We have a few trails on our backpacking bucket list for this trip and traversing the K’esugi Ridge in Denali State Park is one we can now check off. This hike first got on my radar when I got an email from REI inviting me to purchase a package adventure tour of Alaska. I checked the itinerary to see what type of adventure they were peddling and saw that it included a hike up the K’esugi Ridge. That peaked my interest and after a wee bit of time on the internet, the hike was officially on the bucket list. One of the highlights of the K’esugi Ridge is its position to the east of Denali. If the weather gods are smiling on you (and that is a big if) views of Denali can be had over the majority of the hike. One nice thing about touring the way we are is that we have plenty of time to sit around and wait for a weather forecast that we like. We dug in at a campsite on the Susitna River for a few days and waited for the “all clear” from the weather gods.
Our first challenge of this hike was to get ourselves to the trailhead. K’esugi Ridge is a point to point trail. There are companies that will shuttle you but they cost about one day’s budget allotment each so we decided to leave the truck at the finish line (Byers Lake Campground) and hitchhike to the starting line (Little Coal Creek Trailhead). We figured we had a better chance of hitching a ride when we were fresh as opposed to after four days on the trail. We left the truck locked up in the parking lot of the Veteran’s Memorial with the solar panels deployed on the dash. If everything went our way we would come back to an unmolested truck with two cold beers in the refrigerator. After about a mile on the Parks Highway, a very nice lady from Anchorage (originally from Wyoming) stopped to give us a ride. Unfortunately, I dropped my can of bear spray on the side of the road where she picked us up and didn’t discover the loss until she dropped us off at the trailhead. She offered to give us one of her cans. So generous! We declined as Scott had managed to keep ahold of his can and we both had bear bells. She wished us luck and we proceeded to trundle on towards the start of Little Coal Creek Trail. As we approached the trailhead a woman from Philadelphia twirled by smelling like heaven (citronella) and gave my shoulders an unsolicited squeeze. Another man mistook our sleeping pads for accordions. I told him that we were planning to scare the bears away with polka music. By now it was about 6:00 pm. A positively civilized time to start a backpacking trip.
The Little Coal Creek Trail offers access to the K’esugi Ridge over 3.3 miles with 1750 feet of elevation gain. That puppy felt steep. The atmosphere was thick that day so views of Denali were obscured despite the absence of clouds. We had to stare into space with intensity to make out the silhouette of Denali on the horizon and our cameras did not do it justice. As we hiked up to the ridge dinnertime came and went. We sat down and shared a Cliff Bar and hiked on. The trail felt steep and humid as we climbed through the forest. Finally, we left the trees behind and welcomed the wind. We never did find the point where the Little Coal Creek Trail met the K’esugi Ridge Trail. There was one landmark that might have been the junction point but it has seen better days. We did not bring the recommended topo map. Snapshots of trail maps from the State Parks website saved on our phones had to suffice. We rarely knew where we were. Lucky for us, the trail was marked with cairns every 50 feet or so for the duration of the ridge portion of the hike. We always knew we were on the trail it was just our exact location of the trail that escaped us.
My vision for this hike was to spend the first night at 10 Mile Tarn, the second at Skinny Lake, and the third at a large unnamed lake just before the junction with the Cascade Trail down to Byers Lake Campground and our (hopefully) awaiting truck. I still have no idea exactly where we stopped on that first night. What I do know is that it was windy and cold. As the sun threatened to fall behind the mountains we set our intentions in earnest to find a camp spot for the night. We came across a lovely flat space off the trail a bit with a flowing stream nearby. The perfect recipe for our home site. One bluff over was a Wim Hoff-ian solo female hiker doing windblown yoga in shorts while communing with the sunset. We didn’t want to spoil her vibe but we also didn’t want to keep hiking after the sun wasn’t around to warm us so we made sure our camp was nestled outside of her view. We paid the sunset its due respect and set about building our house and making dinner. On the menu tonight was a Tasty Bite Jaipur Lentils and a packet of precooked brown rice and red quinoa. So delicious! Also, quite heavy. I not-so-selflessly volunteered to carry the food, knowing my pack would become lighter and lighter as the days wore on. Scott was well aware of my ploy to leave him with the lion’s share of the weight by the end of this backpacking trip yet still tried to lighten my load every day. He is a keeper!
