There are a couple of options for camping in Denali National Park. You can get a ‘backcountry’ permit and head into the wilderness to be entirely away from your fellow man, or you can camp in one of several organized campsites along the park road. We didn’t exactly succeed in travelling light on this trip to Alaska; sometimes I blame the laptop, other times the camera gear, sometimes the camping gear but either way we have a lot of stuff and so we decided to camp in the organized campgrounds. (Note/ there are actually lockers on the outside of the Wilderness Access Centre (WAC) where you can store excess gear if you wish, although I don’t know if I’d trust them with your laptop)
Backcountry Permit Camping
We’ve since met a number of people who have backpacked in the wilderness of Denali, and heard various accounts of how confusing the setup is. Essentially the whole of Denali National Park is segmented into different ‘backcountry units’, and if you want to camp you need authorization for a particular unit. To book a unit you need to go to the WAC in person, and you’ll only be able to book a unit three days in advance. We met some frustrated campers who wanted to stay in a particular area, but found the unit they desired was full, so they needed to camp in another unit until the one they wanted came available. Needing to book and be allocated a backcountry unit (but not able to do so in advance by phone or online) can make planning your trip to Denali a little difficult – but not impossible.
Part of booking your backcountry unit at the WAC will involve watching a video on bear safety, and I understand if you don’t have one already you will be provided with bear canisters for your food/scented items. Everything needs to be packed in and packed back out again, but you can camp anywhere (within your unit) and you’ll get a unique ‘wilderness’ experience.
The Organised Campgrounds
We camped at Wonder Lake, Igloo Creek and Riley Creek campgrounds. But I’ve summarised the basic information for all the campgrounds below:
Campgrounds can be booked (if allowed) at www.reservedenali.com or by calling 1-800-622-7275. Campgrounds which cannot be booked can be arranged in person at the Wilderness Access Centre (WAC) or potentially at the Riley Creek Mercantile – we booked our walk-in Riley Creek site at the Mercantile.
Wonder Lake Campground
Wonder Lake is one of the most popular campgrounds (can be booked out months in advance on www.reservedenali.com), and I think should be made a priority if you have a few days to spend in Denali. It’s the farthest campground into the park and offers the best views of Mt McKinley. Because it is so far into the park (five hours drive from the entrance), camping here is the only way you can really explore the surrounding area, and if you stay a few days you increase your chances of getting a cloud free sighting of the elusive Mount McKinley.
Wonder Lake has flush toilets, drinkable tap water, a couple of large walk in food storage lockers, a ranger program (7pm informative evening talks), a campground host who met us when we arrived on the bus and helped us find a campsite – they even advised us to move sites the next day to one with a better view of Mount McKinley.
Igloo Creek Campground
Igloo Creek can only be booked in person up to three days in advance at the WAC (along with the other walk-in campsites – see my table above). In planning for our trip to Denali we booked three nights at Wonder Lake for the start of our stay, and two nights in Riley Creek at the end of our stay. We left the four nights in the middle open – we then booked Igloo Creek in person at the WAC when arrived.
Igloo Creek is a basic campground, and is priced accordingly, it offers food storage lockers and a long drop (vault) toilet, but no tap water or cooking shelter like Wonder Lake, which we sorely missed when it rained continuously for two days.
The highlight of the campground is the creek which runs next to the campground and offers a nice trickling sound and your drinking water (after treatment or boiling). You’re lower in elevation compared to Wonder Lake, but right on the border of the tree line and the alpine tundra, so the campground is actually in the woods but head a few minutes across the river and you’ll be above most of the trees and on the tundra (easier walking, see farther, less chance of a surprise encounter with a bear). Watch for dall sheep on the mountains above. Walk the opposite direction and you will stay in the trees, but have a higher chance of seeing a moose – we didn’t, but we did see plenty of fresh prints from the early morning/night before.
Riley Creek Campground
Right at the entrance to the park and opposite from the WAC, the Riley Creek campground offers some desirable facilities (power, internet access, showers ($4 and includes a towel), coin laundry, shop, beer) but it certainly doesn’t have the same atmosphere as the campgrounds within the park – you’re certainly in an RV park here, and as a walk-in tent camper they damn well make sure you know you’re not as important as the RV’s are. The walk-in tent loop is shoved about as far away from the shop and other facilites as they could put it, and we were directed there with a vague wave of the hand and some distracted mutterings about following any path until the end. Laden down with our many bags and extremely grumpy we eventually found it. Saying that, we eventually managed to find quite a nice tent site tucked away from everyone else where we had a very pleasant stay.