Escaping time on Kesugi Ridge
Editor’s note: In this first of two parts, Frank E. Baker describes autumn hikes on Kesugi Ridge, which lies in Denali State Park along the eastern and southern borders of Denali National Park.
The alpine tundra atop Kesugi Ridge in mid-September was ablaze in autumn red — the bearberry and blueberry bushes creating a colorful grand finale only days before winter’s white cloak would fall upon the land.
It was a crystal clear, bluebird day — the kind you dream about all year long. Pete Panarese and I took a break at the top of Little Coal Creek Trail — the northernmost access to the 36.2-mile Kesugi Ridge Trail in Denali State Park. Gazing west to the recently downsized Mount McKinley (now officially 20,237 feet with modern radar readings) and the surrounding peaks, our conversation invariably turned to the Alaska Range in its full glory:
“There’s Mount Dickey and Mount Hunter,” Pete said. “And look how Mount Huntington stands out.”
“I think I can see part of Mount Dan Beard sticking up,” I ventured. “And isn’t that Mount Silverthrone over to the north?”
“Maybe, he replied. “There’s Eldridge Glacier directly across from us.”
Unlike my friend Pete, who had actually climbed some of those Alaska Range peaks in his younger days, I was mostly guessing. I’d been on the Ruth Glacier and done some flying with Talkeetna pilot Doug Geeting in and around Mount Huntington. But with the exception of visits to Kahiltna Base Camp, I hadn’t set foot on any of those mountains.
“The sky is amazingly clear,” Pete remarked. “I’ve never seen it like that up here.”
The 3.3-mile Little Coal Creek Trail at Mile 163.9 of the Parks Highway was actually the second hike we’d completed while camped at Byers Lake Campground (Mile 147 Parks Highway) on Sept. 14-15. On the first day, also with clear skies, we plodded up to Kesugi Ridge from Byers Lake on what’s now called the Cascade Trail. On the way up the 3.4-mile route, which has been greatly improved over the years, we met a park ranger.
“It was a three-year effort to improve the trail,” he noted. “Before today, we’ve had 20 straight days of rain, but most of the trail is still in pretty good shape.“
Three hunters coming down the trail with heavy packs mentioned they had seen 13 black bears up on the ridge, and had gotten one. We saw about 14 people on this trail throughout the day.
Pete and I enjoyed a sunny afternoon wandering around on the ridge, peering out to the east and northeast, pondering what land in the upper Susitna drainage would be displaced if the hydroelectric project ever moves forward. Like the incredible, 360-degree vistas that were almost too much for our eyes to take in, the prospect of a dam and a giant interior lake seemed daunting, almost overwhelming.
The following day, our hike up the Little Coal Creek Trail would include a climb up 4,558-foot Indian Mountain. The ridge ramped up gently toward the peak, due east, but the last 100 feet were fairly steep, and a stout north wind made our scramble a bit challenging.
“I’m glad we brought lots of clothes,” Pete said. “Being in the wind and out of the wind makes for a 15-degree temperature difference!”
I wasn’t sure who named Indian Mountain, but I did know “Kesugi” is a Tanana Indian word meaning “The Ancient One,” complementary of the Tanana word “Denali,” which means “The High One.”
On the way back down the trail, we spotted a black bear sow and two cubs on a knoll to the north about 300 yards away. They were feasting on blueberries, as Pete and I had been doing all day, and oblivious to our presence. On this hike, we only saw four other people, two of whom were camped on top.
Next week, Frank Baker will describe some of the history surrounding Kesugi Ridge and Denali State Park.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer and columnist who lives in Eagle River. To contact Frank: [email protected].