Kesugi Ridge

Denali State Park

Difficulty
Somewhat Difficult; both trailheads start with an extreme uphill slope to the ridge. There is also a major uphill slope in the middle. They're tough but doable. The ridge itself is easy.
Connects With
Miles One Way
27.5
Miles from Anchorage
147; Byers Lake Trailhead: 147
Little Coal Creek Trailhead: 164
Season
July to September
Ratings
Hike rating
This trail was rated 5 moose hooves for hiking.

Description

THIS HIKE IS INCREDIBLE!!!

If you’re coming up here in July or August, and you’re looking for a good 3-4 day trail to backpack, this should be your number one choice.
The reason I say this is Denali (Mt. McKinley). The trail basically runs along the side of Kesugi Mountain which makes it a primo location to view North America’s largest mountain. Now I want to warn you upfront. Due to the weather conditions Denali creates in itself, you only have a 30% chance of seeing the mountain unobscured by clouds. But if you have good weather, and you have 3-4 days to increase your odds, you will be richly rewarded on your journey.

Even if Denali was not the main attraction, this would still be a great hike. The trail goes through some very interesting and varied terrain, especially beautiful and endless tundra. The guidebooks make this seem like a harder hike than it is. I don’t know why. The trail is very obvious and there are numerous cairns showing the way. Yes, there are some heavy duty elevation gains to get to the ridge, but nothing a seasoned backpacker can’t handle.

I usually don’t do this for the hikes described in this website, but herein is a brief synopsis of the entire trail.

You will definitely want to start at the Little Coal Creek Trailhead. That way, you will avoid about half the elevation gain you’d do at the the Byers Lake trailhead. You won’t avoid it entirely as the first 2.5 miles are pretty steep as you work your way up to the ridge (trust me-Byers Lake Trailhead is much worse). Luckily the trail is switch-backed so you’ll get some rest periods. As a small comfort, the views of Denali start right away.

Before you know it, you’re above treeline and easily fording Little Coal Creek. You’ll head over the pass and then your official ridge hike starts. If you’re lucky, the Mountain will be visible and you will walk with your head turned right and your jaw dropped down to your chest. I had the best weather and it was so incredible. I couldn’t take my eyes off Denali, Mt. Foraker, Eldridge Glacier, and the braided Chulitna River. A really nice touch is the fact that you can not see the Parks Highway below as it is covered by trees.

I kept the first day easy. After seven miles, I went a little lower and found a great private spot, with an incredible view of the Mountain, a flat soft tundra ground for my tent, and a cascading creek that looked like a winding staircase.

The next day I passed 8 mile divide, a huge pass that looked like a tundra football field. You then pass Stonehenge Hill. It, and the surrounding area, are covered in boulders and a white/gray sand. In the back is a beautiful view of the Talkeetna Mountains.

Pretty soon you’re back on the ridgeline and heading to the gray dome of Ermine Hill, a very weird and out of place formation. At this point the trail intersects with Ermine Hill Trail where you would take the right turn. You could use this to make this an overnight hike or, as most people, an emergency exit if the weather turns violent.

But if you head down, you’ll miss some great scenery, so turn left where you’ll drop sharply down into a stunning pass with an island of sand among a lush sea of greenery as well as really cool -should be in a desert- rock formations. This would be a great place to have lunch.

You will then descend down the mountain, where you’ll travel through dense, lush forest. This part can be pretty dull, so I would suggest pretending to be Olga Korbut on the balance beam (you’ll get this joke when you do this hike). Pretty soon you’re heading back up where you’ll see Skinny Lake, a very long lake surrounded by serious plant and shrub growth. I had planned on making this my second night but there were no decent campsites, and I kept ascending till I got back above treeline.

I was glad I did! After I went over the last ridge, I saw three lakes. I managed to snag one for my very own where Denali (75% covered in clouds this time) peaked through an opening in the hill in front of the lake. The water was actually warm enough that I could bathe and I even saw 4 teenagers come by and take a swim.

The third and last day, I spent most of the time walking through far as the eye can see tundra dotted here and there with small and medium lakes. It was a really cool experience and made me feel quite small.

Soon you will head down the trail where you will see the intersection for the Troublesome Creek Trail.

Pretty soon, you’re below tree line and coming down a steep canyon. You’ll head through buggy forest and end up at the Byers Lake Campground where you will either hitchhike back or have a ferried car waiting. Luckily I met some really nice people on the trail (thanks to Chad, Colleen, Jenna, and Sharon! who helped me get back).

