K’esugi Ridge Hike in Denali State Park, Alaska
Updated January 2023, K’esugi Ridge Hike in Denali State Park, Alaska was originally published in May 2022
If you’re looking for an epic multi-day hike that offers stunning views of North America’s tallest peak then a trek along K’esugi Ridge (also called Curry Ridge) is going to be your best bet. At just over 29 miles (47 kilometers) it’s a long journey with a lot of up and down, but the trail is pretty well established. I would say the K’esugi Ridge Trail is of moderate difficulty (though I know difficulty rating can be extremely subjective).
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- Where is K’esugi Ridge?
- How to Get to the K’esugi Ridge Trailhead (there’s more than one!)
- Getting Between the Trailheads – Shuttle Services
- The Best Time to do the K’esugi Ridge Trail
- Viewing Denali From K’esugi Ridge
- The K’esugi Ridge Trail Hile from Little Coal Creek to Byer’s Lake
- What to Pack for the K’esugi Ridge Hike
- Safety on K’esugi Ridge
Where is K’esugi Ridge?
K’esugi Ridge is located in Denali State Park (not Denali National Park!), just southeast across a wide valley from 20,310 foot tall Denali, the highest peak in North America (meaning you get amazing unobstructed views of Denali… as long as the weather is clear, that is).
I will be covering the K’esugi Ridge hike from Little Coal Creek to Byer’s Lake, which are located 165 miles and 149 miles from Anchorage, respectively.
How to Get to the K’esugi Ridge Trailhead (there’s more than one!)
There are multiple trailheads for the K’esugi Ridge Hike, but what I am going to cover below is starting from Little Coal Creek Trailhead and ending at Byer’s Lake. The reason why starting at Little Coal Creek and ending at Byer’s Lake is recommended is because the elevation gain is less that way, though if you’re looking for an even bigger challenge then starting at Byer’s Lake is an option.
Between Little Coal Creek and Byer’s Lake, there is the Ermine Hill Trailhead. If starting from Ermin Hill and ending at Byer’s the distance is 18.5 miles and if you go from Little Coal Creek to Ermine hill it is also 18.5 miles in distance. If you use Ermine Hill I would recommend the Ermine Hill to Byer’s leg over the Little Coal Creek to Ermine Hill leg because I found the landscapes more interesting.
Another option is to continue to Troublesome Creek instead of ending at Byer’s Lake which will tack on an additional 7.67 miles.
Getting Between the Trailheads – Shuttle Services
Obviously, there is some considerable distance between the trailheads so if you’re not traveling with multiple vehicles where one could be left at say Byer’s Lake and the other taken to Little Coal Creek to start you’ll likely want to utilize a shuttle service or try your thumb at hitchhiking (unless you want to walk along the highway for forever, which doesn’t sound like fun to me).
You can check out Alaska Shuttle or Denali River Guides to book a shuttle between the two trailheads. It looked like prices were about $22 per person for a shuttle between Byer’s and Little Coal.
We did not go the shuttle route when we did the K’esugi Ridge Hike- we ended up hiking out super late (you’ll learn why later, but FYI: I wouldn’t recommend doing this trek in two days!) and we happened to get lucky and there was another group who also was descending at the same time as us to Byer’s Lake and managed to hitch a ride with them to grab our car up at Little Coal Creek.
Checking out the national park too? Read the Denali National Park Travel Guide
The Best Time to do the K’esugi Ridge Trail
July and August are the best months to do the K’esugi Ridge hike. September is a great month too (the earlier half at least) if you can stand temperatures that may dip below freezing at night.
June and even at times, early July can be a little mucky and damp, though if you do this after/during some rains you can expect these conditions at any point in the summer (either way, always be prepared for parts of the trail to be sloppy).
Later in summer in August and even September the trail can be a bit overgrown, which isn’t unusual in Alaska in general. September and late August will yield wild blueberries along the K’esugi Ridge Trail too which is a bonus.
For reference, we did K’esugi Ridge the last weekend in July and the trail is mostly in really good condition aside from a few overgrown patches. It also happened to be the hottest weekend that summer too so we lucked out and had crystal clear views of Denali.
Viewing Denali From K’esugi Ridge
Many trekkers and backpackers come with the hope that they will have uninterrupted views of Denali as well as the other icy peaks of the Alaska Range- but know that the mountain is typically only visible 30% of the time. Alaska can have downright terrible weather even in summer.
So come with your fingers crossed you’ll be able to lay eyes on Denali, but expect that you will not, as the odds are stacked against you.
Including K’esugi Ridge on your Alaska trip? Check out my Anchorage to Fairbanks Road Trip Itinerary for more ideas
The K’esugi Ridge Trail Hile from Little Coal Creek to Byer’s Lake
7,431 ft+ / 8,028 ft-
Ok I will preface this section with this: I broke my phone in the Little Coal Creek parking lot and my camera battery died just after we left the section with the cool rock formations- so I don’t have any photos (sorry, about that… I swear I am more careful with phones and pack more batteries these days!).
I split the K’esugi Ridge Hike into three sections, though do note some of you may break this into four days.
