Mt. Utsugi (空木岳）
Mt. Utsugi is the highest peak in the southern half of the Central Alps. The exposed crags offer outstanding panoramic views of both the Kita and Minami Alps.
The hike: From the top of the gondola, take the trail to the left towards Gokuraku-daira (極楽平). It should take about 20 minutes to reach the ridge line, where you’ll be all day. Turn left once you reach this point, and make your way to the top of Mt. Hinokio (檜尾岳). The path is well-worn and easy to follow and you should be sitting on the rocky summit in about 2 hours. If the weather is clear then you should see the top of Mt. Fuji peeking out over the Minami Alps, as well as a stellar view of Ondake. Your next target is Mt. Kumasawa (熊沢岳), reachable in about an hour. Another hour after that, and you’ll be on top of Mt. Higashi-kawa (東川岳), which has a great view of Mt. Utsugi right in front of you. Unfortunately you’ve got a big drop and climb between here and there. Drop down to the saddle, where you’ll find Kisodono hut (木曽殿山荘), which is a pretty nice place to stay. Unfortunately there’s no room to camp here, and the water source is a 15-minute walk down a spur trail. The hut is only open from July 1st to October 10th, so if you’re going outside of these dates it’s better to push on and stay at the emergency hut on the other side of the summit. Click here for the hut website. From the hut, it’s a 90 minute climb with a 450m elevation gain to the top. The hard work is worth it when the weather is cooperative. Otherwise, it’ll be another rocky peak in a blanket of cloud. From the top you’ve got several options. You can either retrace your steps back to Kisodono hut, and take the trail to the left for a 7 hour descent to Kuramoto (倉本) station, on the JR Chuo line that runs between Nagano and Nagoya. Another option would be to continue on the ridge line towards Minami Koma-ga-take (南駒ヶ岳) and then descent about 3-1/2 hours to a forest road in the middle of nowhere. The final (and probably most feasible) option would be to turn left once you hit the top of Mt. Utsugi and descend to the Mt. Utsugi emergency hut (空木避難小屋). From the hut, it’s a grueling 4 hour descent, where you lose close to 2000 vertical meters of altitude! You could also do this hike in reverse, but you’re faced with a daunting climb if you do. Eventually the trail will spit you out in Komagane Kogen (駒ヶ根高原), where you can take a bus back to Komagane station.
When to go: This hike can be done from early June to mid October without too much trouble. The gondola is operational year-round, so you could attempt this in the winter if you’ve got the proper equipment and training, but be warned that the ridge line is very rugged. Click here to see some brave climbers during Golden Week!
Access: From Okaya station (岡谷駅) in Nagano Pref. take the JR Iida line (JR飯田線) and get off at Komagane Station (駒ヶ根駅). The local train takes about an hour. From there, take a bus bound for Shirabi-daira (しらび平) and get off at the last stop. If you don’t want to take the gondola, then you can bypass this area by taking a trail from Hinokiobashi (檜尾橋) bus stop. From there, it’s a grueling 6-hour climb to the ridge line just below the top of Mt. Hinokio (檜尾岳). There’s a free emergency hut you can stay in just below the summit. Click here for the bus schedule.
Level of difficulty: 4 out of 5 if using the Gondola (elevation change ~200m).