Sunday, July 16, 2017

Lookout Mountain (Cascade River)

Eldorado and Forbidden Peak
10 miles round trip, 4500 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

While the views of the North Cascades from Lookout Mountain Lookout are undeniably spectacular, the trail up to this summit is only for those who prefer their hikes served with a strong dose of misery. The never-ending ascent up Lookout Mountain is steep, often overgrown, littered with blowdown, and badly eroded at points, making this a very challenging hike for most; additionally, as the hike starts from the Cascade River Road, it's necessary to climb the full height of the mountain, which also means that most of the hike is confined to the forest. But hikers who endure through the travails of this hike will find a jaw-dropping view of some of the most famous peaks of the North Cascades, including an up-close encounter with majestic Eldorado Peak. This hike should not be confused with the other Lookout Mountain Lookout in the North Cascades, a much easier hike with less impressive views that lies on the other side of the watershed divide in the Methow Valley.

I hiked this trail on a beautiful and sunny July Saturday, leaving Seattle and taking I-5 north to Arlington, then Highway 530 east through Arlington and Darrington to Rockport, then Highway 20 east to Marblemount, then finally turning right onto the Cascade River Road at the Skagit River bridge and following the road 8 miles to the Lookout Mountain Trailhead. Parking was on a wide shoulder to the right (south side of the road), with about enough space for a dozen cars. The trail started across the road.

The trail wasted no time and immediately began climbing, passing an information board and trail register about fifty paces into the hike. The next 2 miles were relentless: the trail was a sustained switchback climb up a ridge through the forest that covered 2200 feet of elevation gain. The forest appeared to be old growth, with some absolutely massive Douglas firs reaching 4 feet in diameter and a Western cedar stump of a tree that must have once been 5 five in diameter. I didn't bother to count, but there were at least 30 switchbacks along this stretch of trail (and at least 50 on the entire hike). There were no views in the forest. The trail was littered with occasional blowdown but there were no true obstacles; the difficulty lay mainly in the length and sustained nature of the climb.

At 2 miles, the trail very suddenly broke out into a clearing and flattened out a bit. While the gentler uphill grade was welcome, the lack of trees was not: the forest was replaced with an overgrown bushy slope where stinging nettle and other pleasant vegetation reached just over my head. The trail was barely visible through this overgrown mess and was often rocky and uneven underfoot. Halfway through pushing through the nettle, I muttered to myself, "This is enjoyable. You like hiking! You are having fun."

The unpleasantness of this stretch was slightly offset by the presence of tiger lilies blooming alongside the "trail." I also spotted Dome Peak to the south through the clearing, a promise that the rewards ahead would justify the tough trail.

Tiger lilies in the overgrown clearing
Coming out of the clearing, the trail reentered the forest and continued ascending, albeit a little less aggressively than before. I spotted Lookout Mountain through the trees for the first time just before crossing a stream that fed into Lookout Creek. At a second stream crossing, a two-plank log bridge had partially collapsed, leaving just one intact plank for the crossing. At times, the trail here was routed on well-built and reasonably well-maintained boardwalks, which seemed incongruous with the poor state of the trail at other spots. The stream crossings were followed by one of the only flat stretches of the entire hike.

Three miles from the trailhead, the trail towards Monogram Lake branched off to the right of the trail. The junction is signed, but the post indicating the split is small and easy to miss; hikers who fail to see the post and continue to follow the most obvious trail will end up at the lookout. In the next mile past the signed junction, the trail continued to climb steadily through the forest; in this stretch, I had to negotiate multiple blowdowns, some of which were a bit of a pain to climb across or go around. Additionally, the trail was muddy or covered with running water at multiple points in this stretch.

Four miles from the trailhead and 3500 feet up the mountain, the trail emerged into a massive, verdant mountainside meadow. Wildflowers littered the mountainside, adding brilliant colors to the green slopes. Columbine, lupine, and valerian were in a blooming frenzy, crowding the sides of the trail. The wildflowers were complemented by extraordinary views down the Cascade River Valley: I could see directly downvalley to the peaks of the Ptarmigan Traverse, of which Dome Peak was the most prominent. Lookout Mountain itself and the lookout tower appeared almost directly above, seeming so close yet at the same time still so inaccessible.

Columbine blooming in the meadow
Valerian blooming in the clearing
At points, the trail through the meadow was in bad shape: in some areas, it was overgrown in a manner similar to the earlier clearing and in others, the trail was severely eroded and had become just a steep dirt patch through the meadow.

The trail continued climbing through the meadow, ascending via switchbacks as it aimed for the saddle just east of the Lookout Mountain summit. Views only improved during this ascent: nearby Little Devil Peak and its combination of rocky and meadow-filled slopes were prominent but steep, jagged, and regal face of Eldorado Peak stole the scene.