Section 1: Little Coal Creek Trailhead to Mile 8 Divide
Starting from The Little Coal Creek Trailhead, you’ll meander through the forest for a little bit before the uphill begins. Before too long you’ll be above treeline with good views of Denali (if it’s not cloudy, it’ll more than likely be cloudy) and cutting across Little Coal Creek (it was crazy low when I did the hike) and be up on the ridgeline.
You’ll gain this elevation to the ridge relatively fast, getting to the highest point (3,494 feet) on K’esugi Ridge about 3.7 miles from the trailhead. Don’t worry if this sounds a little intimidating, there are lots of good spots to take breaks on the way up and the path does switch back quite a bit.
Around 7 miles from the trailhead the path has descended a bit (roughly 600 feet from the highest point) making the section between mile 7 and Mile 8 Divide a good place to set up camp for the first night (we hiked until about mile 13 before setting up camp because we had the bright idea to do K’esugi Ridge from Little Coal to Byer’s in two days/1 night).
Section 2: Mile 8 Divide to Skinny Lake
From Mile 8 Divide you’ll continue past Stonehenge Hill (it’s got a scattering of boulders strewn across it) and begin picking up elevation once again. Back up on the ridgeline, the path will meet with the trail coming up from Ermine Hill around 13.3 miles from the Little Coal Creek Trailhead, near a small lake. If the weather is absolutely atrocious, bailing out at Ermine Hill isn’t a bad idea.
From the meeting point with the Ermine Hill Trail, the path descends quickly, bringing you to my favorite part of the K’esugi Ridge Trail where you’ll meander among some really cool and funky rock formations before the dropdown. This area among the rock formations makes for a good lunch spot too (the lake near Ermine Hill Trail isn’t a bad spot either if you got a bit of a late start).
Beyond the rock formations, the trail begins to climb again to finally reach Skinny Lake around 17 miles in. There aren’t a lot of great spots to camp at Skinny Lake itself, so I’d recommend continuing a bit further beyond the lake and above the treeline on the last to find a better spot (this will likely out you around 19 miles from Little Coal Creek Trailhead). You’ll find some tarns scattered around beyond Skinny Lake that will make better camping.
Section 3: Skinny Lake Tarns to Byer’s Lake
This last section will start off with a nice leisurely trek through nice tundra with small lakes and tarns scattered around the trail (though know that after rains or in the earlier part of summer this part of the trail can be a swampy mess).
At about 24.5 miles from the Little Coal Creek Trailhead, you’ll meet with the Troublesome Creek Trail where it’s possible to hike further another 7+ miles to the southwest. From the junction with Troublesome Creek Trail, the final downhill along the Cascades Trail starts, soon bringing you zigzagging back below treeline and to Byer’s Lake. Note that this last section does have some steep stretches that can be muddy (slippery) and there are some roots sticking up so proceed with caution.
Note: Everyone I’ve talked to that did K’esugi Ridge in 2021 has said that rusty tussock caterpillars have invaded the area pretty much everywhere along the trail. So I would recommend wearing thicker pants like trekking pants to avoid them touching you. They’re nasty little things and you’ll find yourself covered in hives and itching all over (I ran into these creatures up in Hatcher’s in 2020 while blueberry picking and me and my friend who were out in leggings and regular long sleeve shirts were itching for days, meanwhile my other friend wore hiking pants and was saved from the torture)- but who knows what 2022 will hold in this regard.
What to Pack for the K’esugi Ridge Hike
Below I’ve outlined what I carried on me and what I think is necessary and/or useful for the K’esugi Ridge Hike. I did not include things such as your normal clothes, socks, layers, etc. as I would assume that you aren’t going to this trek in the nude (I wouldn’t recommend it, the mosquitoes can be downright vicious!).
- Hiking boots
- Hydration pack
- Trekking pants
- Rain jacket
- Rain pants
- Trekking poles
- Sun hat with roll up bug net
Cooking and Food Related
- Campstove and cooking set
- Propane/butane canister
- Silicone squeeze tubes
- Bear vault
- Katadyn water purifier
Safety, Comfort, Etc.
- Mosquito Repellant
- Inreach Explorer+
- Bear spray
Tip: As I mentioned before, in 2021 there was an infestation of caterpillars that can make you quite itchy so trekking pants would be a smart idea to protect yourself, and to protect your legs from scratches from bushes and shrubs overgrowing the trail.
Safety on K’esugi Ridge
It’s no secret that Denali State Park is crawling with bears, so that will likely be your biggest concern. I would recommend carrying bear spray (only if you know how to use it- though it’s not difficult) and bringing a bear vault (you can purchase one if you don’t already own one or you can rent one from REI in Anchorage). Always cook and keep food (and anything else with a scent like lotion, deodorant, cookery, etc.) at least 100 feet (more is better) away from camp and downwind.
Aside from wildlife, the only other real threat to your safety is having an accident (trips, falls, etc.). This isn’t impossible as you have seen me mention previously that muddy areas can and do exist, and of course, the usual tree roots on trail and boulders can cause trips.
While this trail is pretty obvious for the most part (by Alaskan standards), it is not well maintained when you compare it to say, heavily trafficked trails in California or Washington so adjust your expectations accordingly. Carrying an SOS beacon such as the Garmin Inreach would be wise in the event of a serious emergency on the trail.
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