December 13, 2016

The Riley Creek Campground: Your Gateway to Denali National Park and Preserve

Whether you're diving into the Denali wilderness or simply dipping in your toes, Riley Creek camping offers a taste of Alaska that you'll never forget.

A camping trip in Denali National Park and Preserve is a bucket list item for many. My group was no exception.

On the first evening of our six-day trip, we arrived at the expansive, yet buzzing starting point of the park road that leads into Denali National Park and Preserve, passes for Riley Creek Campground in hand.

For the three of us—Tyler, Jon, and myself—the trip began with a long day of travel, a wealth of eager anticipation, a healthy nervousness, and a below average knowledge of what lay ahead.

Riley Creek Campground was the perfect introduction to the park.

Riley Creek Campground Overview

Riley Creek Campground is located at the northeast corner of Denali National Park and Preserve, at mile 0.4 of Park Road, the road responsible for transporting you to all the campgrounds via park buses.

The three loops of Riley Creek Campground are home to 147 sites including both RV and walk-in (tent-only) sites. The proximity to the park entrance leaves campers just minutes away from restaurants, shops, and the general comforts of life outside the park, but Riley Creek itself also offers plenty of amenities for campers on their first or last night on the edge of the park.

While the campground itself can be a destination for many, it served as a great basecamp for our trip, allowing us convenient access to the Denali Visitor Center, the Murie Science and Learning Center, and the Riley Creek Mercantile before heading to Wonder Lake the following day.

Stocking up at the Riley Creek Mercantile

My two companions and I were well-prepared with the gear and provisions that we would need for our week, but we got to the park with a few “nice-to-have” items still waiting to be picked up. We stopped at the Riley Creek Mercantile to ask a few questions about the bus schedule the following day and were pleasantly surprised with the selection.

In addition to ice cream, beverages, and a multitude of food options, the store offered surprisingly competitive prices on camping essentials from clothing and souvenirs to mosquito nets, trekking poles, and camp kitchen utensils.

We remarked that one could nearly show up for a trip with little in hand and leave the Riley Creek Mercantile prepared for a week in the Denali backcountry.

setting up tent at Riley Creek

Staying at Riley Creek Campground

Campsites at Riley Creek require a reservation, but once you arrive, specific spots are first come, first served.

We toured two of the three loops in the campground, looking for the right spot. The land is fairly flat and does not yet introduce campers to the majestic panoramas of the rest of the park, but the abundance of trees around campsites gives just enough of a wilderness feel, especially for the beginning of a trip.

We picked a site and set up, quickly realizing that the firewood sold at Riley Creek would be necessary as there were very few felled trees from which to collect branches. We ended up going without a fire for the evening since the summer yielded little darkness and the campfire didn’t feel quite right.

moose at Riley Creek

Wildlife at Riley Creek Campground

One of the reasons that Riley Creek Campground is such a great spot for the beginning of a Denali trip is that it is less secluded than many of the other campgrounds. As a result, you can expect to see less of the large wildlife like grizzly bears, sheep, and wolves.

On our first and only night at Riley Creek, we saw a number of red squirrels and a variety of birds without fear of encountering larger, more potentially threatening wildlife.

As we set up our camp for the night (one person with a tent, one with a hammock and me simply sleeping on a tarp thanks to the beautiful weather and lack of bugs), we enjoyed a slow pace and light conversation. In the midst of this conversation, I looked up over the shoulder of my companion and could only utter a single word, “moose.”

baby moose in Alaska

About 15 feet away, a cow and calf walked through the woods, occasionally stopping to chomp on leaves or survey the ground for food. We stepped back to a safe distance and enjoyed about 30 minutes of these beautiful, vehicle-sized animals while feeling the rush of our first Denali wildlife encounter.

Riley Creek Campground Quick Facts

Location: Mile 0.4 on the Denali Park Road

Nearby attractions: Murie Science and Learning Center, Denali Visitor Center

Campsites: 147

Campsite options: Walk-in, RVs up to 40 feet

Maximum campers per site: 8

Amenities: Restrooms, potable water, picnic tables, fire grates, food lockers, garbage cans

Riley Creek Mercantile amenities: RV dump/fill stations, showers, laundry, firewood for sale

Reservations at Riley Creek Campground

The campground will fill quickly in the spring and summer, so arriving without a reservation is not recommended.

You can make reservations online starting as early as December for the following year at www.reservedenali.com. You can also call 1-800-622-7275 with questions or for additional reservation information.

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