Summer is the best time to try new adventures in Alaska! Each summer I try to book up as many things as I can while the days are long and the weather is relatively nice. I’m always looking on sites like Reserve America to check for canceled public use cabin reservations in my favorite places around Alaska because those cabins book up fast and they’re such a fun place to stay. So last weekend as I was casually browsing through my favorite cabins, I discovered that one of the super hard to get public use cabins at Kesugi Ken Campground in Denali State Park was available for two nights last week! And they were on dates that some of my friends had talked about camping up there. After talking to one of those friends, I booked two nights at the Hunter Cabin. Unfortunately the day before the trip both of my friends had to cancel, leaving me alone with a cabin booking. I didn’t really want to cancel it, and the weather looked really nice. So I decided to do something really wild that I haven’t done in years (and definitely haven’t done since having Elliott) and went camping alone…with my toddler!
A lot of factors went into deciding this. First of all, I’ve done lots of cabin camping with Elliott. I know what gear to bring, what parts are going to be hard, and little things to make the trip easier. I truly felt comfortable and confident doing this alone, even though I knew being alone with a toddler 24/7 would be tough (especially at night!). This cabin is only a 30 second walk from the parking lot, so I was able to make multiple trips to bring all the gear I wanted and stash emergency stuff in the car. It’s also right next to the other two cabins, and within screaming distance of the campground in case anything wild happened. There’s also a ranger station located near the cabins if I really needed serious help. The cabin had cell service so I could call my husband to chat or call for help if needed. It also locked so I didn’t have to worry about bears or people. Finally, I knew that with the perfect sunny weather and clear views of Denali that there would be a lot of people nearby while hiking and camping so I’d never be alone. It helped both Andrew and I feel comfortable about this idea. I wanted to start small in a place where I felt safe before trying a solo trip anywhere else in Alaska!
On the morning of the trip, Elliott woke up early at 7:30 so he got to say goodbye to Andrew before work. I was excited to get an early start before our check in time of noon! After eating, packing the car, and stopping for some much needed coffee, we began our 3 hour drive up to Denali State Park. I saw occasional peeks of Denali along the way, but the best view was about halfway through the trip when we drove into the town of Willow. The trees open up and you get a perfect full view of the Alaska Range – and Denali was 100% visible! Literally all of the cars on the road slowed down and some pulled over because it was such a gorgeous view! I spent the rest of the drive in awe of the mountain and so excited for the views from my cabin!
As soon as we pulled up to the Hunter Cabin I met my neighbors in the cabin next door, an older couple who was spending the week there. After introducing myself to them I felt much better about being alone out there! At least someone knew I was staying there and could help me if needed. After unloading the car as quickly as I could, we ate lunch and got ready for our hike up Curry Ridge. Curry Ridge is a 6 mile round trip hike that gradually gains about 1,000 feet up to a ridgeline with incredible views of Denali. I’ve done this hike many times (some of those times in snowshoes!) and felt confident hiking it alone with the crowds of people camping there that day. Because I started from the cabin the trail ended up being 7 miles. This trail is definitely not hard, but it was so hot outside (probably 80 degrees) and there was no breeze so I was going slow and taking lots of breaks! At first Elliott was pretty chill, but then he started hitting my head and pulling my hair. Hiking with a toddler is always a wild time! But once we got above the trees he liked looking at “Nani” (Denali) and saying hi to all the hikers we saw along the way. When I finally reached Rocky Knob at the top of the ridge we stopped for snacks and to enjoy the light breeze that finally cooled me off. I could have stayed up there for hours!
The view from the top is truly amazing. You can see all of the Alaska Range and Denali on one side, and Kesugi Ridge rolling off into the distance on the other. Behind Rocky Knob is a lake that looked so inviting on that hot day! I’m hoping to camp up here someday soon so I can enjoy those views for hours and explore the area a bit more. On our solo hike we only spent about a half hour up there so we could snack, catch my breath, and take in the views. On the way back down Elliott fell asleep almost right away. Hiking along the ridge in total silence with those epic views was an incredible feeling. It felt so good to be out there on our own. If I didn’t have bears or moose to worry about I’d probably hike alone all the time! For most of the hike down I could hear a large group of hikers behind me and I knew they were keeping the wildlife away. It was so hot that I was sweating going downhill, and I started to dream about ice cream and a cold bottle of Gatorade, none of which I had at the cabin. So after we arrived at the cabin and ate a quick dinner, we jumped in the car and drove 15 minutes to a gas station in Trapper Creek to grab some Gatorade. They magically had a soft serve ice cream machine and I’ve never been so happy to eat ice cream in my life!