The next morning, we woke to a wall of clouds obscuring our view of the mountains across the valley. We made oatmeal with walnuts and raisins and waited for the clouds to lift. We also drank tea. Yerba mate. We unintentionally went on a coffee fast for this trip. I thought we had some instant Starbucks packets in the truck. We probably still do have them in the truck. They just escaped us when we were packing. So, we signed ourselves up for three consecutive mornings of no coffee. I am a person who goes to bed each night excited about the prospect of waking up the next morning and getting to drink coffee. I like yerba mate but I don’t have the relationship with it that I have with coffee. Anyhow, we drank deeply satisfying cups of tea with our breakfast and proceeded to head on down the trail.
We passed a group camping site after not too much time complete with a latrine. At the trailhead the day prior there was a sign advertising a new latrine at mile 7.5 and there was a shiny new latrine. I felt like we had traveled so much further! I am convinced that the trail distances are a complete sandbag. A note on the latrine. I would venture to say that this facility had the best view of any I have ever visited. It provided a gentle breeze, a view of Denali, and a modicum of privacy from a short stone wall. Anyhow, I’m pretty sure we made it to 10 Mile Tarn (my envisioned first night’s sleep) for lunch on that second day. Lunch consisted of some granola bars, another cup of deeply satisfying tea and a foot soak in the icy cold lake.
We were looking forward to finding the junction with the Ermine Trail with great anticipation. We hoped that the junction would be marked, but since the junction with Little Coal Creek Trail was not decisively marked there was no guarantee. We passed many creeks with what looked like could be trails spurring off along the way and debated whether or not they were the Ermine Creek Trail junction, unmarked. We needn’t have wasted our energy debating. When we did finally come upon the junction of Ermine Creek it was very well marked with maps and another formal, yet disturbingly public, latrine! This campsite was not our favorite and I would recommend not staying there. We arrived fairly well spent from our day of hiking especially after recovering from our late start the day prior and accomplishing it all without coffee… The tent sites were all within view of one another and the mosquitos were hyper-prevalent. We hid out in our tent, baking in the sun, mentally preparing to go out and prepare dinner with all the mosquitoes in attendance. Not a lick of wind. There was only one water source and it was a small lake. To get to the lake involved a squishy walk through a buggy marsh. There was a beaver frolicking in the lake trying to make it more bearable for us as we filtered water amidst the barrage of insistent mosquitos. Also, there was no view of Denali from that particular meadow. So yeah, I wouldn’t recommend camping out at the junction of Ermine Trail and K’esugi Ridge Trail.
We left our steamy mosquito-laden meadow camp the next morning only to stop again moments later as the nature of the trail had transformed into wild eroded granite formations.
We explored the rock formations and enjoyed the breeze before dipping down about 1000 feet in elevation to cross a wet meadow. The trail down was slippery and steep. Long sections were flanked by thick alder trees growing into our path. Our bear bells tinkled away as we loudly discussed the plots of obscure 80’s movies (Biloxi Blues and War Games) hoping to secure the trail for ourselves. I had woken with a headache that morning. Blaming dehydration, we stopped at most water sources to filter more water and drink our fill. A process we refer to as camel-ing up. A bit of stretching didn’t hurt either. Late in the afternoon, we arrived at Skinny Lake. This was the place I had imagined we would spend our second night. A vacant wooden tent platform alongside the lake called to us. We appropriated it for our midday picnic. A much-needed swim refreshed our spirits and we rinsed out the most egregious items of our wardrobes. Lunch was another gourmet selection of granola bars this time accompanied by dates. Feeling revitalized, we resisted the urge to stay there and pressed on. It was about 5:00 in the afternoon and the highest point of the hike was looming in our near future. We wanted it behind us before we went to sleep that night.