Eldorado Peak and the meadow
From the saddle, there was a final 500 feet of climbing left to reach the lookout. The trail alternated between passing through forest and meadows as it pushed up a final aggressive uphill climb. Approaching the summit, the trail passed through a few patches of remaining snow; these patches would not have been an issue for any hiker who has already made it that far.

The trail followed the mountainside down to the south ridge of Lookout Mountain, making a sharp turn once meeting the ridge to follow it to the summit. At the switchback on the ridge, the trail came to an absolutely arresting view: the south ridge dropped precipitously away beneath my feet to huge meadows with wildflowers and the mile-deep valley of the Cascade River was lined with snowbound mountains.

Cascade River Valley with the Ptarmigan Traverse peaks
As I followed the ridgeline for the final ascent to the summit, the scenery was outstanding and improved with every step. Little and Big Devil Peaks were both visible close to the east and the Picket Range emerged just beyond them to the north.

Big and Little Devil Peaks
The lookout, an elevated wooden cabin, also came into view. A final push through some snow patches brought me to the base of the lookout; I hopped on the staircase and a few seconds later found myself standing atop the tower, exhausted but exhilarated by the views.

The lookout
What views! Although incoming clouds had gobbled Mount Shuksan, the remaining panorama of North Cascades peaks was in sight. While everything was undeniably beautiful, two aspects of the view dominated over all others: the icy, grand ridge of Eldorado Peak and the frightening wall of the Pickets. I originally decided to hike Lookout Mountain for its view of Eldorado Peak and it did not disappoint on this count: this was by far the grandest view I'd had of the mountain nicknamed Queen of the Cascade River by legendary climber Fred Beckey.

The Pickets, that wall of spires north of the Skagit River, formed the piercing skyline to the northeast. The awe that these mountains must have inspired in early European explorers is apparent in the names that were bestowed: the Pickets include peaks named Challenger, Fury, and Terror. Nearby are the similarly poetically named Mount Triumph and Mount Despair.

Mount Despair, Mount Triumph, and the Pickets
The northwestern skyline featured Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan, although unfortunately Shuksan was socked away; this pair of very tall mountains was accompanied by the smaller but still beautifully glaciated forms of Bacon Peak, Hagan Mountain, and Mount Blum.

Mount Baker and Bacon Peak
To the west I could see directly down the Skagit River Valley: the Skagit River itself was visible winding its way through the broad bottom of the valley. Sauk Mountain and its many summits rose just north of the river. South of the valley, I spotted Mount Higgins near Oso, Whitehorse Mountain, and Three Fingers. The summit of White Chuck stuck out barely above closer, lower peaks.

Sauk Mountain rises above the Skagit River Valley
The rest of the view, to the south, was composed of peaks surrounding the Cascade River Valley. Lookout Mountain provides a rare vantage point for nearby Snowking Mountain and its heavily glaciated summit. Glacier Peak made a cameo, appearing just above one of the snowy ridgelines near Snowking. Dome Peak, Spire Peak, Mount Formidable, and Spider Mountain were the most identifiable of the line of peaks south of Cascade Pass that define the Ptarmigan Traverse. Johannesberg Mountain's sharp summit popped above Hidden Lake Peaks, the tops of Forbidden and Boston Peak emerged from behind Eldorado, and the top of Snowfield Peak was visible from the gap in between Big and Little Devil Peaks.

The lookout is maintained by volunteers and is in remarkably good shape: always unlocked, the lookout cabin is available for overnight stays on a first-come, first served basis. The cabin contains two twin mattresses and a folding chair; there's a stove and oven in the lookout as well but it didn't appear to be functional. While stays are free, the volunteers who run the lookout take donations and ask that hikers who stay the night leave the place cleaner than they find it. The lookout itself seemed of reasonably sturdy construction but the Forest Service recommends that to prevent the catwalks outside the lookout from collapsing, no more than 2 people should stand on each side of the lookout at a time.

Inside the lookout
I spent over an hour at the summit and saw only five other people: two hikers were spending the night, two more left shortly after I arrived, and a final hiker, a visitor from Chicago, arrived as I was about to leave. The hiker from Chicago, who, like me, was pretty beaten up from the hike up, told me that a ranger had recommended this hike to him: it surprised me that a ranger would recommend a hike of this difficulty over nearby hikes to similarly impressive views that are a notch or two easier. The warning that no more than two people should stand on one side of the lookout turned out to be fairly unnecessary while I was at the top; this is a reasonable place to find some solitude. I ran into twenty people or less over the course of the day, some of whom were headed to Monogram Lake and at least a few of whom gave up part of the way up this tiring mountain. The twenty or so blowdowns, muddy trail, overgrown trail, eroded trail, and endless switchbacks were rough- but for the chance to look at the regal face of Eldorado, it was more than worth it.

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