I’ve traveled the Parks Highway a multitide of times during my 12-year tenure as an Alaska resident, and I always appreciate the landscape outside my window. But shortly past Trapper Creek – across the Chulitna river, where the green of Interior tundra starts to combine with brushy alder and willow, sits a new slice of heaven. Denali State Park is here, somewhat underappreciated by visitors concerned only with reaching a national park with the same name. And there’s a new spot to stop.
It would be a mistake to drive by this place, named K’esugi Ken campground. Translated from the Ahtna and Dena’ina People, “K’esugi Ken” means “South of K’esugi (Ancient One)” and is well-known among Native groups for its rich subsistence history. Alaska State Parks is the management agency tasked with this first phase of a multi-year Denali South Project that intends to offer more cultural and recreational facilities and opportunities within the state park.
The campground at Milepost 135.4 features 32 RV sites with electrical hookups and 10 walk-up tent sites, a large group camping area, and three cabins (two in the summer) available for rent within the public use cabin system. Reached via a short, winding road, the campground is located atop a bluff that gives everyone a bit of a view of the Alaska Range and mighty Denali within their chosen campsite, along with opportunities to see even more via walk or hike around the property.
As is the case with most Alaska State Parks campgrounds, K’esugi Ken’s campground sites are first-come, first-served, but the three cabins can be reserved (I checked and most days are full until the end of August, but it is worth frequenting the ReserveAmerica website on a regular basis for changes).
We arrived at the campground on a Friday afternoon and nearly every site was available. By late Friday night, nearly all were taken. Sunday morning found the same to be true; lots of vacancies. If your family can swing an early arrival or midweek stay, you’re almost sure to have your pick of prime campsites. Each site comes with a grassy tent pad, gravel drive, picnic table, and access to sparkling (yes, I did say that) pit toilets. Tip: Do bring garbage bags with you, and plan to either dispose of them daily, or lock them in your car at night – the dumpster is way back at the entrance area.
The brand new roadway is a ribbon of blacktop that begs kids to ride bikes, skateboards, or scooters and, in fact, we saw plenty of all three. Trail crews also created two miles of accessible gravel trails that circle the campground and lead to the interpretive pavilion for scheduled evening programs with a National Park Service ranger, a cooperative effort between the agencies.
Want to hike even farther? Take the Curry Ridge trail, a three-mile sloping series of switchbacks that lead to the high alpine vistas and eventually to Lake 1787 (so named for its elevation). The sky was blue and the sun hot when we made the trek last weekend, and Denali stood out like I had not seen it before on a summer day. Allow three-plus hours for this hike, longer if you linger at the top (recommended).
We used the enormous fire pit to roast corn on the cob, grill burgers, and make s’mores until late at night. The weather was in the high 70’s, and I would recommend all campers bring a shelter of some sort for protection against the beating sun (or pouring rain), as there is little in the way of cover due to the newness of the campground.
A special shout-out to camp hosts Darl and Linda, who made us feel welcome and offered tips for exploring this new area. They are on-site all summer, and can be depended upon to assist campers and cabin-dwellers with anything they might need.
Campsites are $30/night for RV sites, $20/night for tents. The two summer-only cabins are $75/night.