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Wonder Lake at Denali National Park and Preserve
Denali National Park and Preserve is located about a six-hour drive from Anchorage into the heart of the Alaskan range. It is home to the tallest mountain in North America -- Mt. McKinley.
In summer when Alaska days are long and lower elevation snows have melted, Denali National Park and Preserve is a popular tourist destination for wildlife viewing, landscape photography and high hopes for a rare glimpse at Mt. McKinley -- which stands at the 20,320 feet tall.
Due to cloud patterns in the summer months, only 20 percent of park visitors see the entire peak -- usually from one of the park buses that travel the 95-mile Park Road along the base of the Alaskan range. The park service granted the Motion crew rare access to Park Road, allowing them to drive their own vehicle 85 miles on Park Road to Wonder Lake.
Greg is really looking forward to exploring this park with his friends who used to be guides with him at Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides. Ian, owner of SYNG, Tim Bloom, lead singer of rock group, and Kelsey, now a carpenter living near Jackson Hole, Wyoming, are coming along for the trip.
"When I got the phone call to come and do this trip, it was February and I was just kind of just one of those magic moments where the phone call came and they said, 'Hey, how would you like to do a trip to Alaska with the boys?' said Kelsey.
The excitement of reuniting with old friends and the anticipation of the journey ahead had everyone pretty pumped up. They planned to camp at Wonder Lake and then backpack into the Alaskan wilderness for the first time together. The six-hour ride in the van to Denali National Park and Preserve gave them a good chance to catch up and reconnect.
"We used to see each other a lot but the last few years, everyone is busy and we don't get to see each other that much and we are all connected to the mountain so to get together -- all of us -- in this one spot a real treat," said Ian.
Denali National Park and Preserve is nearly six million acres in size. It is centered in the heart of the Alaskan range with sweeping rivers and open tundra to the north.
After a long day of driving and with the sun still up at 9 p.m., the Motion crew arrived at the Grande Denali Lodge just outside the park to bunk for the night.
In the morning, before their trip could begin, they had to check into park headquarters to get permits, a backcountry safety briefing and finish grabbing supplies. They planned to drive 85 miles on Park Road to Wonder Lake where they would camp for the night. Since they were granted a special permit to bring their vehicle to the campsite, they can stop and film wildlife at their own pace.
Bear safety and how to negotiate river crossings are the main focus of the safety briefing. Both black and grizzly bears thrive in Denali National Park but the park's excellent management of human-bear contact has kept these incredible animals and backcountry travelers safe over the years. Attacks on hikers are rare but respect, safety and understanding of how the bears live is critical to having a safe trip.
After getting a fix on their route and their plans for the backcountry part of the trip, they hit the road with surprisingly good weather for the area.
The wide-open terrain and stunning Alaskan range shinned bright in the summer sun. Conditions were perfect for them to see the Mt. McKinley and the summit. It is rare that visitors get to see the mountain.
"We are feeling very lucky. You can come here for days and days and never see Mt. McKinely. On our first day in the park we have great weather and a beautiful view of the mountain," said Greg.
Seeing the mountain from 80 miles away for the first time left the group in awe.
For Greg, Ian, Tim and Kelsey, this adventure was also about reconnecting old friendships forged in the mountains as fellow guides working in California.
"So this was just a fabulous way to make sure that we could take the same chunk of time off and just get some really quality time together," said Tim.
Park Road is one of the best-maintained gravel roads. As it crosses the giant grated riverbeds north of the Alaskan range, wide-open views in every direction begin to transform you. And, it really starts to sink in how big and wild Alaska is.
With their Park Road permit, the group stopped for a few short hikes along the way and to photograph the surreal landscape under a slowly setting sun.
As they got closer to Wonder Lake, the sky and clouds put on an unforgettable show -- framing Denali in a way that just doesn't happen that often.
After a long day on a dusty road into the wild, they arrived at Wonder Lake Campground for the night.
The Motion crew has driven 85 miles into the most remote section of Denali National Park in Central Alaska. After incredible weather and rare views of Mt. McKinley, they set up camp at Wonder Lake Campground.
Wonder Lake has campsites available with running water, toilets and food lockers for bear safety. With perfect summer conditions, it is easy to see why Wonder Lake is so popular with visitors.
Since there are restrictions on campfires at the park, the group met up at the camp cooking area for some dinner. Cooking and storing food away from tents is another way that Denali National Park keeps visitors safe.
The summer days in Alaska are long! The sun finally set at 1 a.m. and came up again at about 4:30 a.m.
As the Motion crew moved around the tundra near their campsite, they noticed a large amount of ripe blueberries everywhere.
"I live in Fairbanks. I have lived there since '97 and I have never seen this many blueberries before. The male mosquitoes actually pollenate the blueberries and we had a really high mosquito year this year," said Polly.
The group's next stop is a place called Blueberry Hill -- a place where the famous Ansel Adams photograph was taken of Denali National Park and Wonder Lake.
Before heading back to Park Road to start their three-day backpacking trip into wild, they explored Wonder Lake on rafts. It gave them a unique opportunity to explore Denali National Park and Preserve.
Denali National Park is a true American treasure. The group's journey to Wonder Lake along Park Road proves that Alaska isn't always a frozen wasteland of truck drivers and crab fisherman. There is a true beauty there that is hard to describe. And, a drive or bus ride on Park Road will deliver you to a place that will literally take your breath away.
For more information:
- Segment 1
- Greg Aiello Reunites with Old Friends for Alaskan Adventure
- Greg Aiello has reunited with three of his old friends to do an adventure in Alaska's Denali National Park, which is home to the largest mountain in North America.
- Watch Segment
- Segment 2
- Motion Crew Gets Rare Look at Mt. McKinley
- While driving to Wonder Lake in Denali National Park, Greg Aiello and the Motion crew get a rare look at the tallest mountain in North America -- Mt. McKinley.
- Watch Segment
- Segment 3
- Wonder Lake Offers Stunning Views of Denali National Park
- After getting stunning views of Mt. McKinley, the Motion crew sets up camp at Wonder Lake and gets ready to experience some of the most scenic hiking and flatwater paddling in the world.
- Watch Segment