Wonder Lake Campground 101: Camping in Denali National Park and Preserve
Check out one of Denali's iconic campgrounds to experience Alaska at its finest.
After five hours on a bus, moose sightings, a cat nap, and two chocolate chip Clif bars, we finally pull into camp and our cheerful driver, affectionately known as “Ponytail Paul,” helps us unload our bags at Mile 85 of Denali National Park and Preserve.
The signs read “Wonder Lake” and the northern face of the Alaska Range demands all the wonder I can muster on this clearest of summer days.
We hike our way to the campgrounds and laugh that we’d considered a backcountry tour.
Maybe someday, but we still need a bit of practice before we can go that route. Sure, seasoned backpackers from Anchorage may have had the courage to jump off the bus moments after we watched a grizzly sow disappear into the bush, but neon tents on the horizon and a sense of safety in numbers is just fine for now.
We pass the food lockers, make some small talk with a jolly Norwegian couple, part ways and set our sights on a camp spot that’s calling our names. There’s plenty of room for Jon, Scott and myself to sprawl out for a few nights and we’ve no rush to make camp before dinner because the sun never really sets in June.
We’re chomping at the bit to experience everything this place has to offer. Still, I throw down my pack, lift up my feet, and marvel at Denali. She stares down at us, almost winking, and asking “What is a group of guys from Arizona is doing way out here in Alaska?” Snowcapped peaks, pearlescent, and glimmering in the distance remind us that this place is untamed, pure, and something to adore.
We make camp, heat up Backpacker’s Pantry meals on our MSR stoves by one of the food lockers and decide to hike down to Wonder Lake.
Scott and I turn our backs to the mountains and trek out of camp with nothing more than our hiking boots, a Nalgene each, and a can of bear spray at the hip. It must be a sight to see as we leave the comforts of camp and begin to holler, “Hey bear, we’re coming to the lake, bear. HEY BEAR,” over and over again.
After half a mile, we loosen up, break through the trees, and catch our first glimpse of Wonder Lake. Darker in color than Lake Tahoe or the runoff of Havasu Falls, Wonder Lake is still magnificently clear, inviting, and calming. We toss off our hiking boots and wade in, half expecting a piercing, glacial chill. To our surprise, the water is lukewarm and a welcome reprieve to the droves of mosquitoes and flies that have been following us.
We splash some water on our faces, look to the south and stand utterly amazed. Eternal sunshine, chewy Sprees, a little whiskey safely stored in the food lockers near camp, and nearly a week more in the last true wilderness—this has the makings for the adventure of a lifetime.
Camping Essentials for Wonder Lake
Wonder Lake Campground is actually quite accommodating. Not only are there about 20 to 30 campsites to choose from, but the grounds include multiple bathrooms, running water for rinsing dishes, bear/food lockers, evening ranger talks and an on-site volunteer who oversees the whole area.
Camping essentials (besides the fundamental gear like hiking boots, tents, sleeping bags, bug spray, food, camp stove, fuel, etc.) really boil down to creature comforts and personal preference. I will say that we were happy we brought a deck of cards and we were very disappointed that we didn’t spend the extra $3.57 at Riley Creek Mercantile for mosquito nets.
Hiking Near Wonder Lake
The vast majority of Denali National Park is considered a backcountry hiking area, meaning that visitors simply pick a direction or landmark and forge a path to their liking. Wonder Lake is unique in that it’s situated near two distinct trails:
- McKinley Bar Trail
- Reflection Pond