Hike of the Week: K'esugi Ridge Trail

Hike of the Week: K'esugi Ridge Trail

Welcome to Paria's “Hike of the Week” series. Each week we highlight an outstanding day hike or backpacking trip. We hope to inspire you to want to get out and see these places for yourself. For us, just seeing amazing photos and reading about a great hike is enough to get us motivated!

This week's hike is the K'esugi Ridge Trail in the amazing State of Alaska.

Featured Photo: Fall Colors on K'esugi Ridge (photo by Paxson Woelber)

Why This Hike?

Alaska offers seemingly unlimited views throughout the entire state. This makes it one of the best places to hike in the United States. The K’esugi Ridge Trail features arguably one of the most incredible views. It faces the largest peak in North America, Denali/Mt. McKinley in Denali State Park. The lower elevations along the hike are covered in forest. The upper ridge is decorated with impressive rock formations and amazing views at every turn. With a few steep inclines and miles of the meandering ridge, walking this trail is easily a favorite among seasoned hikers.

  • Distance: 27.5 miles/44 km 
  • Type: Point-to-point
  • Difficulty: Moderately difficult, but can be made easier by spending extra nights.
  • Elevation gain: 6,000 feet
  • Best time: July-September 
  • The trail is easily accessible from Anchorage or Fairbanks.
  • No permits are needed!
  • Several trailheads makes it easier to bail if you run into trouble.
  • There are many campsites along the way and water sources throughout.
  • Small alpine lakes offer water sources and a place to cool off.
  • You can extend your hike by taking the other trail near the end into the forest.
  • You can't beat the jaw dropping scenery of Denali/Mt. McKinley! 
  • Other highlights include the Chulitna River, Eldridge Glacier, Mt.Foraker, and the beautiful tundra landscape. 

Before signing up, keep the following in mind: 

  • Weather can be extreme at any time of year and create dangerous conditions. Check the forecast before you start!
  • Insects can be very bad at the start of the season, so carry bug spray.
  • Bears are in the area, so be prepared.

How Do I Get There?

    The K’esugi Ridge Trail is located in Denali State Park, just a few hours north of Anchorage. Starting from Anchorage, take the Glen Highway north for about 50 miles towards Wasilla. The highway will bend west / northwest toward Wasilla. Continue this direction for a couple hours, past Talkeetna, all the way to Denali State Park. You will first pass the end of the trail when you see a Veteran’s Memorial sign. Keep driving for another 15 miles and you’ll find a parking lot on the right-hand side of the highway called Little Coal Creek. The trail begins there.

    Map of Recommended Route

    The following map outlines our recommended route. Click the "Load Interactive Map" button to load the correct map. Once loaded, you can navigate along the route and view recommended campsites.

    For even more detailed mapping, including being able to print a copy for yourself, click the "Open in CalTopo" button at the top of the map once it's loaded into view.

    The trail begins at the Little Coal Creek trailhead on the north end of the hike. Here are our recommended campsites:

    • Day 1 - Little Coal Creek Trailhead to Campsite 1 (3-4 miles) 
    • Day 2 - Campsite 1 to Skinny Lake (15 miles)
      Hike along the ridge past Ermine Hill Trail junction and continue a bit past Skinny Lake (15 miles) 
    • Day 3 - Skinny Lake to Byers Creek Trailhead (8 miles)
      Wake up and hike out to Byers Creek trail head (8 miles) 

    Trail Description

    Day 1 - Little Coal Creek to Campsite 1

    The trail starts with an intense 1,750-foot elevation gain over just 2.5 miles. It's made a bit easier through plenty of switchbacks. Once you’re above the treeline, you'll get your first taste of the spectacular view of Denali/Mt. McKinley. On a particularly clear day, you'll be amazed at how close the mountain looms to your right. After crossing Coal Creek, continue for another couple of miles. Find a sheltered spot to set up camp. Winds along the ridge can be extreme!

    Day 2 - Campsite 1 to Skinny Lake

    You'll spend a good part of Day 2 along the tundra at the top of the ridge. After several miles, you'll come to Stonehenge Hill. The terrain takes a dramatic turn here. The surrounding area is covered in large, gray boulders and matching gray sand. Along this portion, you'll have a view of the Talkeetna Mountains to the southeast.