It was by far one of the best backpacking experiences of my life, not to mention in Alaska. I urge you to put this on your list.

Summer 2004: I redid this hike and it was still as thrilling and wondrous as the first time. This time I left my truck at Byers Lake late Friday afternoon and hitched to Coal Creek. I just went far enough to get up to the ridge and camped on a spacious area with a stunning view of the mountain. There were ripe blueberries everywhere. I spent 3 more days doing the trail and the weather was perfect. This truly is one of the best trails in Alaska!

Important Information

Understanding topo maps for this hike can get confusing. I found it hard to match where I was to what was on the map as many features look similar. I totally misjudged where I was the first night, and I wasn’t the only one. Please view my photo page carefully so you will have visual landmarks of locations. For this hike, the pictures are in order of when I saw them.

As stated above, there are no really good places to camp at Skinny Lake, not to mention the surrounding vegetation. You will have to head back up mountain. Plan accordingly. If you were doing 3 days, I would do first night before Ermine Hill and second night the 3 tarns back up the mountain after Skinny Lake. You do want to stop at the lake for water as there are inadequate sources till you get back at top.

Prepare for bad weather. You are very much exposed on top of this ridge with not many places to buffer you from a fierce storm. Make sure your tent can handle high winds and you have proper clothing. On the other extreme, there are no places to get out of the sun. I wish I had brought sunscreen as I wound up with a nice burn on my face and arms.

The chance for fog is high here. Luckily, you have the cairns. No matter what the weather, trust the cairns. They are spaced about every 50 feet and are only used for the Kesugi Trail. Be safe though, and have at least rudimentary navigational and compass skills.

Pace yourself for the ascent back up from the forest. You will have to climb over many chasms and ridges and it can really wear you out.

Before you descend down to Byers Lake, put some DEET on. It is mosquito hell once you get below treeline. You can stop by the lake once you get off the trail to wash up.

Etc.

If you want to camp the night before, you can do so at Byers Lake. There is also an RV parking lot 1 mile below the Little Coal Creek Trailhead. The view is great but the camping sucks. You are not allowed to camp at the trailhead parking lot.

“Kesugi” is a Tanaina word which translates as “The Ancient One”.

A traverse can be made of any length (see below) and/or direction with Kesugi Ridge and the Upper Troublesome Creek Trail.

Coal Creek Ermine Hill Byers Lake Troublesome
Coal Creek 17.2 27.7 36.2
Ermine Hill 17.2 17.2 25.4
Byers Lake 27.7 17.2 15.2
Troublesome 36.2 25.4 15.2

There are various companies offering shuttles that can drop you off and pick you up at the various trailheads. Expect to pay $40-$75.

  1. The following was submitted by James Embree on June 23, 2012:

    I’m writing with a trail report on the Kesugi Ridge Hike. I just got back from it last night. What an awesome hike! We had four days of glorious hiking. Here’s an update that your web readers would want to know:

    There was a massive freak storm of some kind in this area in the winter of 2012. In the “dip” where you go down below tree line between the Ermine Hill Trail junction and Skinny Lake there are about 40-60 massive spruce trees that fell across the trail. Hundreds of fallen trees can be seen in every direction. It looks like some kind of giant monster came through and knocked them over, roots and all. Getting around these downed trees was a frustrating process of bush-wacking around the tree and back to the trail then walking on the trail for about a minute before coming to another enormous tree across the trail. I would estimate that this slowed us down by at least an hour and was exhausting work. I hope a crew with a chainsaw gets back there soon to clear the trail, but as of late June 2012 this section of trail is tough going.

    Another note on my experience of the trail is that the warnings that I read about the need for good maps and route finding skills to follow the trail are outdated. The trail is now very obvious all the way from Little Coal Creek to Byers Lake. Anybody who can’t follow this trail is surely too inept to navigate by a map and compass.

  2. The following was submitted anonymously:

    This was not a difficult hike, but a “moderate” one. Yes, getting to the ridge itself is tough, especially on a hot day, but that’s only a fraction of the hike. I’m a “middle-aged” woman in OK but not great shape, and although I didn’t set any speed records (who would want to rush anyway?) I had no problems.

    I could see the road most of the time (with a few exceptions)…don’t know why you couldn’t see it. Also, be aware, the insects are relentless – at least when we went the 3rd week in July ’03.

