There are lots of epic backpacking trips in Alaska, and I’ve got them all on my bucket list. But there’s one that tops my list (and apparently the list of many other backpackers): Kesugi Ridge in Denali State Park. This trail is about 30 miles long and travels from Little Coal Creek to Byers Lake. As the name suggests, this trail climbs up to the ridge and stays up there for most of the hike. From most of the ridge it’s possible to have constant and gorgeous views of Denali on a clear day, which is exactly why most backpackers in Alaska have this one on their bucket list.
I’ve heard horror stories of people going up there and getting stuck in foggy, wet, and freezing weather. I’ve also heard of people having perfect weather but not seeing Denali due to the clouds that cover the mountain 70% of the time. It’s windy on the ridge and the weather can change fast. So while it’s been on my list, I always said that I would wait for the perfect conditions to do it. I had also seen photos of the ridge in the fall and was shocked by the bright fall colors on the tundra, so my “ideal hiking conditions” got a lot stricter as time went on.
A few weeks ago I noticed that our local Women Who Explore chapter was planning a group hike from Little Coal Creek to Ermine Hill, an 18 mile section of the trail that can be done in a weekend. As the date grew closer I realized that the weather forecast was calling for sunny and warm weather for the entire weekend, which made our chances of seeing Denali much higher than usual. Plus, the start of September is perfect for fall colors up in the tundra. So a friend and I decided to attend the group hike, even though we had to wake up at 4:00 am on a Saturday to make it up to the trailhead by 9:00 am. After a 3 hour drive with a few stops along the way, we met up with a group of 16 women who were all doing Kesugi Ridge for the first time. The trail began at the Little Coal Creek Trailhead and quickly gained elevation through the forest until suddenly we were out on the tundra with breathtaking views of Denali.
There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, but Denali makes its own weather patterns and a cloud can cover it at any time so we made sure to stop and take in the views whenever we could. This also helped us catch our breath as we gained elevation and approached the ridgeline. At one point it felt like we were summiting a small mountain and when we reached the top we all took a break to soak in the view!
At this point we realized that we were hiking slower than planned so we tried to pick up the pace. And that’s when the real challenge of Kesugi Ridge began. We had to traverse a boulder field on the edge of the ridge, cross many creeks, and keep going up and down and up again. And we had to do it all with 25 pounds on our backs. I alternated between feeling exhausted by the constant challenges that the trail was throwing our way and being blown away by the gorgeous views of Denali and the fall colored tundra.
There were about 50 spots where I said “I could stop here and camp for a week straight”, but part of our group broke off and went ahead to find a campsite around the halfway point. We were looking for something with water to filter, protection from the wind, and views of Denali from our tents. After hitting a wall and feeling like I couldn’t take one more step without stopping for dinner, we finally met up with the faster half of the group at a perfect backcountry campsite.
The sun was setting as we set up camp, ate our warm dinners, and filtered water. It was freezing and windy at our dinner spot but as soon as we got into our warm tents that we had set up in a sheltered area we felt a lot better. I couldn’t stop starting at Denali from my sleeping bag, but eventually we closed the rain fly and went to sleep.
The first thing I did when I woke up was tell my tentmate, “I don’t want to open this tent and find Denali hidden in the clouds!”. So when we opened the tent I couldn’t help but gasp out loud when I saw Denali still fully visible and pink with alpenglow. We ate breakfast while staring at it. It was a struggle to pack up and move on from this perfect campsite, but we had about 9 miles to go as well as a 3 hour drive back home.
The trail on day 2 continued going up and down along the ridge. We were all tired but still obsessed with the gorgeous views of Denali and the brightly colored tundra. We enjoyed watching the terrain change as we started descending towards Ermine Hill and the turnoff to the parking lot. The descent here involved crossing a swamp and then hiking down a very steep and slippery slope, but finally we reached the turnoff to Ermine Hill.
The rest of the hike down was gradual and easy, but it was hard to say goodbye to the views of Denali that we had been enjoying for the past two days as we dipped below the treeline. At 5 pm we reached the trailhead and fell into our cars exhausted and proud of our accomplishment. After a much needed stop at the gas station outside Talkeetna for some calories and coffee, we drove home and crashed hard. I proceeded to feel sore for 3 days but I felt like every step was worth it.
Overall, this was the most difficult and the most gorgeous backpacking trip I’ve ever done. It’s funny to think of a hike and have such mixed feelings about it, but I can’t help it. It was tough to continuously go up and down and to cross boulder fields and streams over and over again with a pack on my back. But the views of Denali always made me feel better. I’ve also never seen tundra look quite the way it did on Kesugi Ridge, and I’ll never forget it. I’ve only seen it turn red before, never yellow or orange. Everything about this hike was breathtakingly gorgeous! If you can do this hike on a clear and warm weekend, you have to do it. If you get the chance to do it on a clear and warm weekend in the fall, you absolutely positively HAVE to do it! This hike is one I’ll never forget and might spend the rest of my life trying to re-create. I’m really glad I did it, even though it took me a while to recover from it!
What’s the hardest backpacking trip you’ve ever done? Would you rather hike in the summer or the fall?