That high point was Golog Peak. Its elevation was only 2970ft but it was about 1000 ft higher than Skinny Lake so we had a bit of a haul ahead of us that evening.
The views from the top of Golog were worth all of the efforts it took to get up there. The evening light touched all of the surrounding hills with a golden cast and Denali was standing watch in the distance. We hung out up there as long as we could stand until the cold wind blew us down to our camp for the night. We posted up on the first level piece of ground near the water that we found. It also proved to be a top contender for the most beautiful campsite ever competition. We cooked up Tasty Bite with couscous and snuggled into our tent to watch the light show that was sunset behind Denali and her friends.
Sunset bled into sunrise as it does up in Alaska and with sunrise came hordes of mosquitoes like we had not yet experienced. It was a practice in mind over matter to get through the chores we had to accomplish that morning. Scott was as gallant as ever fixing our deeply satisfying cups of tea and cooking our oatmeal while I cheered him on from the safety of the tent with its screened walls. He also took it upon himself to filter our water for the day while I packed up everything that was still inside the tent. Eventually, I had to emerge and subject myself to the hungry appetites of swarms that would put the Plagues of Egypt to shame.
A little dizzy and lightheaded from the blood loss, we finally set out on the final leg of our journey. Once we started moving and were able to swat away any lingering hitchhikers on our shoulders life became much more enjoyable. We started to wax nostalgic about our time on the Ridge and even agreed that the bugs did not detract from the beauty of our last campsite. Just as we were relaxing into the rhythm of our trek for the day, Scott stopped short and pointed to the hillside next to the trail. Not wanting to alarm me he didn’t say, “Bear!” but that is what he meant when he said, “Sweetie!” A large lone black bear was digging into some berries about 100 yards from us. He noticed us staring at him and took a few steps in the opposite direction. We let him continue on with his peaceful morning routine. Scott put his bear bell back on. We carried on with a bit more pep in our step.
Before we were ready to leave the K’esugi Ridge we found ourselves at the junction of the Cascade Trail. This is the path down to our (hopefully) unmolested truck and two (hopefully) cold beers! Those last two miles downhill dropping 1800 feet felt like five miles. If it weren’t for the deliciously tart wild blueberries lifting my spirits along the way I’m sure I would have still been fine. But the blueberries were an awesome treat!
The trail eventually dropped us off at the back of the campground and we had one more little jaunt over to the Veterans Memorial parking lot and our truck. We tried not to let ourselves fall down the rabbit hole of worry but there was a chance that our truck would not be there. It was a bit confusing when we left the truck if we needed to pay the day use fee to park each day or not. Perhaps we would be returning to a giant parking ticket. I think the fine for not paying the day use fee was posted at $60. What if we got dinged for that each day we were gone? Or what if it got towed? Also, there was the vulnerability of leaving a vehicle parked in a public place for four days. Our rig may be tempting to unsavory sorts looking to steal our dirty laundry and two (hopefully) cold beers!
Well, disaster did strike. We arrived at the parking lot where we had left our truck and found that the truck was still there. Unmolested. No tickets. Unfortunately, the solar panels left on the dash did not receive enough radiation to keep the refrigerator running. We returned to very soft buttery spread and two warm beers. We managed to console ourselves by enjoying our tepid lagers in the parking lot as we are not ones to let a tragedy like this get us down.
Eventually, we left that lovely parking lot and headed north to our camp for the night. We rolled along really slowly as I hung my head out the window scanning the bushes for my errant bear spray. That stuff costs about $35-$40 a can and that would be a budget buster to have to replace! We figured we would crawl along at a snail’s pace for about 2 miles and then give up the search. Well, the bear spray gods were smiling on us and about one mile up the road I spied that familiar glint of red under an alder bush! Success! Now I don’t have to rely on my husband to spray all the bears for me for the rest of this trip!