As it does from time to time, City Wilds leaves the Anchorage area, this week for some cabin camping in Denali State Park. I don’t think I’m revealing any great secrets by recounting a recent trip to the park’s K’esugi Ken Campground facility, to stay in one of its three public-use cabins.
In summer, K’esugi Ken is a bustling place, filled with campers of all kinds (from those who love tent camping, to those who prefer RVs or yes, cabins). It also attracts day visitors, and travelers—both residents and tourists—lured by a network of easy-to-walk trails, including one that leads to the top of Curry Ridge. The latter trail provides some of the most compelling views you’ll find anywhere of “The High One,” 20,310-foot Denali, and its neighboring Alaska Range peaks. Perhaps the best part of the sweeping vistas you’ll find here is that you don’t have to go far or high to experience them. In fact the panorama is pretty darn spectacular from the campground area itself.
Because it’s such a busy place in summer, I tend to avoid K’esugi Ken, though I’ve stopped there a few times in August to hike the Curry Ridge Trail and hunt blueberries in subalpine meadows. I much prefer to visit when the campground is closed and most of the associated facilities are shut down. Except for the cabins (and a couple of outhouses).
I’ll add a few more bits of general information here, then get to my recent late-winter visit. First, the name. Though it sounds like the handle of some legendary Alaskan sourdough, K’esugi Ken is in fact a Dena’ina Athabascan phrase that means “base of the ancient one” and refers to the ridge that is now known as Curry. Next, opened in 2017, K’esugi Ken is a collaboration between Alaska’s Division of State Parks and the National Park Service. While it occurs on state land and is managed by the state, the federal government has provided the bulk of the funding that made this place possible and keeps it going. Thus K’esugi Ken has amenities you won’t find at other state park facilities, for instance an interpretive pavilion, guided hikes, ranger programs, and an abundance of natural history displays. Not to mention that trail up Curry Ridge, which is built to accommodate those tourists (and Alaskans) who aren’t used to hiking up hills.
It also features an access road that is kept open year-round. And that’s one of K’esugi Ken’s winter charms. Because the road is plowed throughout the winter, it’s possible to drive within a short walking distance of all three public-use cabins. In short, you can bring lots of gear, food, and firewood, and only have to haul it a short distance—anywhere from a hundred feet or so to a couple of hundred yards, depending on which cabin you’re occupying. By Alaska standards, this is easy stuff, especially if you have a sled, which I’d highly recommend.
The other great allure of K’esugi Ken in winter is the solitude. Even with all three of the cabins located within 100 to 200 yards of each other, the place is largely quiet, with few people and little noise, except when park staff is grooming the ski trails or plowing the road and parking areas. (You can also occasionally hear highway traffic, but it’s a distant hum.)
The third attraction—and this is key—is the distant presence of Denali and its satellite peaks, which can be seen while sitting (or waking up) in the comfort of either the Tokosha or Hunter cabins. (The Denali cabin, if I remember correctly, has a more obstructed view.)
There are few greater delights, when late-winter camping in a public-use cabin, than to awaken in the morning, sit up in your warm sleeping bag, and look directly at North America’s highest mountain (and other Alaska Range giants) while the day’s first light warmly washes across the high and frigid ridges and slopes, bathing the great peaks in soft pastels; first rose, then golden, then a soft yellow blush.
The presence of those mountains can then be savored while stoking the fire in the wood stove, boiling water for morning coffee, and preparing breakfast, the cabin gradually warming while the thermometer outside reads single digits.
When the weather is right, as it was for most of our recent visit to K’esugi Ken, this can become a delightful morning ritual—and you don’t have to stir before 8 a.m. to catch “the morning glow” if you visit in late winter.
Equally enchanting, when the sky is clear (as it often seems to be in March), is the night sky. Finally, on our fourth late winter visit to K’esugi Ken (yes, it’s become something of a tradition), Jan and I finally got to witness the aurora borealis while camped there. The night’s light show was brief but spectacular, the aurora initially forming a band that grew in both size and activity, eventually waving in curtains that were mostly green, but tinged with pink. And then to complement that band, smaller bursts of shimmering light pulsed across the sky, even overhead, lovely and exciting.
The following two nights there was no aurora, at least when we checked. But no moon, either (though it would eventually rise, later in the night). So instead of northern lights, we got to relish a starry night like you will never experience in Anchorage or any place with an abundance of artificial lights. The stars sparkled brightly, wildly, and we identified several familiar constellations and noticed others whose names we did not know. It was dark enough that the Milky Way galaxy, the one that contains our solar system, was a faint, creamy band across the sky.
We spent much of our time being enthralled by natural wonders, daytime and night. We also skied the groomed trail system and both snowshoed and walked up the trail toward Curry Ridge, the afternoon sun bright and warm enough to remove outer layers, hat, and mittens and smear sun screen on one’s face. (Yes, we got some cloudy weather and snow, but we were largely blessed with expansive blue skies, a beaming sun, and those distant giants of rock and snow and ice.)
We occasionally crossed paths with other visitors and engaged in conversations, but mostly it seemed we had the place all to ourselves, another delight, at least for me.
For those who haven’t yet discovered K’esugi Ken’s many appeals—though it seems a bunch of Alaskans already have, because the cabins are booked months in advance, whatever the season—I’ll make a few suggestions. Firewood can be purchased, but I’d suggest bringing your own, both to save money and because the wood that’s available there isn’t always the best for burning. We’ve had good luck in the past, but this year the wood was too “green,” held too much moisture. Some of the birch would barely burn. Second, either bring an axe or plenty of kindling. And bring toilet paper, too; during our stay the outhouses ran out of TP and staff didn’t quickly replace it. Bring matches, of course, and lots of water, unless you want to melt snow.
To learn more about the cabins and how to reserve them, do an online search with the key words “K’esugi Ken Campground, cabins.” And start planning ahead, because those cabins will largely be reserved for the next several months, though you might get lucky and find a few open dates.
Here’s one other bit of information, which you’ll discover if you do your homework. While all three cabins are open to the public in winter, only the two smaller ones, Hunter and Tokosha, are available year-round. In summer, the larger Denali cabin becomes the home of the campground host.
Another thing I learned this year: trapping is allowed throughout Denali State Park in winter, even along the Curry Ridge Trail and more generally in the K’esugi Ken area. The park superintendent told me he isn’t aware of anyone trapping there and I’ve seen no sign of it in the four winter trips I’ve made to its cabins. But if you bring dogs, be aware of the possible danger. And then be open to the possibility of wonder, day or night.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Alaska’s Accessible Wilderness: A Traveler’s Guide to Alaska’s State Parks” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at firstname.lastname@example.org.