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How to Spend Three Perfect Days in Denali From a Campground

Alaska Denali National Park National Parks Insider Guides Hiking Camping
by Jacqueline Kehoe Mar 4, 2020

With the six campgrounds inside the park situated near hiking trails and high-mountain lakes, and the 20,308-foot Denali peak dominating the background, no national park in America is better suited for summer camping than Denali. This three-day itinerary is based from the Wonder Lake Campground at mile 85. On your first day, 5.5 hours will be spent on a bus. Pack for adventure because this trip takes you across miles of trail, topping mountains and lounging waterside alongside the way.

Day one

The first shuttle leaves the Wilderness Access Center, near Riley Creek Mercantile at the entrance, at 5:15 AM. You can book tickets online or the same day, as 35 percent of seats are reserved for walk-up ticket sales.

Grab a shuttle around 7:00 AM and you’re at Wonder Lake by 12:30 PM. Hop right off the bus, and lighten your pack by eating lunch at the lake. On a clear day, you’ll see Denali across the rippling water. It’s already 2:00 PM by now — time to set up camp. Wonder Lake is a fairly small campground with only 28 sites, so locating a spot won’t take long, with the bonus of being near the toilets and water pumps.

Photo: Lijuan Guo/Shutterstock

Walk on foot to nearby Reflection Pond. It’s 2.5 miles away, but remember, you’re hiking at backcountry speed, and there are blueberries to pick along the way. It will take a couple of hours to get there and a couple to get back. That’s perfect, as you’ll be there when the sun is lower in the sky. If it’s a still day, the reflection of Denali above the pond makes for one of the best photos anywhere in the park.

After grabbing the photo, walk back along the trail, though the nearby road is an easy option if you get lost. Back at your campground, walk up the hill to catch the late Alaskan sunset and one last view of Denali. Then, it’s marshmallow time.

Day two

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The four main units of the park worth visiting from this campground are units 12, 13, 34, and eight. Units 12 and 13 are right next to each other, across the road from 34. Unit 8 is an entirely different area. Get to the crossroads of those first three units early in the morning and be ready for a full day of basking in nature. If you really want to come back on day three, you can. Since you’re just day-hiking, no permit is needed.

Hop on a transit bus heading east out of the park to Eielson Visitor Center. It’s at mile 66, so the bus ride is nothing compared to yesterday. It’s still a ride, though, so use the time wisely and ask the bus driver for some tips based on weather, time of year, and trail conditions. Once you exit the bus, collect your bearings: Unit 13, Mount Eielson, is just west of unit 12, Sunset/Sunrise Glaciers. Unit 34, Mount Galen, is across the road, just north of unit 13.

Start in unit 12, crossing into 13 if time allows. Head downhill on the trail from the visitor center to Gorge Creek, taking your time on the steep scree when the trail runs out. Eventually, you’ll hit the Thorofare River gravel bar, a permanent compass to be grateful for.

Follow the river all the way to Glacier Creek in unit 13. Here, Denali pops out of the clouds, making this a good place to rest, consume ample calories on the tundra benches, and take in the view. Then, head back into unit 12 to get higher up Gorge Creek into some serious alpine terrain before the day’s end.

Photo: Ludmila Ruzickova/Shutterstock

If there’s extra time and you aren’t exhausted, head into unit 34 for wide-open vistas and great views of the range. The best access is actually 2.5 miles west of the Eielson Visitor Center. Or, satisfy the need for elevation by climbing up Gorge Creek and getting closer to the glaciers’ edge.

Keep an eye on the clock as the sun moves closer to the horizon, as you need to catch that last shuttle. Be sure to hit the road around 7:00 PM — enough time to make dinner around the fire and get a good night’s sleep.

Day three

Photo: melissamn/Shutterstock

Today, you’re going to see an entirely different section of the park — unit 8, Polychrome Glaciers. Get up early because Polychrome is at mile 46, and the bus ride is twice as long this morning as last.

Once off the bus, notice the small creeks cross the road just west of the overlook, providing corridors that avoid brush south into the unit. Head their direction. It will be lunchtime by the time you reach the beginnings of the Alaska Range and the glacial valleys the unit is so famous for. Pick a flat spot in the tundra, somewhere in the fields of willow and deep blue Alaskan forget-me-nots, and spend lunchtime looking at all your options: Which ridgeline between the glaciers looks most accessible? Which one has the sturdiest hiking surface?

Then, hike up. And along. And up. And along. The vistas don’t get old, and as the sun moves and the clouds float, the colors change. Walk along the ridgelines noting all five of the accessible glaciers in this unit.

Where you are is about five miles away from the road, a decent trek back. Hiking down the scree slopes won’t necessarily be simple, and it’s windy here. Hiking with poles isn’t easier. But you take it slow, and the views keep you company. The road is in sight, and you follow the same gravel bars back to your stop, flagging down the next available bus.

The long bus ride back gives you time to plan your last Denali adventure: another quick jaunt up the hill from the campground for views of the mountain. In summer, the sun “sets” closer to midnight, and twilight lasts ages. The light on the mountain is beautiful well into the night. Stay up late and celebrate — all you have tomorrow is the trek back out of the park and back to reality.

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