My wife, our 1-year-old daughter, my wife’s sister, her husband, and their 2-year-old daughter spent our first night sleeping in our cars on a wayside pull-off just south of McKinley Park on the Parks Highway. We awoke to a beautiful blue sky day, headed into the Park, and made our first stop at the old McKinley Park Hotel (which was sadly destroyed two months later by a fire.) After a brief tour of the hotel and its facilities, we had fun feeding the ground squirrels that would pop up from their holes on the hotel’s front lawn (something I’m sure the Park Rangers would frown upon today!)
We drove through the Park and saw numerous grizzly bears with cubs right on or near the road, several caribou, and dramatic panoramic views of Mount McKinley in all its rugged glory. We camped and canoed at Wonder Lake and stayed up late to watch our first beautiful McKinley sunset, befitting of a Sydney Laurence painting.
In 1984 we made another trip to Denali National Park with our 13-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son. This time we spent the night at the McKinley Chalet Hotel and rode the bus to the Eielson Visitor Center. Although we did see some wildlife; the bus trip wasn’t nearly as exciting as driving ourselves, so we again dreamed of one day driving to Wonder Lake.
In September 2010, 38 years after making our first drive to Wonder Lake, we were finally able to return, this time as Denali Road Lottery winners, accompanied by our 37-year-old son who had never made the drive to Wonder Lake.
When we checked in at the Wilderness Center to get our road pass, the Park Ranger told us we were doubly lucky -- not only had we won the lottery, but we’d be able to see Mt. McKinley! Only 30 percent of visitors get that chance due to weather conditions around North America’s highest mountain. We had an exciting drive with numerous bear and wildlife sightings, magnificent clear views of Denali throughout the day, and became members of the “30 Percent Club!” We also enjoyed touring the new and improved Eielson Visitor Center, with its interesting and eco-friendly architecture.
And yes, we’re once again dreaming of a drive to Wonder Lake. The 2012 Denali Road Lottery draws on July 15 and hope to get doubly lucky again!