In late June 2012, the summer following our epic adventure over Chilkoot Pass [see the June 2014 issue of LFM], our same two-family hiking group was set for another backpacking trip. This time, we were headed for Kesugi Ridge Trail in Denali State Park, a challenging 27.5 mile hike across an alpine ridge located between the Chulitna and Susitna Rivers. The views of Denali and the Alaska Range along this trail can be stunning, especially during the first 13 miles. But, as the guidebook warned, we were prepared for quickly changing weather, cold winds and low visibility. We planned to start at the north end of the trail, Little Coal Creek, and then travel south, ending at the trailhead near Byers Lake Campground.
Day One: Our group, made up of five adults and three teenagers, headed out of Wasilla in two cars. Since this was a one-way hike, and the Little Coal Creek Trailhead is 17 miles up the Parks Highway, we planned to leave a vehicle at Byers Lake for shuttle purposes when we finished in three days. It was mid-afternoon when we hit the trail, beginning with a four mile, 2,100 foot climb up to the trail’s highest point of 3,500 feet, following Little Coal Creek nearly to its headwaters. The weather was fairly overcast with some low, darker clouds threatening, but the temperature was mild as we climbed through the spruce, birch and willow forests. We got our first panoramic view of the Alaska Range across the Chulitna River Basin around mile two. The Eldridge Glacier was snaking its black and blue ice trail down the flanks of Denali directly across from us, with vistas to the right and left. Our group was excited, knowing we’d be camping that night with such an amazing view.
We continued our climb until we nearly reached a leveling off point, but our stomachs were calling for a dinner break. We didn’t stop for too long as the air was cooling with the later hour and higher elevation. Donning hats and gloves, we moved on, anticipating another three or four miles to go until we would find suitable terrain for our camp. The cool weather continued and by the time our four tents were pitched on the tundra, about 8 p.m., the cloudy curtains were closing on the view. We were ready for snacks, hot drinks, and warm sleeping bags. We hoped that our first look out of the tent in the morning would be a big improvement.
Day Two: Light rain on our tents in the night gave us a hint that our hopes wouldn’t be realized. We emerged to make breakfast and were greeted by fog a few feet from the ground. There would be no views of Denali that day. With disappointment and the knowledge that we had a long day ahead, we packed up and headed into the misty air. To find our way we followed the rock cairns marking the trail, especially at times when the trail was only a rocky ridge. The scenery around us was interesting through the mist as we crossed small streams, some boggy sections and alpine tarns.
The second half of our group was behind us a bit, but we weren’t sure how far. By late morning we were approaching Stonehenge Hill. Granite boulders the size of dump trucks littered a high point near the trail. Again, the fog and mist limited our view of this attraction, but the weather had its own way of making the boulders even more ominous and large. Arctic ground squirrels were heard and sighted near their tunnel entrances among the rocks. After another 30 minutes or so we were thinking a stop to wait for the rest of group and have lunch was due. The wait was longer than we expected, but finally, we heard voices calling through the fog as they approached our location. It was a relief to be moving forward as one group with such limited visibility.
We continued picking our way across leftover snow patches and boggy sections while relying on the rock cairns in the inclement weather. After several miles, the weather improved and the fog and clouds lifted enough to make our trek much more comfortable. Unfortunately, we were turning east and descending about 800 feet into a forested valley, so our opportunities to view the Alaska Range were gone. This section of the trail is brushy and steep. Knowing bears were in the area, we made sure to make plenty of noise. We also discovered that the forested valley had suffered terrible wind damage the previous winter and the obstacles in our path created a serious challenge. For nearly two hours, we climbed over, under, and along fallen trees and even had to find new routes around some patches. It was the longest mile of the whole hike! Our party was once again separated and exhaustion was setting in.
Our first group reached the other side of the valley and it was time to climb back up to the ridge. For nearly a mile, the trail was so brushy that is was a lot like moving through a tunnel. The amount of fresh bear sign (tracks and scat piles) was unnerving in this type of terrain and, despite our diminishing energy, we kept moving at a steady pace. We were sure glad to reach a higher elevation where the trail was once again open and rocky. The second half of the group was just entering the brush below us. We were ready to reach our planned stop for the night at Skinny Lake and get camp set up. It had been a challenging ten-mile day and we all needed a good rest. Intermittent rain had returned and we all retired to our tents soon after dinner and camp chores were complete.
Day 3: We awoke to another damp, foggy morning, broke camp and headed out toward Byers Lake Campground ten miles away. Right away we began an 870 foot climb out of the Skinny Lake bowl to Point Golog at a 2,970 foot elevation. Finally, some views! The weather was definitely changing for the better and the panoramic view of the ridge dotted with alpine lakes was refreshing. Outer clothing layers were removed and stowed in our packs. During our lunch break, we relaxed in the sun that was quickly burning off the remaining clouds. Reluctantly, we headed back out on the trail. We saw more ground squirrels and plenty of birds, but no big game. The route passed several more alpine lakes and stayed mostly level for the next few miles until we reached a junction. Here, the trail either continues on to the Troublesome Creek Trailhead (another 12 miles) or begins the very steep descent to Byers Lake Trailhead. Steep was an understatement! Our knees and ankles were put to the test as we slid, hopped and stepped carefully down the trail, following a river gorge for over a mile before reaching the forest again. Almost immediately we were reminded of why hiking in alpine areas has its benefits; the mosquitoes attacked in full force as soon as we neared the lake. The last 1.5 miles around the lakeshore to the parking lot was completed at a less than leisurely stroll with plenty of bug swatting going on! A couple of our group members left to fetch our vehicle from the Little Coal Creek trailhead. The rest of us soaked our tired feet in the crisp lake water and stayed out on the dock away from the bloodthirsty insects.
Another great experience in the Last Frontier was complete and new possibilities are already being planned. This hike is definitely challenging, almost as much as the Chilkoot Trail, but it’s an adventure well worth the effort. We hope to return again soon to give that view we were seeking a second chance.
Diane Rose owns and operates Rose Ridge Vacation Chalet just a few miles from the entrance of the Matanuska Valley’s playground, Hatcher Pass. Visit her website at