Friday, May 15, 2020

McClellan Butte

Putrid Pete's and Mount Defiance across I-90 from McClellan Butte
9 miles round trip, 3700 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous, Class 3 rock scramble to summit
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

McClellan Butte is one of the most distinct peaks near Snoqualmie Pass in Washington State's Cascades, its sharp spire rising abruptly above I-90. Just an hour's drive from Seattle, this is one of the many popular hikes on the I-90 corridor, leading to views similar to those of the surrounding peaks. Like the popular hikes up nearby Mailbox Peak and Mount Si, this is a hike that stays in the forest for the most part; however, there's a fun scramble up the peak's rocky pinnacle and even though they're not remarkable by Washington State standards, the views of the Cascades and the Puget Lowlands from the summit are still very lovely.

McClellan Butte's sharp profile viewed from the Ira Spring Trail
I hiked this trail on an early December day, after a warm and dry November had largely stripped the Cascades of their early winter snow coat. Heading out early in the morning from Seattle and not fully sure of the snow conditions, I had initially intended on hiking Bandera Mountain but made a last minute change of mind and tackled McClellan Butte instead after seeing that the summit pinnacle appeared snow-free. As with all winter hiking in the Cascades, I brought microspikes and poles to deal with potential snow. Summer and fall are the primary hiking seasons here: unlike Si and Mailbox, which are good spring hikes with appropriate gear, this trail crosses multiple avalanche gullies on the upper parts of the trail that are snowbound and unstable until summer.

From Seattle, I took I-90 east past North Bend and took the off ramp at exit 42 for Tinkham Road. Turning right onto Tinkham Road, I crossed the South Fork Snoqualmie River; just a little farther down, I made a right turn at the sign indicating the McClellan Butte Trailhead. This spur road quickly arrived at the trailhead, which had plenty of parking; however, on this winter day, I was the only person at the trailhead. Access to this trailhead may be closed later in winter with snowfall; however, it's a short walk from the I-90 exit for Tinkham Road if anyone wishes to access it while the road is closed.

I headed out on the trail, which began ascending through the forest. Shortly after crossing a power line clearing, I came to a junction with a flat gravel path at 0.4 miles. The single-track trail crossing the gravel road led up to the Palouse to Cascades Trail, which is also a viable route for reaching McClellan Butte, but the main trail made a right turn here to head west along the gravel road. The gravel road was flat for the next half mile, at one rejoining the power line clearing. After a half mile, the gravel road was washed out at a stream, but a trail led up to the left and ascended quickly to meet the Palouse to Cascades Trail.

The Palouse to Cascades Trail is a rail trail converted from the former Pacific Extension of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad- the Milwaukee Road. Milwaukee Road built their Pacific Extension across Snoqualmie Pass, constructing the Snoqualmie Tunnel and developing a ski area at Hyak. Milwaukee Road chose to electrify over 1000 km of their Pacific Extension route by 1920, the largest scale rail electrification project in the world at the time. A former Class I railroad, Milwaukee Road was a victim of the bankruptcies and mergers that swept the rail industry from the 1960s to 1980s.

The McClellan Butte crossed the Palouse to Cascades Trail and continued climbing at a moderate grade in the forest. After another three-quarters of a mile, the trail crossed the gravel Forest Service Road 9020. Along the way, there was a small, pretty waterfall as the trail crossed a stream.

Waterfall along the trail
After crossing the Forest Service Road 9020, the trail climbed through a very nice stretch of forest containing some old growth trees. Salal dotted the forest floor.

Forest along the trail
Then, the trail embarked in earnest on the main climb of the hike. One of the earlier set of switchbacks on the ascent cut through a talus slope, which provided the first views of the hike. A dusting of fresh snow topped Bandera Mountain, which above I-90 across the South Fork Snoqualmie valley.

Bandera rising above I-90 and the South Fork Snoqualmie valley
After the talus slope, the trail climbed relentlessly through the forest, pushing uphill at an aggressive grade with many switchbacks. After the switchbacks ended, the trail continued ascending as it headed south along the slopes of McClellan Butte. The trail crossed three tricky gullies here that double as avalanche chutes in winter; these chutes often do not melt out until July and are not safe to cross in the spring when snowbound. Luckily, not much snow had fallen that winter yet, allowing me to safely navigate them. After passing the third gully, the trail reached the snow line; I donned my microspikes here and kept them on until reaching the summit scramble.

After passing the gullies, the trail continued its constant climb and crossed a talus slope which opened up views to the east of Snoqualmie Pass. The elevation gain and change in angle allowed me to see Granite Mountain and Rampart Ridge this time, as well.

View along I-90 towards Snoqualmie Pass and Rampart Ridge
Shortly after passing the talus slope, the trail rounded a corner onto the southern slopes of McClellan. The trail climbs 2400 feet in a little more than 2 miles from Forest Service Road 9020 to this point, the steepest portion of the hike outside the final scramble. Over the next hundred meters or so, the trail rounded the south side of McClellan Butte before wrapping around to the west side of the ridge. This stretch of trail passes through the Cedar River Watershed above Chester Morse Lake, which is one of the watersheds providing the drinking supply for the Puget Sound area. As this watershed is off-limits to the public, this section of trail is a rare foray into restricted territory; signs along the trail indicate that is illegal to leave the trail or to urinate while in the Cedar River watershed. Gaps in the trees here provided my first glimpses of Mount Rainier on this hike.