As we drove back we got caught in a massive storm. We could still see Denali, but above us were angry storm clouds. I thought that it might help Elliott fall asleep because it was slightly darker in the cabin (which didn’t have any blinds or curtains). So at 9:00 PM I followed our bedtime routine, turned on our battery powered noise machine, and put him down in his pack and play. 20 minutes later he was standing there talking to me and playing with his car. So I pulled him into bed with me and tried to sing him to sleep. Nothing. Hours passed like this, with me trying different strategies and positions to try to get Elliott to fall asleep. He was yawning and rubbing his eyes and was clearly exhausted, but nothing was working. The sun was also shining directly into our eyes at 11:30 PM. After a lot of tears (from both of us) I finally called Andrew and had him sing to Elliott for a bit. After that he went right to sleep! He slept through some major thunder storms and pouring rain, and I thought the worst of our sleeping problems were over. Until he woke me up at 5:00 AM by tapping me on the arm and saying “Hiiiiiii!” in the sweetest voice. I couldn’t get him back down no matter how hard I tried. So our day officially started at 5:00 AM. Even though we were both still exhausted, and I was especially tired because I’d hiked 7 miles the day before with 40+ pounds on my back!
At this point I had a big decision to make. I had the cabin for another night, and I’d originally planned on spending the day canoeing with him on Byers Lake and maybe going into Talkeetna for dinner. However, we were both EXHAUSTED and I couldn’t imagine paddling around a lake with a cranky toddler. It was clear to me that he wasn’t going to nap in the cabin and that sleeping that night was going to be another struggle. I had prepared for everything except the constant midnight sunshine, and I had no way of covering all of the windows in the cabin to make the situation better. On top of that, another massive storm was rolling in and I couldn’t see Denali at all. So even though I’d already paid for the second night, I decided to end the trip early. I called Andrew to tell him my plan, packed up quickly while Elliott played with his trucks and yawned a million times, and then headed out. Elliott was asleep before we even left the campground! It was clear I’d made the right decision because it started storming as we drove away.
But before ending the trip we went on one more adventure! On the way home I made a detour to Talkeetna, a little town that serves as the base camp for Denali climbers. They have amazing food and cute shops, and since Elliott had never been there before and I was starving I decided to drive in for some brunch. Elliott loved seeing all the dogs and cars, but by the time I got a coffee and breakfast sandwich he was already crying and rubbing his eyes and saying “Go, go!”. So we cut our trip short and headed back to the car where he slept for a few more hours.
Overall, I’m really glad I did this trip. The first half of our trip was amazing! We had perfect Denali views, an amazing hike, and lots of chill moments in the cabin. He learned how to say “Denali” for the first time and got to crawl around on a gorgeous trail. The second half of the trip was hard but it was worth it. I don’t really feel bad about bailing early, especially since there was a huge storm up there and it wouldn’t have been fun dealing with that and a cranky toddler at the same time. It was definitely worth the lack of sleep to take my son somewhere new just the two of us! I’ll never forget this adventure and I can’t wait to show him pictures of it when he’s older.
Honestly, my biggest takeaway from this trip (other than bringing something to cover the windows next time!) is that I’m capable of doing things on my own with a toddler! It was incredibly empowering hiking Curry Ridge alone, and I was surprised that I wasn’t nervous or scared during the entire trip, even when I was sleeping alone. I felt happy, strong, relaxed…and tired of course! But this experience made me want to do more solo adventures with him. We could do whatever we wanted to do and take things at our own pace and it was nice to spread out and take over the entire cabin for ourselves. I’m excited to try again soon and see what other solo adventures I feel brave enough to try this summer!
Have you ever spent a night alone with your kid? Did you ever have to bail on an adventure?