Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Hidden Lake Lookout

Forbidden and Boston Peaks rise above Hidden Lake
8 miles round trip, 3300 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous, some scrambling necessary towards summit
Access: Rough, steep gravel road to trailhead, no pass required

From the vantage point of Hidden Lake Lookout high in Washington State's North Cascades, the fierce, serrated ridges of Forbidden and Boston Peaks rise above the secretive waters of Hidden Lake in one of the spectacular alpine scenes of the Pacific Northwest. This hike is one of the very best in a region renowned for its outdoors, so expect crowds despite the tough driving necessary to reach the trailhead.

I've been to Hidden Lake Lookout twice, visiting in late September both times; the lookout was socked in the first time, so I knew I had to return for its fabled views. From Seattle, it was just under a three hour drive: I took I-5 north to Arlington, then followed Highway 530 east through Arlington and Darrington to Rockport. Upon meeting Highway 20, I turned right and followed Highway 20 east to Marblemount, where I made the right turn for Cascade River Road at the spot where Highway 20 made a sharp bend to the left. I followed Cascade River Road past the trailhead for Lookout Mountain to the turnoff for Hidden Lake Lookout on the left. This gravel road was steep, narrow, and rough; during my first visit, the side of the road had collapsed at one point, leaving just enough room for one car to advance. Luckily, this had been fixed by the time I returned. The road climbed steeply via switchbacks to the small trailhead parking lot. Due to this hike's popularity, cars are often parked down a substantial distance down the road from the trailhead in the summer.

From the trailhead, the trail climbed through the forest for the first mile, with switchbacks in spots and then some boardwalk through a marshier spot. After a mile, the trail emerged from the forest into the brushy gully along Sibley Creek. Continuing a steady uphill, the trail crossed Sibley Creek and started ascending the open slopes on the north side of this valley with switchbacks. In September, the vegetation on these open slopes had turned into brilliant shades of red, orange, and yellow. Across the valley, I could see the bare, open granite on the high slopes of the Hidden Lake Peaks.

Fall colors at the Hidden Lake Peaks
The trail wrapped around the head of the valley as it continued its steep switchback ascent, opening up views to the west. Nearby, the forested ridge of Lookout Mountain rose to become the rocky alpine terrain of Teebone Ridge while farther away, I spotted the glaciers marking the base of Mount Baker.

Fall colors on the trail
As the trail began to circle around to the open slopes atop the south side of the valley, it entered a huckleberry patch brimming with ripe Vaccinium deliciosum, the tasty alpine Cascade blueberry treasured by bears and hikers alike. I spent substantial time snacking here during both of my hikes to the lookout.

This bend in the trail also brought new views: the jagged ridgeline of the nearby Per Spire appeared, along with Little Devil Peak and the remarkably flat-looking Monogram Glacier that filled a high basin on its slopes. During my first hike to Hidden Lake Lookout, I saw no views the entire day until the clouds began to burn off on my descent; at that point, the excellent views of Per Spire and Mount Baker convinced me to return to see the lookout's true glory.

Mount Baker views from previous hike
Mount Baker's summit was buried in the clouds during my second visit but the top of this stratovolcano, the highest peak in the North Cascades, was visible above the clouds when I first journeyed out here. With a bit of squinting, I could also make out the fire lookout atop Lookout Mountain, an underappreciated hike in this beautiful corner of the Cascades.

Mount Baker
The stretch of trail high up on the south side above Sibley Creek was one of the few flatter parts of the hike: combined with the copious huckleberries and improving views, this was one of the most pleasant parts of the hike.

Colors along the trail
As I hiked along this stretch, the rocky high ridges of Eldorado began to emerge behind the closer ridges. Before long, I could see the entire craggy spine of Backbone Ridge linked to snowy Perdition Peak and Dorado Needle. The rocky spire of Eldorado Peak- the Queen of the Cascade River- emerged out of a swirl of dramatic clouds, dusted with fresh snow.

Backbone Ridge and Dorado Needle
Moody Eldorado Peak
The easy hiking soon ended as the trail embarked on another uphill climb, ascending via switchbacks until it gained the top of a small ridge in a barren granite landscape. Views opened up even more here: Snowking Mountain and its summit glacier made its first appearance while Three Fingers and Whitehorse Mountain on the Mountain Loop Highway also peeked above the mountainous horizon. Hidden Lake Lookout rose ahead atop a dark, forboding granite spire. The trail traced the small ridge on the right side of a gully until it approached the foot of Hidden Lake Lookout, when it began to ascend again.