    Soon, you'll find yourself back on the ridge line as you near Ermine Hill. (This actually looks more like a large, gray dome.) Ermine Hill junction is located just past that. You can take a side trail to the right, if you wish. This is an ideal spot to take cover for the night if the weather is extreme. It's also a useful exit in the case of emergency. 

    Keep left at the junction and enter a steep descent into a beautiful, lush valley. Strangely, it has an island of sand right in the middle. Random rock formations make great places to take a break.

    Continuing, you'll pass dense forest and head back up the mountain until you reach Skinny Lake. This area is surrounded by thick and lush greenery. Keep going up past the lake until your reach the ridge once again, then find a good spot for the night.

    Day 3 - Skinny Lake to Byers Creek Trailhead

    The next morning, continue along the ridge for quite some time. You'll eventually come across the intersection for the Troublesome Creek Trail. Keep right at the junction. Head back down through the damp forest until you reach the end of the trek at Byers Lake Campground. At this point, either catch a ride back to your car or arrange a shuttle.

    What Will I Need?

    Average highs range between 56 and 68°F during peak season. Low averages are 38 to 50°. Keep in mind that this is the weather for the nearby town of Alkeetna. Temps can feel much colder with the wind on the ridge. 

    Speaking of weather, you should be extra prepared for this trip. Bring extra socks and gaiters for creek crossings and muddy areas. Hard rain isn't out of the question. Have a rain shell or umbrella on hand. Waterproof stuff sacks aren't a bad idea either. A lightweight tarp can be a lifesaver too on the trail or at camp. 

    For your regular shelter, a compact 3-season backpacking tent will serve you well. An appropriately rated down sleeping bag will keep you warm at night. Your sleeping bag or quilt works a lot better when you have a good sleeping pad too. You may want to bring a mini air pump or pump bag to save your breath at the high elevation.

    Paria Outdoor Products Thermodown 15 Quilt

    Using a lightweight quilt is a good way to keep your sleep system under 4 pounds.

    Alaska offers serious hiking terrain and tons of wildlife. You'll need to be adequately prepared. Bear canisters aren't required, but are strongly recommended. Since you'll likely be camping above the treeline, make a food cache by covering your bear canister or food bag with large boulders. This will prevent wildlife from running away with it while you're sleeping. Plan to bring some bear spray just in case too.

    If there's anything else you need to complete your pack, visit our full line of high-quality, affordable backpacking gear.

    Shop Backpacking Tents
    Shop Ultralight Tarps
    Shop Backpacking Quilts
    Shop Down Sleeping Bags
    Shop Insulated Sleeping Pads
    Shop Backpacking Pillow
    Shop Folding Trekking Poles
    Shop Titanium Cookware
    Shop Tent and Tarp Accessories

    Finally, to make sure you don't forget something at home, use our Ultimate Backpacker's Packing List. It even includes a convenient printable checklist!

    Do I Need a Permit?

    Permits are only needed for special events or for groups of 20 or more.


    Alaska/Yukon Trails Shuttles
    Denali Southside River Guides Shuttle
    Alaska State Trails


    Have you explored the area around Denali? Do you have other outstanding hikes that you'd like us to write about? Please share your feedback in the comments!

    Read Next

    If you're looking for more hike ideas, read our “Top 8 Alaska Backpacking Trips” round-up post. Also, the following Hike of the Week articles cover other great trails in the region.

    Hike of the Week: Chilkoot Trail
    Hike of the Week: Berg Lake Trail
    Hike of the Week: North Coast Trail

    For even more amazing backpacking trips visit The Trailhead, our interactive hike map. It contains a curated list of dozens of hikes, each with a detailed write-up like this one.

    The Trailhead - Interactive Map of Backpacking Trips

    Finally, check out our comprehensive list of backpacking articles that cover just about everything there is to know about backpacking. If you're just starting out, our Backpacking 101 section covers all the basics. If you already have a few trips under your belt, you can find more advanced topics covered in our Expert Articles.

    Hike of the Week USA West

    Please note, comments must be approved before they are published.