Hikes & Trails

Kesugi Ridge Trail: A Hiker’s Paradise in the Alaska Wilderness

POSTED ON December 13, 2023 BY Ralph S.


Introduction

Welcome to the rugged wilderness of Alaska, where adventure beckons and the K’esugi Ridge Trail awaits. Nestled in the breathtaking landscapes of Denali State Park, this iconic trail offers a hiking experience like no other.

On a clear day, you’ll find yourself immersed in a world where miles of pristine wilderness stretch out before you. The climb takes you from dense forest through a myriad of trails and trailheads, each with its own unique allure.

In this blog post, we’ll take you on a journey through the highlights, challenges, and natural wonders of the K’esugi Ridge Trail.

Whether you’re seeking a tranquil hike through the forest or an invigorating climb with panoramic views, this trail promises an experience that will leave you in awe of the wonders of Denali State Park.

History of the Kesugi Ridge Trail

Skagway, AK, USA

The K’esugi Trail, now a renowned hiking destination, has a rich history that tells the tale of its transformation from a mere concept to the breathtaking wilderness adventure it is today. This trail owes its existence to the visionary efforts of many individuals and collaborative work.

The concept of the trail emerged as a response to the growing interest in exploring the untamed beauty of Denali State Park, adjacent to the world-famous Denali National Park.

In the late 20th century, as hiking and outdoor enthusiasts sought new experiences, the idea of creating a trail that would showcase the pristine Alaskan wilderness began to take shape.

The development of Kesugi Trail was not a solitary endeavor; it required the collaboration of various stakeholders. Multiple organizations, including state and federal agencies, as well as local communities, joined forces to make the vision a reality. Over the years, the trail evolved as a result of countless hours of hard work and dedication from passionate individuals and groups.

One notable milestone in the trail’s development was the formal establishment of K’esugi Ridge as a designated trail within the state park system. This recognition marked the trail’s transition from an informal route to a well-maintained hiking path, ensuring that hikers could safely navigate its rugged terrain.

Throughout its existence, the K’esugi Trail has seen notable events and changes. One of the most significant transformations was the renaming of the mountain formerly known as Mt. McKinley to Denali, reflecting its native Athabascan name. This change emphasized the importance of respecting indigenous cultures and embracing the heritage of the region.

The trail’s ongoing maintenance and preservation efforts continue to adapt to the needs of hikers and the surrounding environment. Kesugi Trail has become an essential component of Alaska’s outdoor heritage, offering a remarkable experience for all who venture along its path.

Today, the Trail stands as a testament to the dedication of those who worked tirelessly to bring this vision to life. With its awe-inspiring views of the Alaska Range, unparalleled natural beauty, and opportunities for hikers of all levels, the trail has become a must-visit destination for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers.

Key Facts about The Kesugi Ridge Trail

Denali national park and preserve

Location: Denali State Park, Alaska, USA

Total Length: Approximately 25 miles (40 kilometers) with an optional additional 11.7 miles (19 km)

Time it Takes to Hike: About 2 to 4 days for through-hiking, but day hikes are possible

Trailhead(s): Coal Creek Trailhead and Little Coal Creek Trailhead.

Difficulty Level: Moderate to strenuous, depending on the section, with some challenging elevation gains.

Total Elevation Gain: Around 4,000 to 5,000 feet (approximately 1,220 to 1,525 meters).

Best Time or Season to Hike: Summer, from mid-July to mid-September.

Trail Overview: Difficulty Levels and Route Options

Denali, Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska, USA

Nestled in the heart of Alaska, the K’esugi Ridge Trail offers an unparalleled hiking experience that takes you through the stunning landscapes of Denali State Park. This incredible journey promises a breathtaking adventure through the Alaskan wilderness.

Trailhead Options

The trail has several access points, making it flexible for hikers of varying skill levels and interests. You can begin your journey at the Coal Creek Trailhead or the Little Coal Creek Trailhead, both of which serve as popular entry points to the trail. Each starting point offers unique perspectives on the trail.

