Our final morning in Girdwood rolled around and we were ready for a change of scenery. The plan was to drive up to Denali State Park and hike Kesugi Ridge (http://www.backpacker.com/june-2012-life-list-kesugi-ridge-denali-state-park/destinations/16630) and hopefully get some views of Denali.
We started off the day with a visit to our favorite restaurant, the Bake Shop for the last time. With the weekend arriving (it was Friday), we had noticed a significant uptick in the population of the town and we managed to sneak in just before a line formed out the door for breakfast.
We of course had to make another stop at the Anchorage REI on our way through. The forecast called for rain so we picked up some rain covers for our packs as well as bear spray (that stuff is EXPENSIVE…but returnable!) and some food odds and ends. We had also read about a place called Adventure Appetites (http://www.adventureappetites.com) that made incredible dehydrated meals. The rumors were correct, but more on that later. I do recommend giving them 24+ hours notice though. They were able to squeeze us in on short notice, but it is definitely easier to call ahead.
We finished our errands and headed up towards Denali. The Alaskan interior is an interesting mix of suburban strip malls and wilderness encroaching on each other. Oh…and copious amounts of espresso shacks on the side of the Parks Highway.
It’s a 3 hour drive from Anchorage to Denali State Park (2 or so if you’re Sarah Palin in Wasilla), so we just pumped up the tunes and kept watch for moose and bears (no luck). We did however take a quick detour down the Talkeetna Spur to visit the Denali Brewing Company production facility/taproom (http://denalibrewingcompany.com) which is separate from their brewpub but was perfect for what we needed. Denali makes an excellent blonde and Chuli Stout if you can track them down!
Late in the afternoon, we made our way to the Coal Creek Trailhead (George Parks Highway, Mile Marker 164) and started preparing to backpack. It was great not to be worried about light. We knew we had plenty of time to work our way to a decent spot for camping.
The hike starts off gently climbing but quickly increases in steepness. It was hot and muggy and the mosquitos were brutal, but the scenery was beautiful and took our minds off the negative.
One of the biggest differences between here and Colorado was the amount of water. We constantly heard the sound of rushing water and passed a pond as well. There were only a few cars at the trailhead, but we did pass one large group who had made a day trip up to treeline and back. We also came across some fresh bear scat around the same time we saw them. It was nice to be around quite a few people at that time.
As we gained treeline we started to get hungry and search for a spot to eat. The wind had also picked up as we became more exposed. We were able to find a spot to tuck away by a creek. The mosquitos swarmed us but we were at least out of the wind. The bowl we were tucked in was eerily silent but occasionally voices would carry in from an unknown location. Definitely added a bit of creepy factor to it.
Christine quickly went to work on dinner and I chilled the beers in the creek. It’s debatable which side was more important.
Dinner was incredible. We had hiked a little more than 4 miles, but knowing that if we wanted to leave a reasonable last 2 days, we needed to get to at least 6 miles tonight. After dinner, we loaded back up, slightly lighter with less food and beer and continued on our way. The trail is not challenging terrain wise. Once you gain treeline, its rolls gently as far as the eye can see, but the weather can definitely increase the challenge factor. This was the case with us.
Clouds were rolling in and out and with them came varying levels of moisture. We would have been capable of getting to 7 or more miles, but the weather took its toll and we set up camp just past 6 miles.
We got things set up and chilled a few more beers to enjoy once we were done. We were fairly protected below the trail so it was quite pleasant. Once the tent was done, we sat and enjoyed our beers overlooking where Denali would be. While Denali was hiding, we could see her foothills and the beautiful rivers that flow beneath her. Before bed, we packed our bear canister and I buried beneath a bunch of rocks about 200 yards away from the tent.
Despite the light hours, bed time arrived. With it came the wind…and eventually the rain. We would awake to a much different weather pattern in the morning.
Throughout the night, our little protected area became increasingly less protected. I was woken up frequently by the wind (my bear paranoia didn’t help) and the rain seemed to be coming down increasingly harder every hour. I was nervous to step outside in the morning.
We woke pretty later for camping, somewhere in the 8 o clock hour and immediately got to cooking breakfast. We knew were going to need some fuel for the day so we chose the caribou (or is it reindeer?) and egg burrito option. Cooking in the vestibule is a no-no, but we did it. There was no chance we could have cooked in the rain.
We had a decision to make. It was raining steadily, but we weren’t at risk for storms. Were we willing to tough it out to see if it cleared up (the forecast had no indication of clearing up) and we could maybe salvage some of the hike? Or, should we turn around and head back to the car and just call it.
We had a bail out point planned at Ermine Hill if it was needed. It would be a big day mileage wise (15+ miles), but we had a big day ahead either way. The other catch would be getting back to our car. We would either have to hike 6 miles of road or hitchhike.
