Photo Credit: Haley Johnston

Kesugi Ridge Trail Backpack

Difficulty

Difficult

Why Choose This Trip?

During periods of clear weather, this route through Denali State Park offers similar terrain and scenery to Denali National Park - including unparalleled views of Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley) - without the cumbersome permitting process.

Trip Type

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Backpacking

Region

Central Alaska

The Route

The K'esugi Ridge trail system offers many options for starting and ending points, as there are four trailheads along its length. The trip outlined here starts at the northernmost trailhead, Little Coal Creek, and ends at the Byers Lake Campground and trailhead.

From the Little Coal Creek trailhead, there's a tough climb of more than 2,000 feet in the first four miles to access the ridgeline and the high point of this trail system. Once you reach the ridge, you'll be rewarded with gently undulating terrain, spectacular views, and occasional alpine tarns. These small lakes may be a welcome respite on hot days, since there's almost no shade on K'esugi Ridge. There's also little shelter from inclement weather - something to keep in mind when pitching your tent for the evening.

After almost 11 miles of ridge travel, the trail will descend to a low saddle. If you intend to leave the trail at the Ermine Hill trailhead, this is where you'll turn off. You'll see a lake to the northwest of the main trail; look to the west of this lake for the trail to Ermine Hill.

If you're continuing on, this low pass is a nice, protected place to camp. From the saddle, the trail very briefly climbs before descending again and crossing a broad, low valley. Then you'll climb for the next five miles to reach the high point of the southern portion of the trail, passing the mile-long Skinny Lake along the way.

Alaska Range Looms over the Kesugi Ridge Trail

Alaska Range Looms over the Kesugi Ridge Trail (Photo courtesy of Haley Johnston)

Some 25 miles from where you began, you'll come to another trail junction. If you're leaving the trail at the Byers Creek Campground and trailhead, as recommended here, this is your turnoff. Look for Cascade Trail/Byers Lake on trail signage.

If you're eager for more hiking, there are 11.7 more miles of trail from the final junction to Upper Troublesome Creek trailhead. This section of trail begins in the alpine, but descends into a forested valley for most of its mileage. If you came for the views, this is the section of trail to skip.

Distance

29 miles (as described); options exist for trips of 15.3 to 37 miles.

Number of Days

2-4

Backcountry Starting Point

Little Coal Creek trailhead

Backcountry Ending Point

Byers Lake Campground

Trip Logistics

Moderate

Little Coal Creek trailhead is located at milepost 163.9 on the Parks Highway/AK-3. There is parking here, but it may be crowded on weekends. You'll pass your takeout trailhead on the way north; if possible, leave a vehicle at your takeout to be a shuttle at the end of your trip.

If you don't have access to a vehicle to be the shuttle, if may be possible to hitchhike from your ending point back to Little Coal Creek trailhead along the Parks Highway. Alternately, as of this writing, Denali River Guides in Talkeetna offers shuttles to any of the K'esugi Ridge trailheads. Booking a ride with them may simplify your logistics.

Experience Level Necessary

Beginner

Expected Hazards

  • Severe weather. What gives K'esugi Ridge its incredible views - extended periods of time in the alpine - also leaves campers and hikers exposed to wind and weather in the event of a large storm. If the weather looks particularly bad, plan to camp at lower elevations where possible.
  • Bear habitat. Make noise and carry bear deterrents, as black and brown bears live here.

Other Adivce

If you're doing K'esugi Ridge for the unbeatable views of Denali, make sure to check the weather. Low clouds and rain can obscure the views.

Other great resources for this trip:

Will you see other people in the backcountry?

Probably. This is a popular trail for visitors and locals alike. Weekends are the busiest times. The trails that connect the four trailheads to the ridge are the most likely spots to see other hikers, runners, or backpackers throughout the entirety of the trail.

Land Manager

State of Alaska Department of Natural Resources - Denali State Park

GPS Coordinates

Starting Point: Little Coal Creek trailhead: 62.89223, -149.74754

Ermine Hill - K'esugi Ridge Trail Junction: 62.79459, -149.86834

Ermine Hill trailhead: 62.82752, -149.90431

Ending Point - Byers Lake Campground: 62.74535, -150.11820

Troublesome Creek trailhead: 62.63013, -150.22572

USGS Maps

Talkeetna Mountains D-6

Talkeetna Mountains C-6

Cost: $-$$

There are no permits, flights, or fees associated with this trip. If you need a shuttle from Talkeetna to complete the trip, it will increase the cost.

Getting There

Coordinates
Latitude: 62.89223
Longitude: -149.74754

Photos

Show Map

Kesugi Ridge Access Trails

Difficulty: Difficult Distance: 4 miles

This is the south­ern­most trail that leads to Kesu­gi Ridge. On aver­age, it takes a hik­er 4 hours to get above the tree­line. This trail is often closed due to flood­ing as well as bear activ­i­ty for the safe­ty of its hik­ers. Please check with Alaska’s Depart­ment of Nat­ur­al Resources to make sure that the trail is open to hik­ers before start­ing this trip.

Difficulty: Easy Distance: 5 miles

2019 UPDATE: Trail, day use area, kayak tours & rentals, and pub­lic use cab­ins are open, but the main camp­ground will be tem­porar­i­ly closed begin­ning in 2019 due to the dan­ger posed by trees infest­ed with spruce-bark bee­tles. Rot­ting trees have been top­pling. State parks plans to reopen the camp­ground after the haz­ardous trees have been removed. This is one of four trails that lead to Kesu­gi Ridge. From the Denali State Park camp­ground at  ...more

Difficulty: Moderate Distance: 3 miles

This is one of four trails that lead to the high Kesu­gi Ridge along the Parks High­way about an hour north of Tal­keet­na. The trail begins in a forest­ed area and ends up above the tree line look­ing down on muli­ple drainages. The view at the top is won­der­ful, so bring a cam­era! It takes about 2 hours on aver­age to get above treeline. 

Difficulty: Moderate Distance: 3 miles

This trail is the north­ern­most trail that pro­vides access to Kesu­gi Ridge. On a clear day, Lit­tle Coal Creek Trail takes you to amaz­ing views of Denali (Mt. McKin­ley). It also gives you those views in the short­est amount of time, about 1.5 hours, of any of the access trails to Kesu­gi Ridge.