Little Coal Creek Trailhead

The Little Coal Creek Trailhead (location) is a popular entry point. It connects to the Ermine Hill Trail and is a bit more demanding than starting from Coal Creek. The ascent begins, and you’ll gradually gain elevation as you journey deeper into the wilderness. This trail offers a taste of what’s to come on Kesugi Ridge, with incredible views and a moderately challenging hike.

Ermine Hill Trailhead

For those seeking a relatively easy start, the Ermine Hill Trail Head (location) provides a gentle introduction to K’esugi Ridge. The trail here is less challenging and serves as an ideal starting point for beginners or those looking for a shorter hike. It’s a great option for those who want to enjoy the experience without taking on the full length of the trail.

Section Route Options

As you venture along Kesugi Ridge, you’ll encounter several route options, each with its own highlights and difficulties. Here are the main sections of the trail:

Option 1: Ermine Hill Trailhead to Byers Lake Campground

(direction)

Starting at the Ermine Hill Trailhead, you’ll embark on a journey that leads you past the tree line and toward incredible views of the Talkeetna Mountains. Ideally, they are 10.2 miles (16 km) apart and require about 4 hours to complete.

The elevation gain here can be strenuous, but the panoramic vistas and amazing views of Denali more than compensate for the effort.

Option 2: Byers Lake Campground (first campsite) to Troublesome Creek

This section takes you through the heart of the trail, and it’s often considered the halfway point for many hikers. You’ll traverse the Kesugi Ridge, about 10.5 miles (17 km) apart, where you’ll be surrounded by stunning views in all directions.

Be prepared for the possibility of encountering bear territory, as this region is known for its diverse wildlife.

Option 3: Lower Troublesome Creek to Little Coal Creek Trailhead

On the western end of the trail, you’ll find the Troublesome Creek section (direction), which leads to the Little Coal Creek Trailhead. Note that this is the entire trail.

As you hike from Troublesome Creek Trail east towards Little Coal Creek Trailhead and beyond, you’ll cover 37.2 miles (60 km) of stunning terrain in the Talkeetna Mountains. The elevation gain is over 6,000 feet (1,829 meters), and you’ll reach elevations of up to 5,200 feet (1,585 meters). Along the way, you’ll be treated to unparalleled views of the surrounding mountains and valleys.

The trail offers varying terrain, including small lakes and more incredible views of the Alaska Range. It’s a great way to conclude your trip.

Popular Highlights Along the Way

No matter which route you choose, the trail boasts several highlights that will make your hike unforgettable.

You’ll encounter incredible vistas at Stonehenge Hill, pass by Byer’s Lake, and witness the transition from dense forests to open mountainous landscapes. In addition, there is wildlife that includes moose, caribou, bears, and Dall sheep. As you hike, you’ll have the opportunity to take in the formerly Mt. McKinley, now Denali, and the picturesque valleys that make up this beautiful region.

A 3-Day Kesugi Ridge Trail Adventure

Hiking in Alaska Park

Embarking on a 3-day trek along the trail promises an immersive journey through the heart of Denali State Park. This itinerary is designed to maximize your experience, showcasing the trail’s diverse landscapes, incredible views, and well-appointed camping spots.

Day 1: Trailhead to Ermine Hill Trailhead to Byers Lake Campground (direction)

Morning:

  • Trailhead: Begin your adventure at the Little Coal Creek Trailhead (location). The trail begins with a gradual ascent, offering glimpses of the Alaska Range.

Midday:

  • Ermine Hill Trail: Stop at the Ermine Hill Trailhead (location) for a quick rest and to take in the incredible views of Denali.
  • Skinny Lake (location): As you traverse through the forest and reach Skinny Lake, take a break to absorb the tranquility of this pristine location.

Afternoon:

  • Byers Lake Campground (location): Arrive at Byers Lake Campground, 17.7 miles (28.4 km) away, your first campsite, nestled on the shores of the picturesque lake. Set up your tent, enjoy a well-deserved rest, and relish the incredible view of Denali from the campground.

Day 2: Byer’s Lake Campground to Lower Troublesome Creek Trailhead (direction)

Morning:

  • Denali Views: Wake up to the breathtaking sight of Denali in the morning light and resume your journey, climbing through forests and open spaces along the ridgeline.

Midday:

  • Lunch Break: Take a break and savor a packed lunch with incredible vistas stretching as far as the eye can see.

Afternoon:

  • Bear Habitat: Be alert as you pass through potential bear habitat areas. Carry bear spray and follow proper bear safety precautions.
  • Lower Troublesome Creek Trailhead: Settle into Lower Troublesome Creek Trailhead, about 10.5 miles (17 km), about a 4-hour hike, for your second night. Here, you will be surrounded by the rugged beauty of the Talkeetna Mountains.

Day 3: Lower Troublesome Creek Trailhead to K’esugi Ken Campground (direction)

Morning:

  • Early Start: Begin your day early to make the most of your final leg of the journey. Descend into valleys and traverse through diverse landscapes.

Midday:

  • Troublesome Creek Trailhead (location): Conclude your Kesugi Ridge adventure at K’esugi Ken Campground. Reflect on the miles traveled, the challenges overcome, and the incredible views witnessed.

Seasonal Considerations: Best Times to Hike the Kesugi Ridge Trail and Weather Conditions

Scenic view along a hike in Denali National Park

The Kesugi Ridge Trail, with its stunning location in the heart of Alaska, is not only renowned for its incredible views and great hikes but also for its ever-changing weather.

As any seasoned hiker will tell you, knowing what to expect during each season is crucial for planning a successful and safe trip.

Spring (March-May)

In spring, as the snow begins to recede, the K’esugi Ridge Trail awakens from its winter slumber. The trailhead parking lot is often surrounded by remnants of winter’s embrace, but the valley floors come alive with new growth.

While temperatures may still be on the cooler side, ranging from 0°C to 10°C (32°F to 50°F), the clear days offer incredible views, especially as you ascend Ermine Hill Trail.

Summer (June–August)

Summer is the prime time for hiking K’esugi Ridge. With daylight lasting nearly 24 hours, you have ample time to explore. Expect temperatures to vary from 10°C to 20°C (50°F to 68°F) during the day, with the sun barely descending below the horizon. This is when the ridgeline truly comes to life, and the views on a clear day are nothing short of breathtaking.

The treeline gives way to alpine terrain, small lakes glisten in the sunlight, and you’ll find the trail winding through forests and meadows.

Fall (September–November)

As the season begins to transition, K’esugi Ridge takes on a new charm. Temperatures start to dip, ranging from 0°C to 10°C (32°F to 50°F), especially as you head further into the fall months.

The changing foliage paints the landscape in hues of red and gold, adding to the incredible views. Fall hikers often enjoy more solitude on the trail as the number of visitors decreases.

Winter (December–February)

Winter on the trail is a different experience. Snow blankets the landscape, transforming it into a frozen wonderland. Moreover, the trail is less frequented during this season, with temperatures ranging from -10°C to -20°C (14°F to -4°F).

Hiking during this season requires specialized gear and should only be attempted by those with experience in cold-weather hiking.

Note that throughout the year, K’esugi Ridge Trail’s weather can be unpredictable, and it’s essential to be prepared for sudden changes. The mountainous regions can be cold and windy, and lower elevations can be warm and muggy. Also, it’s not uncommon to encounter patches of clouds and rain during your trip.

Get the accurate 7-day weather forecast here.

Essential Gear and Equipment for a Successful Hike

Hiking in Alaska

The K’esugi Ridge Trail is a hike that requires a good level of fitness, experience, and preparation. The trail has steep ascents and descents, a narrow trail, and exposed areas. So, it’s important to have the right gear and equipment to ensure a safe and successful journey.

