IntroductionK'esugi Ridge in Denali State Park, Alaska is a moderate to difficult hike that affords excellent views of Denali (Mount McKinley) from the southeast. Weather permitting, you can see the Alaska Range, Eldridge Glacier, and both the South and North summits of Denali. I enjoyed this hike with four friends June 19-23, 2012: Jerry, Phil, Kris, and Gina.
LogisticsWe started this hike from the Little Coal Creek trailhead (Alaska Highway Mile 163.9) on the north end of the ridge and finished at the Byers Lake trailhead at the south end (Alaska Highway Mile 147.0). We had two cars, so we could return to Little Coal Creek after the hike and retrieve the other car. In June, 2012, the overnight parking fee for cars was $5.00 per night. We contacted the Denali State Park ranger at the Byers Lake ranger station to obtain our parking permits.
Description of the HikeThe Alaska State government website lists this trail as difficult; and to a large extent, this is true - mainly because of the steep ascent to the top of the ridge up Little Coal Creek trail and the steep descents between the north and south parts of the ridge and the final descent to Byers Lake. Within 3 miles of the end of the hike, I suffered from severe Plantar fasciitis, even though I had reduced my pack weight to 35 lbs. The steep parts of the trail have no switchbacks; and in my case, this made it difficult to descend because of sore knees. The maximum altitude of the hike is about 3,500 ft. above sea level, so breathing was no problem for me since I live at 8,600 ft. The suffering is well worth it because of the fantastic views and the pleasant hike across the top of the ridge above timberline. We were lucky to have clear weather for most of the hike; although I understand this is very unusual.
Ascent up Little Coal Creek Trail
The ascent up Little Coal Creek trail on the north end is steep, I only needed help once from my younger colleague (Phil - thanks!) who took my pack up a slick snowfield, allowing me to climb up unencumbered. When we reached the top of the ridge, we hiked about another mile and set up Camp 1. This spot was a little windy at times - probably due to microbursts from a thunderstorm about 5 miles north of us.
Across the Ridge to Camp 2
The next "morning" we continued hiking across the north part of the ridge. This is probably the best part of the entire hike - if you like the look and smell of tundra. There is another trail down from the ridge (the Ermine Hill Trail) near the south end of the north part of K'esugi Ridge. Scrawled in the dirt was the message "Went out here ->" We assumed (correctly) that this is where Kris and Gina departed. Gina had to be in Anchorage the next day for a marathon. After this, we encountered a slight descent just before Camp 2 - this was not the expected descent to the valley separating the north part of the ridge from the south part. As we entered the bottom of this small valley, we encountered a brief rainstorm. This fatigued us just enough that we made the decision to set up Camp 2 for the "night". We chose the nearest flat spot and set up camp there. This was a fortunate decision, because just past this camp is the actual descent into the deep valley between the north and south parts of K'esugi Ridge.
Descending into this deep valley the next day proved very frustrating. First, we encountered a steep snowfield. Phil just skied down (without skis), Jerry side-stepped down, and I decided to glissade - getting a wet butt, but making it down easily. Now we came to another difficult section. The valley bottom was filled with entangled alders, fallen large trees obscuring the trail, and mosquitoes. After running this gauntlet, we arrived at the beautiful "Skinny Lake". There is actually an outhouse here, as well as prepared backcountry campsites. This would be a very nice spot to make camp, but we decided to continue on in order to make the last day's hike a little shorter. We set up Camp 3 about a mile southwest of Skinny Lake - again above timberline.
The last "day" of the hike started out above timberline with more fantastic views of the Alaska Range and Denali. The south part of the ridge has a few more gentle ups and downs than the north part, but is fairly easy. It was along this stretch that I noticed my fasciitis was causing some pretty severe pain, but I kept on plugging along. We finally arrived at a point overlooking Byers Lake and the end of the hike. It was deceiving - There was another 3 miles of steep downhill to go. By this time I was traveling very slowly, so Jerry and Phil decided to go ahead, stash their packs in the car at Byers Lake and come back up to help me. Fortunately (for Jerry and Phil) I managed to make it down the steepest section of trail before they met me. These guys were just great. They hauled my pack for me and in spite of my moaning from the foot pain, managed to encourage me for the last 2 miles. We finally arrived at Byers Lake at 4 AM the 23rd. This was so close to the summer solstice that we needed no headlamps to make our way through the forest surrounding the lake.
ReferencesAlaska Hike Search - Reviews of K'esugi Ridge hike.
AKtrailhead - Description of K'esugi Ridge hike.
Alaska State Parks - Good map and brief description
Endure Fun - Nice map and good photographs
Denali Guide Book - Good logistics and description
Alaska Alpine Adventures - Guided backpacking trips
REI -Brief description