  3. The following was submitted by Brian Schwellinger:

    Rating: Somewhat Difficult

    This is a great hike, don’t get me wrong. In fact my son and I have vowed to do this trail again. The truth is that it is a lot of work and the weather can create problems beyond Lower 48 experience. You need to be in somewhat good shape to do this trip (Look at Bill’s picture on the trail guide and admit that the man is in good shape and looks like he worked very hard to get above the tree line). It would be hard to do this trip in three days without increasing the risk of accident due to fatigue if you are not in really top shape. I must be descended from a pack horse but know that it will wear the average hiker down.

    The trail is easy to keep track of but it has a lot of up and down in it as well as bogs, creek crossings, boulder walking, etc. I am glad that I was prepared with good gear in terms of having great rain gear, a good, light, but very sturdy tent with large vestibules and the correct clothing to ward off hypothermia. Without good gear and ample preparation, this trip would have been a disaster due to heavy and constant rain for three days and nights along with sleet and temperatures in the 30′s at night.

    There is plenty of access to water (Use a filter) along the trail. Plan on spending extra time on the ridge and do a day hike off the trail if the weather permits. You won’t be disappointed. The blueberries in August were lush beyond description and tasted great.

    Read up on bear etiquette and follow common sense. Bear proof canisters are available at the Park Headquarters by Byers Lake. We buried our food in rock slides away from our site and cooked/consumed food at least 300 yards from our camp site. If you feed a bear, chances are it will end up being killed because it will consider humans a good food source and become a real hazard. This is a big issue for rangers and enthusiasts in Alaska and should be respected by Lower 48 guests.

    Make no mistake about it, this is a wilderness trip in the alpine country of Alaska which deserves a good deal of respect.

    Take time to get your body ready for some hard work, get good gear, and get ready to do the hike of your life!

    I loved the trail and would encourage people to make the effort to do it. After you have done the hike, head to Talkeetna and check out this funky town and visit the Denali Ranger Station.

    A great big thank you to Bill for providing all of the information on this great site and for responding to my inquiries. I would not have had this experience without your fine efforts. Bill must be a computer guru to make a site so good!

  4. The following was submitted by Eruk, Anchorage Boy Scout Troop 26 (Backpacking in AK, gear etc.) on June 28, 2005:

    Our scout group hiked from Little Coal Cr. to Byers Lake in 5 days. That seemed like the right number of days to not overdo it. We had sunny, dry weather with threatening thunderstorms but just a few rain drops. Mosquitoes were numerous in some areas.

    I would say the trail up from Byers Lake and up from Little Coal Trailhead are both tough and about equal in difficulty, although my sons disagree. If the Byers stretch is wet, it would be treacherous downhill. The big difference comes if you hike North; the climb from Skinny Lake to Ermine Hill is much steeper than hiking South.

    A fisherman in the group saw a dolly varden (fish) in Skinny Lake, but we had no tackle.

    I talked to someone who hiked on out Troublesome Creek. He said it was very steep past Tarn Point, then tread is overgrown so they couldn’t see their shoes. But no bears there.

    We enjoyed the trip, but mosquitoes were rough, even on Alaskans. We swam in Skinny Lake and several others.

    There are no good campsites between Ermine Hill and Skinny Lake. There is a new outhouse next to a good camping area on ridge trail next to Skinny Lake. You can also camp a mile upslope toward Golog , or there is a lake on top of the higher ridge to the west of Skinny Lake. There are plenty of good sites on south slope of Golog, but I wouldn’t camp within a mile of Wimbrel Lake, as it is swampy and extra buggy.

    We camped at the Byers-Troublesome Jct.

    Also the bridge North of Byers Lake is collapsed, but we waded the creek. It is about crotch deep on a boy, but slow current and small gravel on bottom.

    The night we camped a mile past the tarn at mile 10, 2 women came into camp at 11PM. They had started at Little Coal Cr. on a day hike, And thought the trail looped back to there. They had no map, although fairly well equipped otherwise. They had seen 4 bears. We told them where to expect the Ermine Hill Jct. to get back to the highway, and they continued. A 16 mile day hike!

    Exploring Ermine Hill would be a fun side trip, or weekend backpack.

  5. The following was submitted by Frank Baker:

    Sept. 2005 Kesugi Report

    We did the trail in mid-Sept. 2005 from Little Coal Creek to Troublesome trailhead in 2-1/2 days. Somewhat rushed, but 4-5 days is not needed. Perfect would be about three days.

    An easy, quick way to get into the best of the Kesugi Ridge high country would be to go in via the Byers Trail. Saw eight bears in about 5-7 miles–all dining contentedly on blueberries.

