Alaska dream: Camp on a soft tundra ridge, in total solitude, with a view of Denali out your tent door. Alaska nightmare: Get lost amid head-high alders (grizzlies!) and on the wrong side of a waist-deep, glacier-melt river (hypothermia! drowning!). The problem is that Alaska first-timers often risk the latter in pursuit of the former.
My solution? The Kesugi Ridge Trail, an easy-to-navigate route just outside Denali National Park, no reservations or bushwhacking required. Which isn’t to say any hike in Alaska is “easy.” On the first day of our 29-mile trek, rain sheeted down for hours. My five companions and I got soaked pushing through the brush, birch, and spruce that crowd the path in the first section. On the exposed, 2,000-foot ascent to the ridge, we slowed to a crawl on dangerously slick rocks. Mosquitoes swarmed as soon as the rain eased up.
But the next day, I emerged from the tent into the promised alpine paradise. The 20,320-foot massif of Mt. McKinley dominated the blue sky, its layers of ice, rock, and snow dazzling clear in the rain-washed air. A gentle breeze kept the mosquitoes down. And to the south, the broad ridge known as Kesugi—“the ancient one” in the native Tanaina dialect—seemed to go on forever.
In truth, you could hike it in a long weekend, thanks to the well-marked trail and open terrain. But we did it in five days, and were glad to have time to linger in patches of fat, ripe blueberries (best in August), whip out cameras for bear and moose sightings, and pick the choicest tundra campsites, like the one near a crystalline pond just past Skinny Lake and another atop Ermine Hill, where we watched the 10 p.m. alpenglow paint the entire Alaska Range. As the light faded on Denali, I settled deeper into the memory-foam turf and had to pinch myself as a reminder: I wasn’t dreaming.