Saturday, May 23, 2020

Red Top Lookout via Blue Creek Trail

Red Top Lookout
3.2 miles round trip, 1600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous
Access: Good gravel road to trailhead, no pass required

Red Top Lookout caps an outlying high peak in Washington State's Teanaway region that offers sweeping views of the Stuart Range, Mount Rainier, and Kittitas Valley. So far, Red Top has largely escaped the hordes of hikers descending on nearby destinations like Lake Ingalls or the Enchantments, but as the regular approach to this lookout is quite easy, it still attracts a fair share of visitors. However, many hikers may find the usual half-mile round trip hike from the upper trailhead to be a bit too short to be satisfying; the Blue Creek Trail offers a nice backdoor for reaching Red Top that is almost sure to be quiet. During fall, this is a nice place to see western larches show off their golden foliage in the forests below.

A couple of notes: this hike is steep and during my 2019 visit, there were some areas where it was easy to lose the trail. While there is a discernable route the entire way up to the junction with the Teanaway Ridge Trail, keep your eyes peeled- especially on the upper parts of the trail- to avoid getting lost.

I hiked this trail on a sunny late October day with four friends. Leaving Seattle, we took I-90 east to across Snoqualmie Pass to Cle Elum, taking the ramp at exit 84 and driving through town on First Street; continuing straight, this road became Highway 10 after leaving town and then bearing slightly left at the junction with Highway 970 to head towards Wenatchee. At the junction with US Route 97, I continued straight in the direction of Wenatchee, then I turned left onto USFS Road 9738. I followed this decent gravel road up to a junction with USFS Road 9702, where I took the left fork heading towards Red Top Lookout. The trailhead was a half mile past this junction on the right of the road; there's no clear sign along the road so you'll need to be on the lookout for it. There is parking for a couple of cars in a pullout on the left side of the road just past the trailhead; the coordinates of the trailhead are 47.3044, -120.7398 for anyone who has trouble finding it. The trail is not well-marked on many topo maps or the trailhead is shown in incorrect locations.

From the trailhead, the Blue Creek Trail starts in a small gully but immediately began climbing, soon following the spine of a ridge up towards the crest of Teanaway Ridge. The trail climbed through a nice forest of ponderosa pine and western larch. The grade was quite steep, as the trail covers the majority of its elevation gain over a 1.2 mile stretch.

The trail can be a bit difficult to follow at a few points higher up, starting with a stretch when the trail passes through rockier, open terrain. Around this point, the trail begins to swing off the ridge and head towards the left, traversing across the forested slopes before continuing the climb through a stretch of brushy vegetation. Emerging from the brush, the trail makes a final burst of uphill to reach a four-way intersection at a saddle on Teanaway Ridge. There are two trails that head south from here: the one on the right heads along the ridge to the lookout, while the left fork circles underneath the peak and goes to the closer trailhead for the lookout. We took the left fork and headed up to the summit first.

The trail climbed steeply up the ridge and soon emerged out into the open on the eastern slopes of the peak's rocky upper reaches. The lookout rose directly above and ahead of us. A spectacular stretch of trail was cut into the cliffs just below the lookout, making a switchback as it ascended to the ridge.

Narrow final approach to Red Top Lookout
Atop the ridge, a final push brought us to the lookout itself. From this lofty perch, we had a 360-degree view of the Teanaway and the Stuarts. The entire Stuart Range- Stuart, Argonaut, Colchuck, Dragontail, Little Annapurna, and McClellan- lined the northern skyline, and below them were the higher peaks of the Teanaway Range- Earl, Navaho, and the Three Brothers. Ingalls Peak and Mount Hawkins were just to the west of the Teanaway, while Cascade crest peaks like Lemah Mountain and Chimney Rock were also visible on western horizon.

Ingalls Peak and the Stuart Range
Rainier dominated the view to the south while Adams just poked above the horizon. Mount Aix and Nelson Ridge were visible as well, already sporting their winter coats of snow. The long forested valley of the Yakima River was also discernable and below us, the blue forested ridges of the Teanaway were dotted with golden western larches.

Rainier rising over the western larches of the Teanaway
Kittitas Valley lay to the southeast. We could see the wind farms and the farms in the valley below, as well as Manastash Ridge and Umtanum Ridge rising on the far side of the valley. The Yakima Canyon cut a deep incision into those ridges and just below the start of the canyon we could see the sprawl of Ellensburg. Closer in, we could see the parking area for the upper trailhead below us on Teanaway Ridge. Tronsen Ridge defined the eastern skyline, rising on the other side of the valley holding US Route 97.

Teanaway larches
Although it was a nice fall weekend, we only saw one other hiker at the lookout- and that hiker had come from the easier nearby trailhead. To complete our hike, we descended down the other side of the ridge and then looped back on the trail bypassing the ridge to return to the four-way intersection at the saddle. Hikers have an option to continue north along Teanaway Ridge and follow the ridgetop for some flat hiking- this is purportedly a good place to find agates- but we weren't too impressed with that stretch of trail, so most hikers can wrap up the hike here by turning right and heading back downhill on the Blue Creek Trail.

Overall, this is a hike that combines a short but good workout with a beautiful destination while avoiding the omnipresent crowds of hikers of the Pacific Northwest. As the trail is a bit difficult to follow at times, you should come prepared with a topo map and be familiar with route finding. This isn't a trail for first-time hikers, but it's a good quiet alternative for hikers in the Teanaway.

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