We chose to hike on. We figured, we’re in Alaska, most of the steepness is done and who knows how the afternoon would be. We could deal with wetness.
The ridge itself is beautiful. The low handing clouds completely socked is in and gave an eerie feeling to the hike. It was something different and we actually enjoyed it initially. Things however were about to get a lot tougher.
I had made fun of the ridiculous amount of cairns earlier in the hike for such a relatively straight forward trail. It was in the clouds that I realized the necessity of them. We could only see the next cairn the majority of the day. It helped to keep us on trail as it sometimes faded away.
The trail meanders for a while but then begins a decent climb around the 10 mile mark. It’s only 300-400 feet, but in the rain with our packs on, it took its toll. We also emerged on an exposed ridge that was just getting destroyed with wind.
Christine and I approached it and from a protected area, you could see that the wind was significantly worse. You could hear it howling and see the rain blowing sideways. I told Christine to put her head down and just hike. She looked at me in disbelief and said “what do you think I’m doing??”
It was a tough 10-15 minutes and by the time we reached a protected area, we needed a break. Thankfully we found a creek we could set up at and cook up some hot miso soup and pump water for the rest of the day. The mosquitos were brutal (no joke in Alaska), but it felt awesome to sit down and get something warm in us. At this point, I was pretty soaked through and realizing that it was time for a new rain jacket.
From here, the trail starts a long, gradual decent into the Ermine Hill junction. Thankfully, the lower we got, the more the clouds started to break up. We were greeted with the occasional view of the surrounding peaks, but only in our immediate vicinity. Still, it was nice not to be hiking in a cloud anymore.
The mileage on the trailhead signs was a bit off and we found ourselves rolling into the Ermine Junction well over a mile past what we thought it would be. This along started to break our spirits a bit. We just wanted to sit and eat! We ran into a group of high schoolers and asked them if they knew where it was and they told us it was right around the corner, which it was, but first we had the privilege of walking out onto an outcropping and getting to eat with a beautiful view that was finally starting to free itself from the clouds.
We rested for a bit and made the final decision to bail down to the Ermine TH. The clearing weather had made us reconsider bailing. We really wanted that view of Denali, but our current state of being drenched was the final nail in the coffin. There wasn’t an opportunity for us to dry anything as their was still plenty of moisture around (it would rain on us later) and we had no desire to wake up drenched again on our honeymoon.
Down to the junction involves a far bit of bushwhacking and a marsh crossing that someone has built a high tech bridge of 2x4s across. With the rain gone, it was rapidly getting hotter and muggier.
We hit the official trail junction and confirmed our trail on the map. 5K (3.1 miles) to the TH…downhill. We could do that. We would be on the road in 1-2 hours. Not.
The trail is tight through here and we found ourselves brushing up against wet leaves frequently. It can rain for hours but nothing gets you wetter than brushing up a leaf holding water.
As we dropped back into the trees, we came to a shortcut opportunity. The trail cut off some sizable switchbacks. We decided to take it (it was a posted short cut after all). The trail was steep and would be manageable for someone with a lighter pack on, but it wasn’t worth it with our heavy backpacking packs.
We finally came to a creek. It was at this point that we realized we were probably going to have to hike up to get back to the road. There was a sizable hill in front of us and we could hear the road on top of it. This was not a happy time for the newlyweds.
We started to trudge out, noting that we had passed the 3.1 mile mark with plenty of uphill left in front of us. We were trying to keep our spirits high, but it was getting late in the day and I was dreading the road hike back to the car.
I was also increasingly paranoid for bears. We were in dense forest that had a very narrow trail through it. We were tired and I didn’t want to get caught off guard. Christine and I made a point to keep talking and be loud. It kept our mind off the hike as well.
We finally came out on the trailhead over 4 miles from the trail junction. My shoes had struggled to dry (don’t buy Patagonia shoes!) and I immediately set to taking them off. I changed my pants as well as I figured most people don’t want to pick up a mud-caked hitchhiker. Christine dropped her pack and immediately set out to hitch a ride.
Amazingly enough, I hadn’t even finished changing and she had already gotten us a ride. It took all of 4 cars going by and an older honey bee farmer on his way from Anchorage to Fairbanks picked us up. We excitedly hopped in and found our way back to the car. Major thanks to him as he saved us 3 more hours of work and was very generous in giving us water and some food.
18.5 miles of backpacking in 24 hours and 6 miles of a hitch-hiked ride later, we were back at our car. Sad to have had our backpacking plans foiled, but at the same time, so glad to be heading somewhere dry. It was our honeymoon and my birthday after all!