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Published: January 1st 2017
After leaving Talkeetna, we reconnected with the George Parks Highway and drove north on the strong recommendation of our nephew Shannon Shue to hike the Kesugi Ridge. The ridge trail
is 27.5 miles from end to end from Coal Creek to Byers Lake and can be made in a multi-day backcountry camping trek or broken up into longer day hikes. It offers fabulous western views of the Alaskan Range, particularly in the northern alpine section. The bluff is relatively flat after a steep ascent and can be enjoyed for miles.
We heard that Byers Lake was not safe due to a large bear presence, doesn’t offer great views for a long while so we decided we would hike up and back on the Coal Creek Trail after exploring the northern highest end of the ridge. The 2nd
day we would approach the ridge from the intermediate Ermine Hill Trail.
With the plan to camp two nights close to the Coal Creek trailhead, we pulled into the Denali View North Campground
. It’s a very barebones facility, basically a teardrop-shaped paved parking lot along a lower ledge facing the Alaskan Range with 2 pit toilets, a water pump, some interpretive signs and 20 campsites for
$15 a night.
The RV spots lined the further back edge of the lot with a picnic table and steel drum fire pit each. There were few tent sites, one at parking lot level behind a row of fireweed. The other four were walk-in, strung along in sequence along an upper rim with views obstructed by trees. The further sites were a bit muddy and quite a trek from the cars so we selected the first even though it meant later campers would walk right past us.
Once we set up our tent, we ate below at the table meant for the uninhabited fireweed site since it was next to our car. After our meal, we walked over and sat in the main viewpoint area. Since it takes so long for the sun to set in August in Alaska, we experienced several hours of changing light, loud abusive bickering emanating from one particularly miserable couple who broadcast their mutual contempt from folding chairs in front of their RV and an astonishing amount of confusion about which peak was actually Denali.
The one interpretive sign with a photo and names of the peaks was not taken from the
same vantage point as the campground so each visitor group came to a different conclusion. Because Denali was so often shrouded in cloud, when one of the taller peaks emerged, new arrivals excitedly took multiple photos of “Denali”, which in many cases was Mount Foraker or Mount Hunter. I suppose it didn’t really matter because they were happy and the photos were pretty but even we weren’t sure by nightfall which mountain was which. It didn’t help that the view of Denali at the North View Campground is one of the least impressive of the local options.
The next day, bewildering signage continued. We drove up to what we thought was Little Coal Creek Trailhead. There was very small paved turnout with a sign that read “Little Coal Creek Trailhead” with a right arrow. We parked there, and hiked into the woods along a beaten path for a short while until it ended in a marshy treed area. About 15 more minutes were wasted until we came to the conclusion this couldn’t possibly be the well-established trail to the ridge so we tromped back to our car, continued up about ¼ mile and saw the real entry to the
massive trailhead parking area with normal posted trail map and pit toilets. We had forgotten the hard-learned lesson that often the arrows on Alaskan road signs indicate the turn is shortly ahead
, not immediate.
Confident we were now on the correct trail, the approach to the ridge from the Coal Creek Trail was about 2 ½ uphill miles with some switchbacks but not too bad for seasoned hikers. The views were already getting really good along the route but were absolutely jaw-droppingly gorgeous once on the plateau. The clouds weren’t that bad by Denali standards and the elevated vantage point showed the entire range in its full glory. We had a front row seat to all its majestic splendor and enjoyed hours of some of the best scenery in all of Alaska.
The next day, we took the Ermine Hill Trail. It was just as steep but not as picturesque on the ascent and had some unsettling stretches of very claustrophobic foliage. It is decidedly uncomfortable to feel enclosed without visibility in bear country. There were many delicious patches of wild blueberries which we freely enjoyed but when we came across evidence of bear scat (explosions of inky
semi-digested blueberries) in a few spots, we became hyper-alert. The cloud cover was heavier, the mountains less visible, and the closed-in descent unnerving.
For our third day in the region, we ventured up to the Princess Lodge and were treated with a spectacular unobstructed view of the range with an accurate panoramic panel of the labeled peaks at the end of their massive timbered deck. We bought some coffee in the morning room with huge picture windows, and charged our electronics while hobnobbing with the well-financed in large comfy stuffed leather chairs. We highly recommend visiting the veranda of any Princess Lodge in Alaska as they build in prime view locations.
On our return to our campground, we pulled into the Denali Viewpoint South Campground
and we were delighted to see it had a much better vantage point than its sister campground to the north. There were no decent campsites however so we ended up pitching our tent in the unused parking spot reserved for the host RV. There was a lovely walkway to two covered observation platforms and interpretive signs which we shared with many other tourists before returning to our hard asphalt bed for the night.
our alarm for early in the morning to avoid censure from a park ranger for sleeping in our unofficial overnight spot and laid out all our gear for a final drying and repacking. It was our last night camping in Alaska and very bittersweet.
I even left my trusty walking stick behind for another hiker to use. Early trials with lightweight hiking poles had felt awkward and too much to carry when unneeded. But once I had picked up this light but strong branch with its natural handle in the Alaskan interior, I found my perfect brace for precarious downhill trail sections. It was hard to abandon it after all the wonderful hikes we’d shared!
We returned to Anchorage for one last visit with family before flying back to the lower 48 and our upcoming adventures in the western US National Parks.
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