The southern slopes of the butte were nearly snowfree but as I wrapped around to the western side of the butte, the snow was over a foot deep. Luckily, previous hikers had walked out a bootpack, making it an easy walk with my microspikes. Partial views opened up of the western end of the Snoqualmie Pass corridor: I could now see I-90 winding to the west below Mailbox Peak, Mount Teneriffe, and Mount Si. Mount Baker began poking above the lower Cascade peaks in the distance. The trail stayed just below the main ridge of McClellan Butte and was nearly flat for a half mile after leaving the Cedar River watershed.

Si, Teneriffe, and Mailbox and a frozen pond on the high slopes of McClellan
The flat hiking ended abruptly as the trail approached the precipitous north face of McClellan Butte. A sharp switchback launched a brief resumed ascent, which brought me to the crest of McClellan Butte's main ridge. Hungry after the climb, I paused here to enjoy my lunch first as I gazed down the rocky backbone of McClellan Butte to Mount Rainier in the distance.

Rainier and the backbone of McClellan Butte
Immediately after this, the trail ended at the base of McClellan Butte's sharp summit spire. The views are already quite nice from here, so it's not necessary to go all the way to the summit; but the best views are of course still at the very top. To reach the top, I had to scramble up the steep rock pinnacle. This is a Class III scramble, with plenty of wide handholds and footholds, but it is quite exposed and a fall would likely be fatal. It's your responsibility to make sure that you're prepared to tackle this scramble. Luckily, my assessment from that morning was correct: there was no snow on the summit block. Under slippery conditions, it would be extremely inadvisable to attempt this scramble.

Final scramble to the summit of McClellan Butte
Some careful scrambling brought me to the very top of McClellan Butte. There were sweeping views over the I-90 corridor from Rattlesnake Mountain and Mount Si near North Bend in the west to Silver Peak rising over Snoqualmie Pass in the east. Fog was covering the Puget Lowlands, hiding the skylines of Seattle and Bellevue, but the faraway Olympics rose above and the eastern Olympic front of Mt. Ellinor, The Brothers, Mount Jupiter, Mount Constance, and Mount Townsend was visible with its component peaks still easily identifiable.

Across I-90 rose the connected crest of Mailbox Peak, Putrid Pete's Peak, Mount Defiance, and Bandera Mountain. Behind this ridge were the snow-capped high peaks of the Cascades, from Kaleetan, Chair, and lookout-topped Granite near Snoqualmie Pass to Chimey Rock, Rampart Ridge, and Mount Stuart farther in the distance. The shadow of the sharp summit of McClellan Butte was cast into the South Fork Snoqualmie valley below. To the south, Mount Adams joined Mount Rainier on the horizon and I spotted the faraway distinctive profile of Mount Aix and Nelson Ridge to the southeast.

Kaleetan, Chair, Snoqualmie, Chimney Rock, Bandera, and Stuart
Si, Teneriffe, and Mailbox over I-90, Pilchuck in the distance
Peaks along the southern side of I-90
Adams and Rainier
Olympics across the Puget lowlands from Tiger, Rattlesnake, and Mount Washington
McClellan Butte is named after George B. McClellan, a major general in the US Army. In 1853, McClellan was charged with conducting a survey of mountain passes over the Cascades to find a suitable route for a railroad into the Puget Sound area. McClellan traveled along the eastern edge of the range and heard rumors that there was a low elevation pass at the head of the Yakima River, but seeing the high mountains surrounding Snoqualmie Pass he dismissed the possibility of an easy pass there out of hand and instead picked the much higher-elevation Yakima Pass to the south. His slipshod job missed all three passes that ended up being railroad routes (Snoqualmie, Stevens, and Stampede). After McClellan returned to the east, he became the general of the Army of the Potomac early in the course of the Civil War. He led the Union Army in an unsuccessful push on Richmond up the James River in the Peninsula Campaign and importantly fought Robert E. Lee to a draw at Antietam; however, his lax attitude towards consolidating Union gains and his failure to pursue retreating Confederate armies led Lincoln to fire him. Despite temporarily saving the Union at Antietam in 1862, McClellan chose to run for president on the Democratic Party ticket in 1864 on an anti-war ticket, calling for peace between the North and South without a resolution to the question of slavery. McClellan's defeat in the election of 1864 was a pivotal moment in the nation's history. Just as he was a man who failed upward throughout his life, McClellan somehow ended getting one of the most eye-catching peaks in the Snoqualmie Pass corridor named after him.

I enjoyed the views and then carefully scrambled down the summit pinnacle and returned to the trailhead. This was an enjoyable hike with nice views and an exposed rock scramble. There is little basis to recommend this hike over its nearby peers like Bandera, Mailbox, Defiance, or Granite but if you enjoyed those hikes you'll probably enjoy this one, too.

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