be used and enjoyed by visitors from all over the world and by Alaska residents, both native and non-native. Ranger Andy ended the presentation with a sing-a-long of “Forever Wild” by Susan Grace.

(This was actually not the first time we had been invited to sing at the conclusion of a presentation at a National Park. Candy Peterson had prompted us to sing in a round on the beach at Daisy Farm at Isle Royale National Park.)

After the presentation, some campers stuck around to chat with Ranger Andy and to get recommendations about hiking options for the following day. He said that if the sky were overcast, that McKinley Bar Trail to the McKinley River was a good hike, but if the sky were clear and The Mountain visible, then rambling up the trailless ridges above camp would provide spectacular views of the Alaska Range.

We lingered beyond the other campers chatted further with Ranger Andy. He was originally from Oak Park, Illinois (although he made his permanent home in Fairbanks these days), and was therefore familiar with Chicago Wilderness and the work and concerns of conservationists in the greater Chicago region. He had initially come to Alaska to help during the fight to pass ANILCA in the 1970s. We chatted about Sean’s and my travels in National Parks and about my work at Openlands.

He said something that I’ve carried with me and which has informed my thinking about communicating the work of Openlands in the months since we were in Alaska. Waving his arm behind him, he talked about the vast, complete ecosystem of Denali and how in Alaska, it was a matter of protecting and preserving millions of acres of existing landscapes and ecosystems. But in Illinois and the Chicago region, we are doing the extremely difficult work of reclaiming land acre by acre and restoring and healing that land. Although seemingly obvious, the staggering perspective of standing in Denali but thinking about the small, special places in the Chicago region has sunk deep into my perspective this fall about how we talk about the work of conservation in the third largest city in the nation.

After gabbing for an additional hour, until twilight was settling in in earnest and I was bone chilled, we said goodnight. Back in camp we boiled water for our hot-water bottles.


While we were waiting for the water to boil, Sean engaged a couple, commenting that they had the same cook set that we did. They had been at Ranger Andy’s talk and were just now finishing having their supper. We got talking a bit about gear. Their names were Kristen and Brucek from Austin.


Once our water bottles were finished, we stowed our gear in the shared locker, said goodnight, and walked down to our campsite.


Although it was past 10pm, the northern twilight lingered as we tucked ourselves into bed.



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