    The Troublesome end is the worst and recommend going down only–because as the web site owner says, it stays in the timber forever. After heavy rains the trail has a lot of streams to cross.

    I found that rather than walking across slippery logs and risking falling and seriously hurting myself, it was best just to wade the small streams and accept being wet.

    To me the best parts of the entire Kesugi Ridge are up above Little Coal Creek and then the high country above Byers Lake–the Troublesome Creek part I could easily do without.

    What surprised me was the lack of ptarmigan in the high Kesugi Ridge country. It immediately signaled to me that snowmachiners must be able to get up in there in the winter and thrash them pretty hard. Most of the high country that I’ve walked in Alaska over the past 40-50 years (I’m an old duffer) used to be teeming with ptarmigan, but they’ve been either driven back or killed off by snowmachine hunters.

    There are fish in the long lake about mid-point in hike–forgot name of the lake (Skinny Lake).

    Overall I’d say this is a medium-difficulty hike–if the weather is nice and Denali is out, it’s a dream. We had one whole day of solid, hard rain.

    Sorry, no photos avail. right now. Red blueberry fields were incredible–as far as the eye could see.

    Etc:

    Mid-Sept is good–usually before first snowfall and after the early Sept. rains. Note the operative word, usually.

  6. The following was submitted by Jordan Laughlin:

    On the Kesugi Ridge hike, the hike is moderate and to be completed in three days. I would suggest to travel south on any trek, the weather usually travels north in that area so you have hopefully the least amount of time in the bad weather. That is a little bit of the information I could provide.

  7. The following was submitted by Kelly:

    A spectacular hike indeed! While I personally would not rate this as extreme, it is definitely difficult, hands down! And I agree with another writer who says weather can make it or break it. My hiking partner and I did this hike July 16-19th, 2006. It was very rainy with intense winds. The vegetation was very high and the trail in the lower parts extremely muddy. The high and thick vegetation made the going very difficult as we could not see the trail at our feet without using our trekking poles to push out the high vegetation with each step. With this, mosquitoes were at their highest. This said, with the rain, wind, high vegetation and mosquitoes, the hike at times was a test of endurance – especially from Tarn Lake to Skinny Lake then back up to the Golog.

    Day 3 from Golog to Mini Skinny Lake was spectacular and glorious. We found a perfect spot to camp at Mini Skinny and woke up to Denali greeting us and welcoming us into the day. Breathtaking.

    I’d say you need to be in good shape and expect long days of hiking at a relatively even pace – and even slower at times. The ridge and upper trails cannot be matched. The marmots are a joy and the fact of being in this great land will draw you back.

    It’s a great hike, be patient with yourself and your abilities and take your time. It’s worth every step!

    Important Info:

    Be sure to bring rain gear and changes of socks due to mud and wet. Also you don’t ever have to carry more that one liter of water at a time as there are multiple places to filter.

    It should be mentioned that the MANY boulder fields to cross can be difficult footing especially in wet and windy weather. No clear trail is obvious over these fields (mostly between miles 4 and 8) and it can be dangerous. Stream crossings are aplenty. Two of them we had to remove our packs and even piece meal them to cross. Cairns are a Godsend truly, so as you pass by them ensure they are intact.

    Descending in wet weather can be dangerous so take your time watch every step. The tree roots and rocks never ever let up and are continuous all the way to Byers Lake Loop Trail.

  8. The following was submitted by Micah Tapman:

    Excellent hike along an underused trail with terrific views of Denali to the west. We thoroughly enjoyed a 3 day, 2 night trip from north to south along the ridge. Aside from a last day marked by heavy wind and rain the weather was very nice (mid-August) with cool nights and warm days. Not too much wildlife aside from a few distant bears and lots of marmots.

    Volunteers at the ranger station may be able to help with a ride back to your car and you can pickup a bear canister there if you need one.

  9. Andrea said:

    We just completed this hike from Little Coal Creek to Byers Lake the last weekend of July 2013. Amazing weather – completely clear days, we only had a bit of fog our first morning and even then it was easy to find the rock cairns and not get lost. This trail is completely doable for anyone in three days! The loss/gain of elevation in the valleys is annoying, but the climb in/out is always worth it for the amazing views. If you don’t have time for two nights/three days, I would recommend going from Little Coal Creek just to Ermine Hill on a one-night trip, as that way you could still get the views of Denali and explore the lovely Ermine Hill rock formations.

Have you done this hike? Please share your experience below: