Summer brings unique Alaskan adventures like putting all your food into bear-safe containers and hiking 30 miles on a ridgeline with a view of Denali. Some might consider a trip like this to be crazy, but for most Alaskans, it’s simply what you do in the summer. Elizabeth and I have been looking forward to backpacking the Kesugi Ridge trail for almost as long as we’ve been known each other. You see, she has hiked this trail multiple times and it was one of the first backpacking trips I heard about when I moved here, but never got a chance to go. Until this July!
Kesugi Ridge Traverse
Through Hiking Little Coal Creek to Byer’s Lake
We were fortunate enough to spend the night before hiking Kesugi at the Byer’s Lake cabin with our friends Caitlin, Gil, and their adorable kids Eleanor & Oliver. Even more amazing was how they let us drop our car at Byer’s Lake and shuttle us to Little Coal Creek so we could do the trip as a through-hike.
Kesugi Ridge Trail Backpacking Denali State Park
As we embarked on our trip, Eleanor grabbed my hand and ran down the trail when we tried to say farewell to Caitlin and Gil at Little Coal Creek. She usually only has enough hiking enthusiasm for a short stroll before wanting to be carried but today she insisted on joining us. Her two-year-old parental defiance didn’t last more than a hundred yards as we laughed along and Gil convinced her to go back to the car.
The sounds of civilization drop off dramatically as you round the bend from the trailhead. Elizabeth and I were quickly absorbed into the forest with a spruce hen and her chicks crossing our path and welcoming us. Theo bounded up to these ground fowl just before they fluttered away. The first mile of the trail from Little Coal Creek to Kesugi Ridge was relatively flat and we saw another 3 or 4 spruce hens before coming to a steady incline that would take us up to the ridge.
Tundra covers the hills all around the trail once you pass the tree line. The Susitna River can be seen behind, carving a natural highway between Kesugi and the Alaska Range. On a clear day, Denali would tower above everything else but clouds limited our view to Ruth Glacier and Moose’s Tooth as the only standouts we could name.
The nice thing about ridge hikes is that you tend not to have a lot of elevation change once you’re up the ridge. We spent the afternoon ambling among boulder fields and crossing snowy creeks. Patches of snow were spread throughout the tundra and Theo took every opportunity to cool off by rolling in white remnants of winter.
Marmots and ground squirrels are prolific on Kesugi Ridge and regularly teased Theo with their calls. His ears perked up every time one squeaked, then he bounded after them with glee. Watching Theo run free is one of our favorite things about being in the mountains. Despite his reluctance to wear a doggie backpack, Theo really does love backpacking with us!
Every few hours Elizabeth and I took a pack break, we were covering good time and in no big hurry. Since she’s done the Kesugi Ridge traverse multiple times I knew she would find good camping spots and keep us on pace.
Donning our packs again we crossed another snowfield, this one half-melted and forming a small creek. I turned around to snap a photo capturing the natural clash of green grass and white snow. Around the next bend, Elizabeth turned and pointed. She said quietly “look an animal.” Confused, I peered in the direction she was pointing. Did she see a bear on the other side of the hill? If it was a bear I think she would have been more specific so I started walking towards her when she said again “look right there!”
I froze in my tracks scanning the horizon when a small weasel-like critter hopped from rock to rock in front of me! At first, I thought it was a marten, but I’m no biologist so I just tried to take its picture. The curious critter paused on each rock just long enough for me to focus before bolting to his next hiding spot. It kept creeping closer and staring at me with a long slender body and solid yellow underbelly. Once, it stood up on its hind legs and peered between us like a meercat.
Thankfully this little guy didn’t make any noise so Theo never noticed it. We watched the rodent for a few more moments before it skittered behind rocks and out of view. It took a moment for us to guess what kind of animal it was, but it wasn’t until we got home to Google and confirm that we saw an ermine.
Shortly after spotting the ermine, we could begin to make out the distant Ermine Hill that would mark our halfway point in this trek. The rocky precipice stood out as a unique formation among these tundra-filled hills but we wouldn’t make it there until midday tomorrow.
Our steady hiking pace continued to prove quicker than we realized as we passed two separate groups of backpackers along the trail. They were the only people we saw all day and we kept hiking as the sun began to disappear behind clouds. It was hovering low above the mountains but the sun wouldn’t actually set tonight, instead, it would loom just behind the mountains and remain dusk until it rose again in the wee hours of the morning.
Backpacking in Alaska is a little different from many other parts of the world. In addition to the staples: food, water, a tent, etc. you also need to put anything fragrant in a bear-safe container! We always have bear spray when hiking but bear bins are reserved for camping situations. This trip I was excited to try out my new Ursack, a flexible container made of kevlar and supposedly bear safe. A bear could theoretically smash everything in your Ursack to bits but they won’t get in if it is used correctly. I decided the trade-off of less weight and an easier-to-pack container was worth a shot and put one on our wedding registry. Thank you, Chris and Meghan, the Ursack worked great!
The first time I used a bear bin I saw 13 grizzlies while backpacking in Denali National Park with my brother Ben!
Kesugi Ridge Alaska
Camping Denali State Park
Our first campsite was on the side of an unnamed lake a few miles before Ermine Hill. We were hopeful that the morning would offer a view of Denali but the clouds rolled in thicker instead, bringing drizzle with them. Campers in bear country need to follow strict food guidelines that include three separate overnight locations: one for your tent, another for your bear bins/Ursack, and the 3rd for cooking. Ideally, these form a triangle and will keep any unwanted animals from disturbing you or finding your food.
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We cooked first, boiling water with a Jetboil and enjoying a Mountain House dinner before tying my Ursack and hanging it over a massive boulder a hundred yards further north. Elizabeth tucked her plastic bear bin beneath the same rock and I ventured due west to find a suitable campsite. Theo spent the majority of this time gopher hunting and digging in the mud, he was in doggie heaven and would need a bit of cleaning before we let him into the tent.
The rain started as a drizzle but grew steadily as we set up camp. The light rain became a steady stream while we were coercing Theo that the tent was better than a ground squirrel den. Thankfully we had everything ready before the rain soaked any of our gear. The precipitation also cleaned some of the mud from Theo. We eventually got him inside and toweled him off as best we could, resolving to wake up to a damp dog.
Rain pattered our tent fly throughout the night as we played a word game before settling in for some journaling and eventually slumber. I wrapped myself tightly in my sleeping bag, more to block out the light than for warmth on this summer evening. The buff I brought as an eye patch didn’t fit as comfortably as I hoped but my body eventually succumbed to the tugging strings of sleep.
Kesugi Ridge Trail Alaska
Day 2 – Hiking Denali State Park
Cloudy skies obscured mountain views when we finally emerged from our tent. Elizabeth went off to grab our food and start on breakfast while I moseyed down to the lake and filtered 6 liters of water for the day. As frustrating as making your pack heavier is, apparently hydration is kind of important.
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The clouds slowly parted revealing patches of blue and hinting at a beautiful day by the time we packed up and started hiking. A few miles of trail still separated us from Ermine Hill so we set off at a steady pace. Our morning banter jumped between topics as we thought about ideas for the wedding. What should we do for our wedding favor? Do I really want meteorite in my wedding band or is a natural design enough? Should we invite a few extra guests now that a few people are canceling their plans?
Wedding talk petered out and we enjoyed a mile or so in silence before jumping into a spelling game called Ghost. I paused frequently to take photos and we took a pack break on a rock outcropping before descending a few hundred feet to the fork below Ermine Hill.
Hiking back up the valley was slower than I expected given the mild incline. In actuality, it wasn’t that bad, the trail is well established and in no time at all, we passed Ermine Hill’s unique rock outcroppings and had an endless westward view for a picnic lunch.
The southern trail down from Ermine Hill switches back down into a marshy valley and back up towards Golag, an otherwise insignificant peak. This stretch of trail was my least favorite part of the whole Kesugi Ridge Traverse. You quickly go back below the treeline into prime bear and moose habitat with minimal views. The trail turns through swamps and bogs before coming back into a forest, which again means more bear habitat. Thankfully we didn’t see any bear sign and only saw old moose scat. We switched to a lively game of Cheer’s Governor (aka 21) so any bears could hear us coming.
Thankfully we made it through this stretch of trail without any incident, but by the time we were climbing out of the treeline again my legs were ready for a break! The afternoon was now behind us and we debated camping on a platform at Skinny Lake. Elizabeth knew of a great campsite at the top of Golag where could catch a glimpse of Denali. We looked up while discussing our course and as if saying her name commanded the clouds to part, Denali began to shimmer through.
We decided not to dally any longer and pushed forward. The rocky trail wove just above the treeline again before descending down to Skinny Lake where we took another short break. The steepest part of our trail lay at the far end of Skinny Lake and tonight’s destination couldn’t be more than a mile or two from there.
By now our legs weighed heavily with each step. Muddy ruts appeared as the trail climbed straight up rather than the more forgiving switchbacks we had crossed earlier. Even Theo showed signs of tiring as he stuck closer by and ignored a few ground squirrel calls. This trail wouldn’t be nearly as difficult as a day hike but with 40 pounds on our backs, it was a grueling task.
Eventually we made it to the rocky top of Golag and were immediately rewarded with a view of Denali! Perhaps she came out in full just after our earlier glimpse but the nearby hills blocked all mountain views between Skinny Lake and our next cook spot. Either way, we enjoyed the view and our meal.
“This is what I imagine Scotland looks like,” Elizabeth said as she gazed over a series of lakes dotting the landscape, while our water boiled. The nearest one would be our campsite and we celebrated the last of our incline with a can of wine. The mosquitoes were the only ones to join us that evening convincing us to scarf down our Mountain House dinners with much haste.
By the time we got down to the lake and crossed the tussocks to a flat lichen-filled campsite, the mosquitoes had gotten worse. I donned a mosquito net and we zipped the tent open quickly to toss the sleeping gear in. Sunset teased us again as the sun hung just below Denali’s peak sending beams of golden light across the Alaska Range in beautiful splendor.
After snapping a quick photo and enjoying the view we decided to retreat to the relative safety of our tent. Theo was ready to get away from the biting bugs too.
This evening I decided to fly my drone and explore the nearby landscape, but from the safety of the tent. I circled wide around our tent and skimmed the surface of two lakes before panning around the horizon. Tonight we had this entire mountainside to ourselves and our aching bodies quickly fell asleep.
Kesugi Ridge Trail Day 3
Blue skies shone through the lone window in our tent and Elizabeth unzipped the door as we awoke to a crystal clear morning view of Denali! She says this campsite is good luck because all three times she’s backpacked Kesugi Ridge and stopped here, Denali has come out.
We lingered as long as possible enjoying the marvelous view and grateful that the morning mosquitoes were surprisingly calm. My evening flight made me even more excited to fly my Mavic Pro, this time I would try to follow our trio along the trail hovering just above and capturing what I hoped would be the quintessential backpacking in Alaska scene.
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Elizabeth called out roots and rocks for me to avoid as we strolled downhill. A lake on the left reflected green ripples while the next one on the right drew its life from a nearby snowfield. The drone encircled us catching hints of Denali while we walked before a huge group of backpackers from Massachusetts came into view.
We welcomed them to Alaska and offered some trail guidance before one of the guys asked what kind of drone I had and we chatted a bit more about the flying camera. Theo took advantage of all the dog lovers in their group for plenty of head scratches. They had a long hike ahead of them though so we didn’t chat for long since I didn’t want to waste my last drone battery hovering around this crew.
The trail continued downward past lake after lake with spruce appearing in between the shrubbery and tundra. Despite these lone watchtowers, we stayed well above the treeline for the majority of the day. The Kesugi Ridge Trail snaked around a few knolls before climbing steadily back up Whimbrel Hill where we took our last pack break for lunch.
A fork in the trail appeared on the southern side of Whimbrel Hill and offered an escape to Byer’s Lake. Continuing onward would lead the way to Upper Troublesome Creek but most hikers finish the Kesugi Ridge Trail at Byer’s Lake. There is talk of Alaska Parks & Rec connecting Upper Troublesome Creek with Kesugi Ken’s Curry Ridge Trail to make the traverse even longer for anyone wanting to explore even more.
Elizabeth and I had plenty of exploring on this trip and were excited to finish the “2 mile” Cascade Trail and take a dip in Byer’s Lake before driving home. Unfortunately, the endless switchbacks cover nearly twice the marked distance and when we finally got down to Byer’s Lake the mosquitoes were out in full force! We practically sprinted the last mile of the trail now that it was flat and our packs void of food (and most of the water). It must have been a comical scene watching the two of us flail around swatting mosquitoes and uttering obscenities at those tiny insects.
We finally arrived at our car and deposited our packs before taking a cleansing jump into Byer’s Lake! All in all, we had an excellent trip along the Kesugi Ridge and despite a few insane instances of mosquitoes they were pretty mild throughout the trek. I can confidently say that we will be back to Kesugi Ridge sometime, word has it that the fall is a great time to go as the tundra erupts with yellows and reds and the mosquitoes have all but disappeared for the season.
Recommended Reading for more Alaska Travel
- Day Trips from Anchorage
- Day Trip in Prince William Sound
- Hiking Pepper Peak – Summers at Eklutna Lake
- Amazing Denali Views while Hiking the Curry Ridge Trail
- Winning the Denali Park Road Lottery
- Backpack through Denali National Park
- Camp at Grewingk Glacier
- Cross a frozen lake to Portage Glacier
- Ski to Skookum Glacier
- All Season Adventures -Hike Rabbit Lake Trail
- All Season Adventures -Explore Eklutna Lake Trail
- Aurora Hunting in Fairbanks for New Years Eve
- Biking to Knik Glacier
- Crust Skiing Broad Pass – Denali State Park