Lookout atop craggy summit of the Hidden Lake Peaks
Here, the hiking ended and a bit of scrambling began as the the trail traced a shallow gully up to the saddle between Hidden Lake Lookout and the main Hidden Lake Peak. At the saddle, a wooden sign announced that I had arrived in North Cascades National Park. Ahead was a spectacular view of Hidden Lake in a basin below and the great peaks of the North Cascades rising beyond.

Forbidden, Boston, Johannesburg, Formidable, and Spider over Hidden Lake
From the saddle, the trail ascended briefly on the north ridge and then cut across the east face of the peak to the southern slopes; a final scramble through massive boulders brought me to the lookout cabin atop the 6850-foot peak. Having started my hike at an early hour, the lookout was just being vacated by overnighters from the previous night when I arrived. The lookout is open for overnight stays on a first come, first served basis and would undoubtedly be a spectacular place to spend a night. I popped inside the lookout to check out the visitor log and the maps inside before heading back out to soak in the views.

Hidden Lake Lookout
Hidden Lake is quite simply one of the best trail accessible views in the North Cascades and thus in the whole of the Pacific Northwest; one of the few comparable trails, the hike to Sahale Arm, is just up the valley and visible from the lookout.

The lake itself was backed by nearby Forbidden and Boston Peaks, both spectacular high ridges with glaciers on their slopes that are among the highest peaks in the North Cascades. A long ridge connected Forbidden Peak with the pointed summit of mighty Eldorado Peak. Eldorado Glacier was draped on Eldorado Peak's south slopes and formed a large contiguous ice mass with Inspiration Glacier on Eldorado's east slopes; along with nearby McAllister Glacier, Klawatti Glacier, and the massive Boston Glacier on Boston Peak's north slope, this forms the most concentrated collection of major glaciers in the contiguous United States excluding the Cascade stratovolcanoes. The North Cascades are the most heavily glaciated region of the United States outside of Alaska, containing over half of the glaciated area of Washington State and holding more glaciated surface area than all of the other contiguous state combined.

Johannesburg Mountain rise across the Cascade River Valley from Forbidden and Boston, marking the start of a string of spectacular North Cascade peaks visited by the alpine Ptarmigan Traverse. The closer pair of Spider Mountain and Mount Formidable started off the chain, which continued with Sentinel Mountain covered by the massive LeConte Glacier. South Cascade Glacier was visible in a high cirque: once of the most impressive glaciers in the Cascades and subject to one of the longest continuous glacier studies in th US, it has retreated substantially since USGS monitoring began in 1957. Beyond the South Cascade Glacier rose faraway Dome and Sinister Peaks, their north faces sheltering the Chickamin and Dana Glaciers. The Dakobed Range's glacier-capped summits lined the horizon: I could spot Clark Mountain and Tenpeak Mountain. Further to the right, the valley of Kindy Creek led towards the dramatic rock and ice wall of Buckindy Peak and that ice-coated colossus, Glacier Peak. The profile of Sloan Peak- the Matterhorn of the Cascades- poked above the horizon while Snowking lived up to its name with its high granite slopes coated with glaciers. Three Fingers and Whitehorse also made appearances on the horizon. Looking down the Cascade River, I could see Sauk Mountain towering over the confluence of the Sauk and Skagit Rivers; Lookout Mountain rose over the Cascade River a little closer in. Under cloudy skies, I could only make out the bases of Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan but it was clear that these glacier-covered giants would also be visible from the lookout on a clear day. The stagnant Monogram Glacier filled a cirque on the slopes of Little Devil Peak. Faraway, the jagged wall of the Pickets played with the clouds. Backbone Ridge and Dorado Needle and Hidden Lake Peak nearby brought the view full circle. It was a sweeping, breathtaking view.

Hidden Lake
Glacier Peak and Buckindy Peak rise above Kindy Creek valley
Spider and Formidable, LeConte, and South Cascade Glacier
Ptarmigan Traverse peaks
Snowking with Three Fingers and Whitehorse in the distance
Forbidden Peak
Dorado Needle, Hidden Lake Peak, and Eldorado
The Pickets
Having reached the summit early, I enjoyed the views for a while and ate my lunch, hoping that the cloud ceiling would lift a bit more to show me the tops of some of these beautiful mountains. Although the clouds stayed put, I still thoroughly enjoyed the views.

This is an incredible hike. Yes, it's popular, but the views are truly astounding; come early, during the week, or in early fall to avoid the crush of summer hikers and see the heart of the spectacular North Cascades.

No comments:

Post a Comment