Best Hikes Ever: Denali, AK

Pick your pilgrimage through the backcountry Holy Land: Mt Eielson Loop or Kesugi Ridge.
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Pick your pilgrimage through the backcountry Holy Land: Mt Eielson Loop or Kesugi Ridge.

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The Alaska Range at #4!?!?! It’s not a lack of scenery or wildlife that knocked Denali from the top spot. But the first three are certainly more accessible, so we didn’t ask for a recount. Two options here, both magnificent.

1) Go straight to Denali National Park and get a permit for whichever backcountry zone is available—we like units 12 and 13, for the Mt. Eielson Loop (Trip ID479100), if you can get it. The full-immersion trip in glacier-grizzly country makes this a no-brainer if you have the time and chops.

2) Skip the permit crapshoot and routefinding challenge and hike the 27-mile Kesugi Ridge, in nearby Denali State Park. This long, treeless spine offers front-row panoramas of Mt. McKinley, and the easy-to-follow trail is a better choice for hikers who are uncomfortable navigating the national park’s trailless expanse or crossing glacial-melt rivers (the ridge hike has no difficult fords). “You’ll have unobstructed views for days, and the trail lets you cover more ground than on a typical Alaska hike,” says Executive Editor Dennis Lewon, who covered the hike for our “Alaska Made Easy” feature (May 2003).

Do it

For Denali National Park, arrive at the visitor center by 9 a.m. for the best chance at a permit. For Kesugi Ridge: From the Little Coal Creek trailhead, hike east on the Little Coal Creek Trail, which climbs 1,800 feet over four miles to gain the ridge. Then follow the Kesugi Ridge Trail south as it rolls over blueberry-covered tundra (snacks ripen in late August) and descend past Byers Lake Campground. Shuttle a car or hitch back to your ride.

Resources

Driving
From Anchorage, take the Parks Highway 130 miles south to the Little Coal Creek trailhead at milepost 163.9.

Maps/book USGS quads Talkeetna C-1, D-1 and Talkeetna Mountains C-6, D-6 ($6 each); Hiking Alaska, by Dean Littlepage ($17, falcon.com)

Contact Denali National Park: (907) 683-2294; nps.gov/dena; Denali State Park: (907) 745-3975; dnr.alaska.gov/parks/units/denali1.htm