By Elliot Dawes
We were ready for a hike.
My friend Keegan and I had just finished a long, grueling summer—toughing it out in the Alaskan fisheries—and we were finally free. After five days on the Marine Highway, and a few hitched rides, we found ourselves in Anchorage with more than a week left in Alaska. We’re both fit and love a challenge, but we were searching for a hike that would let us soak up the Alaskan beauty without endangering our lives—which isn’t too difficult in Alaska. In short, we wanted a 4-5 day hike that was moderately strenuous, and as close to Denali as possible.
We consulted with our friend Bob in Anchorage—he’s an Alaskan outdoor expert who referred us to multiple experts throughout the region.
The experts were unanimous: Kesugi Ridge is the place to be. And, oh, were they right.
The trail runs parallel to the Alaskan Range and Mount McKinley, and is located in Denali State Park, just southeast of Denali National Park. We started at Little Coal Creek—which I highly recommend, especially if the weather is nice.
That first day, we hiked a steep 3 miles before finding the most picturesque camping site I could have imagined. Nestled in the curve where the ridge first turns south, a field of fall-colored tundra stretched out before dropping off, almost like a stage.
From the spot, we had a direct view of Denali.
We took over the campsite from a couple leaving in the late afternoon and set up our camp for the night. There was a stream nearby—indeed, we found the trail to be littered with streams from beginning to end, so there was never any need to worry about water. The sunset that night lasted hours.
The second day, we planned to hike 10 miles. We walked along a ridge bordered by fields of wild blueberries, small lakes, and lush tundra, all in the shadows of the Alaska Range and Denali. We ate lunch atop a giant boulder. We were gifted with a second day of crystal-clear blue skies. We camped that night where the Ermine Hill Trail meets the Kesugi Ridge Trail.
The third day, we planned to go 11 miles. This was the day we were forced to acknowledge a tip we’d heard before starting—that Alaskan hiking was different, and harder, than in the lower 48. Switchbacks don’t seem to be a ‘thing’ in Alaska, so when you’re going up, you’re going up. Straight up.
We ate lunch that day overlooking Skinny Lake. After a few more difficult, uphill stretches, we finally reached the highest elevation we would reach from then on out, and decided to take a long (and deserved) break. We surveyed the land for a place to camp, and picked a lake about a mile away. We only made it about halfway before casually lying in fields of blueberries, rolling over whenever we needed a fresh patch.
We woke up the next morning and hiked the final few miles out to Byers Lake Campground. We hitchhiked back to our van (yes, we had acquired an old, beat up van by this point) and our Alaska adventure continued from there. We had started on a Sunday afternoon and finished just before noon on Wednesday, totaling 4 days and 3 nights. While we saw one bear, they were never a threat.
If you simply want good views of Denali, there are plenty of 30 – 45 minute hikes in Denali National Park that will satisfy this. But if you are looking for a life-changing hike that combines all the beauty of Alaska with world-class views of Denali, Kesugi Ridge is the place to be.