Whether you’re embarking on a day hike or a multi-day trek through the wilderness, here’s a list of recommended gear to bring for your trip:

  • Hiking Boots with Good Ankle Support: Sturdy hiking boots with good ankle support or trail runners help navigate the trail’s rocky and uneven terrain. Luckily, we have a guide to choosing the best hiking boots.
  • Clothing Layers: Dress in moisture-wicking and breathable layers to accommodate the unpredictable weather in Alaska. Consider a moisture-wicking base layer, insulating mid-layers, and a waterproof outer shell.
  • Backpack: A comfortable and appropriately sized backpack to carry your gear, food, water, and extra clothing.
  • Navigation Tools: a detailed map of the Kesugi Ridge Trail, a compass, and a GPS device to help you stay on course.
  • Water and Filtration: Adequate water containers and a water filtration system are needed to purify water from the streams and lakes you encounter along the way.
  • Food and Snacks: high-energy, non-perishable food items and snacks to fuel your journey. You can get some ideas on our guide to 25 of the most delicious backpacking food ideas on our blog.
  • First Aid Kit: A basic first aid kit with essentials like bandages, pain relievers, and any personal medications is important to prevent common hiking injuries and blisters.
  • Bear Spray: Due to the presence of bear habitat along the trail, carrying bear spray is essential for safety. Also, you need to check out tips for wild animal encounters on the trail.
  • Whistle and Bear Bell: These can be used to alert wildlife to your presence, especially in densely forested areas.
  • Emergency Communication: A satellite phone or a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) for emergency situations, given the remote nature of the trail.
  • Lightweight tent: A lightweight and weather-resistant tent will make setting up camp easier and provide shelter during overnight camping at designated campsites.
  • Warm sleeping bag and pad: Temperatures at higher elevations can drop significantly. So, carry a sleeping bag suitable for the season and a comfortable sleeping pad for insulation and comfort.
  • Cooking Equipment: A lightweight stove, cookware, and utensils for meal preparation.
  • Headlamp/Flashlight: A reliable light source for navigating the trail at night.
  • Trekking poles: With sections of the trail having steep elevation gain and loss, trekking poles can help with stability and balance while hiking.
  • Camera: With amazing views and incredible wildlife, you’ll want to capture your trip with more photos.

Camping and Overnight Stays near Kesugi Ridge Trail

Packrafting camp on the Tokositna River, in Alaska's Denali National Park.

Camping near the Kesugi Ridge Trail is an excellent way to fully immerse yourself in the breathtaking beauty of Denali State Park and the Alaska Range. With various campgrounds and options for every level of outdoor enthusiast, here’s a comprehensive guide to camping in this spectacular region.

  • Byer’s Lake Campground (location): Byer’s Lake Campground is an ideal base camp for those embarking on a K’esugi Ridge adventure. It’s located in a serene Byers Lake wooded area, offering incredible views of the surrounding mountains and the first glimpse of Denali. You can set up your tent or park your RV, and it’s an excellent place to prepare for your great hike. Permits are required, and reservations are recommended, especially during the busy summer season.
  • Denali North View Campground (location): Nestled in the heart of Denali State Park, about 15 miles (24 km) north of the trailhead, this campground offers a peaceful and picturesque setting. As the name suggests, you’ll have an incredible view of Denali and the Alaska Range. It’s a great spot to spend your first night in Alaska while being close to the Kesugi Ridge Trail. Permits are typically required, and reservations are advisable, especially if you want to secure a campsite.
  • Skinny Lake Campground (location): Skinny Lake Campground is surrounded by lush forest and offers a tranquil camping experience, approximately 20 miles (32 km) north of the trailhead. The lake, situated nearby, provides opportunities for water activities and relaxation, making it an excellent choice for those looking to enjoy a balance of hiking and lakeside camping. Permits are usually required, and reservations are recommended.
  • K’esugi Ken Campground (location): K’esugi Ken Campground, about 25 miles (40 km) north of the trailhead, offers campers a serene mountain setting with convenient access to the Kesugi Ridge Trail. It’s known for its impressive views of the Alaska Range and is an excellent starting point for your adventure. Permits are typically required, and reservations are recommended, particularly during peak season. There are a few campsites that can be reserved online here. However, not all campsites can be reserved ahead of time. These campgrounds are typically open from mid-May through mid-September. Online reservations, on the other hand, are available from June 1 through August 31 but are dependent upon camp host and staff availability.
  • Talkeetna River Park Campground (location): Talkeetna River Park Campground, located south of the trailhead at a distance of about 30 miles (48 km) from the trailhead, provides a unique perspective on the surrounding landscape. The nearby Talkeetna River offers a soothing ambience, and this campground is well-suited for those seeking a more relaxed camping experience. Permits may be required, and reservations are advisable, especially if you plan to camp here.

