A Last Hike: K’esugi Ridge Trail

The one main, literally, natural sight of Alaska is Mount Denali (or Mount McKinley, whatever you feel is better for you). This massive 6,190m peak is the highest in North America and can, on a clear day, be seen from almost anywhere in Alaska. We like mountains, so we wanted to have a look up close. We were told multiple times that the best hike to see this colossus is actually not in Denali National Park, but in the state park with the same name on the other side of the Parks highway. This suited us just as well, since that meant we did not have to pay the USD $46 for the mandatory bus to get in the park.

We had known that our time schedule would be tight and were a little worried about the logistics of doing this trip, especially because we wanted to avoid missing our flight from Anchorage. We also did not feel like doing this with the full load of our backpacks (including some pieces of art, souvenirs, and other things we have since collected along the way). We had tried organizing a trip with either some people from Fairbanks or Anchorage over Facebook, but apart from some people writing us that their prayers would be with us, we failed to get find anyone to do this trip with us. Thankfully, Tim, the amazing pastor in Fairbanks, came to the rescue and let us use his massive car for two days. This means that we would have to go back to Fairbanks, before taking the exact same road to Anchorage, but so be it.

Using Tim`s car

The three day trail connects the northern to the southern end of this small, but magnificent state park, is the K’esugi Ridge trail. We did not have three days left, so we did it in two. The initial 5 km or so is a steep climb up alongside Little Coal Creek (starting from the aptly named Little Coal Creek trailhead). One we climbed this steep ridge, the next 35 km brought us continuously up and down over the K’esugi Ridge. With the exception of a 300 m decline and ascend just before the first night’s campground and the final descent, the whole trail stayed above the tree line. This, of course, leaves you very vulnerable to the elements, but this time we got lucky. The high ridge gave us spectacular vistas over Denali and the rest of the Alaska Range, while only giving us a few drops of rain. Along the way, blueberry bushes are in abundance, so we snacked on a lot of them.

View as soon as we left the tree line

Little Coal Creek

Hiking up

Because we had not started walking until after lunch on the first day of our trip (we had to come from Fairbanks), we only arrived at Skinny Lake at 10 pm. After 9.5 hours of walking, we decided to stay the night at this lovely lake that was relatively mosquito free lake. This was mainly because there was a very inviting wooden tent pad ready for us. We made our last hiking meal on the camping stove for this trip and got a few hours of sleep before we headed out the next morning at 6 am.

Skinny Lake

A nice place to pitch a tent

Alaskan summer is beautiful

We had estimated that Skinny Lake was roughly halfway down the trial. We were wrong, no thanks to the terribly labelled map provided by the park. We could see Byers Lake, the end point of our trek, after only 4 hours of fast walking (Emily has probably doubled her walking speed over the last 6 months to keep up with Laurent). As a result, by 11 am we were down at the end point of the trek. 45 km over 1.5 days or 14 hours of walking time…this wasn’t too bad! This second day, after a stunning sunrise over the mountains, the weather turned significantly worse than it had been the first day. For us, this was a good motivation to keep the tempo up. Once at the Byers Lake’s parking, we asked around for someone to give us a ride back to the  Little Coal Creek trailhead, where our car was parked. We call this assertive hitchhiking. Soon, we jumped in an Swiss couple’s RV and were back at our car at around noon. We had only paid USD $5 since we were technically there for less than a day (24 hours), so that was perfect.

900ft descent to get to Skinny Lake campground

Good morning Denali

Grey skies, grey lakes

Just follow the path

We drove back to Fairbanks, where we, once again, went to the Silver Gulch Brewery. We have to keep the beers and burgers after every hike tradition we had started in Patagonia alive after all. This was it. No more hikes and no more camping in this trip. Just a day of hitchhiking to Anchorage.