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Hike of the Week: K'esugi Ridge Trail

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This is a weekly series that highlights an outstanding day hike or backpacking trip. The goal is to inspire you to want to get out and see these places for yourself. I know 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, making it one of the best places to hike in the United States. Even so, the K’esugi Ridge Trail features one of the most incredible views of all as it faces the largest peak in North America, Denali/Mt. McKinley in Denali State Park. The lower elevations along the hike are covered in the forest while 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.

  • Total Distance is 27.5 miles / 44 km
  • Easily accessible from Anchorage or Fairbanks
  • Moderately difficult, but can be made easier by spending extra nights
  • Multi-day hike, three days is recommended
  • The trail has many campsites along the way and water sources throughout
  • Jaw dropping scenery of Denali/Mt. McKinley!
Before signing up, keep the following in mind:
  • Weather can be extreme at any time of year and create dangerous conditions, so check the forecast before you start
  • Peak season is July-September
  • 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.

If you would rather catch a ride, Alaska/Yukon Trails provides daily bus service between Faibanks and Anchorage, and the bus will drop you off at any of the Denali Park trail heads. Finally, Denali Southside River Guides provides transportation between trail heads, in case you want to get a shuttle from one end to the other at the start/end of your hike.

Map

The following map outlines our recommended route.

Another great map resource is the Alaska State Trails website, which has detailed maps of the K'esugi Ridge Trail and surrounding areas.

The trail will begin at the Little Coal Creek trail head on the north end of the hike.

  • Day 1 - Start at the Little Coal Creek trail head and hike a couple of miles past Coal Creek. Look for a sheltered location to set up camp. (3-4 miles)
  • Day 2 - Hike along the ridge past Ermine Hill Trail junction and continue a bit past Skinny Lake (15 miles)
  • Day 3 - Wake up and hike out to Byers Creek trail head (8 miles)

Trail Description

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

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 where the terrain will take a dramatic turn. The surrounding area is covered in large, gray boulders and matching gray sand. Along this portion of the trail, you will have a view of the Talkeetna Mountains to the southeast.

You will soon find yourself back on the ridge line as you near Ermine Hill, which looks more like a large, gray dome. Ermine Hill junction is located just past that and offers you a side trail to the right. This is a recommended spot to take cover for the night if the weather is extreme. It is also a useful exit in the case of emergency. Keep left at the junction and enter a steep descent into a beautiful, lush valley that strangely has an island of sand right in the middle. Random rock formations in the area make great places to take a break.

Continuing along the trail will take you past the dense forest and back up the mountain until you reach Skinny Lake, 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.

Next morning, continue along the ridge for quite some time until you come across the intersection for the Troublesome Creek Trail. Keep right at the junction and 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?

Alaska offers serious hiking terrain and is littered with wildlife. As such you need to be appropriately prepared. Bear canisters are not 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.

Weather can be another element of this trip that warrants extra preparation. Bring extra socks and gaiters to deal with creek crossings and muddy areas. A solid rain shell or umbrella is also needed in case of hard rain while you're hiking. Finally, a lightweight tarp can be a lifesaver at camp.

Since this is a multi-day trip, you will also need the standard backpacking set up. Check out our Ultimate Backpacker's Packing List for a complete list of things that we recommend and a handy printable checklist.

Do I need a permit?

For regular hiking activities, no special permit is needed. Only for special events or for groups of 20 or more will you need to get a permit for this trail.

Resources

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.

Hike of the Week

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