Note: Campsites lack amenities, so your camping gear and supplies should be enough to get you through your duration on the trail.

Also, check updated trail conditions and wildfire regulations before you go camping, and reserve your spot before you arrive.

Getting There: Directions and Transportation Options

Parks Highway

Visiting Kesugi Ridge Trail begins with planning your route to this captivating Alaskan wilderness. Here’s how to get there, from the nearest airports to making your way to the trailhead and exploring the area.

Nearest Airports

The three nearest airports to Kesugi Ridge Trail are:

  1. Talkeetna Airport (TKA): Located about 47 miles (75 km) away, Talkeetna Airport is a small, public airport that offers private charter flights and limited commercial service. Consider taking a flight to TKA if you’re looking for a more scenic arrival option.
  2. Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (ANC): Located approximately 137 miles (220 km) south of the park, this is the primary gateway to the region. Most travelers coming from outside Alaska will arrive at Anchorage Airport.
  3. Fairbanks International Airport (FAI): Situated about 187 miles (300 km) north of Denali State Park, Fairbanks Airport is another option, especially if you plan to explore the region from the north.

From the Airport to the Trail

Once you’ve arrived at either airport, here’s how to get to the Kesugi Ridge Trail:

Talkeetna Airport (TKA) to Kesugi Ridge:

  • Car: Take the George Parks Highway towards Denali Park. After approximately 14 miles (22.5 km), turn right onto the Talkeetna Spur Road and continue for another 38 miles (61 km). You’ll reach the K’esugi Ridge Trailhead.

Ted Stevens Anchorage (ANC) to Kesugi Ridge:

  • Car Rental: The most flexible option is to rent a car at Anchorage Airport. From there, drive north on the Parks Highway (Alaska Route 3) towards Denali.
  • By Shuttle: Some shuttle services offer transportation from Anchorage to the trailhead area or Denali. These services can be convenient if you prefer not to drive.

Fairbanks (FAI) to Kesugi Ridge:

  • Car Rental: Rent a car at Fairbanks Airport and head south on the Parks Highway towards Denali.
  • By Shuttle: Similar to Anchorage, shuttle services can be a good alternative for those who don’t wish to drive.

Getting Around the Area

Navigating the area around Kesugi Ridge Trail is primarily done by car, as it offers the most flexibility to explore the trailheads, trails, and Denali State Park. Here are some important points to keep in mind:

  • Trailheads: The primary trailheads for K’esugi Ridge are accessible via the Parks Highway. The most common starting points are the Ermine Hill Trail Head and the Little Coal Creek Trailhead.
  • Denali: While K’esugi Ridge offers incredible views, it’s not to be confused with the more famous Denali National Park. The Denali National Park and Preserve entrance is a separate location, accessible by driving further south on the Parks Highway.
  • Exploring the Area: The area surrounding the trail offers opportunities to explore the treeline, valley, ridgeline, and the picturesque landscapes of Alaska.
  • Night Travel: Be aware that in the summer months, Alaska experiences the phenomenon of the “Midnight Sun,” which means daylight lasts for most of the night. This can affect your perception of time if you’re not used to it.

Conclusion

K’esugi Ridge Trail is a beautifully challenging trail for hikers who are seeking an epic adventure. It’s a place that’s perfect for once-in-a-lifetime experiences while hiking across exquisite Alaskan landscapes.

From the stunning views of the Alaska Range to the serene valleys and treelines, this trail offers something for every type of adventurer. With proper planning and preparation, it’s a journey you won’t want to miss. Start planning your trip today and get ready to experience the breathtaking beauty of the Kesugi Ridge Trail.

Feel free to have a look at other hikes and trails in our guide.


RALPH S.

Ralph S. is the founder of Silverlight, an avid hiker and trail runner he enjoys spending time outdoors, riding his motorcycle and swimming at the beach when he's not busy replying to customers or developing new Silverlight gear.

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