Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Winchester Mountain Lookout

Twin Lakes and the North Cascades from Winchester Mountain Lookout
9 miles round trip, 2850 feet elevation gain; or 4 miles round trip, 1350 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Rough dirt road to Yellow Aster Butte Trailhead; 4WD high clearance only road to Twin Lakes Trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

The fire lookout atop Winchester Mountain in Washington State's North Cascades delivers views so extraordinary that your heart will melt. Great peaks- glaciated and rocky- rise in all directions and two perfect subalpine lakes are nestled in the meadows of the high pass below. The hike up to the lookout stays in the open almost the entire time, delivering jawdropping view after jawdropping view all the way to the summit, where after seeing grand Mount Larrabee and Mount Shuksan dominate this mountain kingdom you'll need binoculars to search for your lost mandibles. This is an extraordinary hike and it's just a short 4 mile hike if you drive to the trailhead at Twin Lakes. The catch? The road up is terrible and not suitable for standard passenger cars: sedan drivers will have to hike the road for 2.5 miles after enduring the chassis-rattling drive up to the Yellow Aster Butte trailhead.

I hiked up to Winchester Mountain Lookout on a beautiful August day, soon after finishing my Ph.D. From Seattle, I took I-5 north to Bellingham and then followed Highway 542 east past Glacier to the turnoff on the left for the Twin Lakes Road. Twin Lakes Road is a very rough dirt road, full of potholes and heavily eroded, so I took it slow on the four miles up to reach the Yellow Aster Butte Trailhead, where I parked. The actual trailhead for this hike is two and a half miles further up the road at Twin Lakes, but the Yellow Aster Butte was as far as I could make it in a sedan. A 4WD high clearance vehicle is absolutely necessary if you plan to park at Twin Lakes: the road is very rough and drivers have died tackling this road in recent years.

I walked uphill along the Twin Lakes Road to reach Twin Lakes from the Yellow Aster Butte Trailhead, covering 2.5 miles and 1500 feet of elevation gain on the steep, rough dirt road. Views of Mount Baker just past the Yellow Aster Butte Trailhead made the ascent a little easier. A few pickup trucks and SUVs passed me on the way up and I saw one sedan driver limping back down in his car, turned back by the road.

Mount Baker from the Yellow Aster Butte trailhead
After 2.5 miles of a switchbacking ascent on a dirt road, I arrived at Twin Lakes, which sit in a high saddle below Winchester Mountain. There were campsites near the lakes, most of which were unoccupied on a weekday morning. I followed the road down the isthumus between the two lakes to reach the actual trailhead for Winchester Mountain. The lakes were both stunningly beautiful, with jewel-like waters that reflected the blue sky, green meadows, and subalpine forests of the pass.

Twin Lakes
Leaving the trailhead, the trail began an ascent into the forest above the northern of the Twin Lakes. After making a switchback, the trail reached a junction after a fifth of a mile: the High Pass Trail headed off to the right, while the Winchester Mountain Trail continued straight. The trail wandered out into open, meadowy slopes on the lower part of the mountain, with beautiful views of Goat Mountain across the pass and Mount Baker in the distance. Plentiful huckleberries along the trail here kept me busy eating while I enjoyed this spectacular scenery.

Goat Mountain and Mount Baker from the trail
The trail then began to switchback constantly as it ascended Winchester Mountain. I stayed out on open slopes, so the views improved with every additional foot of elevation gain. Soon, the lakes appeared below and the sharp summit pyramid of Mount Shuksan joined the party to the south as Mount Redoubt emerged in the east.

At one point, a switchback brought me to the edge of Winchester Mountain's east ridge, delivering a stunning view of the Silesia Creek drainage nearby. Mount Larrabee and the Pleiades towered over the deep valley of the creek while Sleese Mountain across the Canadian border guarded the other side of the valley.

The Pleiades and the deep valley of Silesia Creek
At 1.2 miles past the trailhead, the switchbacks paused and the trail cut across the meadow-carpeted upper slopes of Winchester Mountain. The trail aimed for a rocky saddle, with a section crossing rock that from afar looked precarious but up close was quite easy to hike. The views while crossing the slope were already stunning but upon reaching the saddle I found even more views opening to the west. 

Twin Lakes below Winchester Mountain
Passing through the saddle, the trail rounded a corner and began a switchback ascent up the meadow-covered west slopes of the mountain. Late-blooming wildflowers still dotted the meadows, although in late August the wildflower show was mostly done for the year. The trail aimed for a saddle between Winchester Mountain and its west peak but switchbacked before reaching it, providing ever greater views of Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan.

Mounts Shuksan and Baker
These switchbacks soon brought the trail up onto the west ridge overlooking the north face of the peak. Snowfields still filled the cirque below and Tomyhoi Peak dominated this view to the north. The faraway peaks of British Columbia north of Vancouver were also visible, not a surprise as Winchester Mountain's summit is just miles from the Canadian border.

Tomyhoi from the high slopes of Winchester Mountain
The switchbacks and the ascent ended at the lookout cabin atop Winchester Mountain. From here, the views were enormous. To the west, I had a view of the high summit pinnacle of Church Mountain rising in the distance between the closer ridges of the High Divide and Yellow Aster Butte. On the horizon, I could see the silhouette of the forested mountains of Vancouver Island. The view to the south was impressive but rehashed much of what I had seen on the hike up: Mounts Baker and Shuksan and the Twin Lakes.

Church Mountain and the High Divide
The most majestic part of the view here was mighty Mount Larrabee to the north, its multi-hued massif rising above High Pass. The rugged Pleiades connected with Larrabee on one side, while the high pinnacles of American and Canadian Border Peaks on either side of the border connected with Larrabee to the north. Below the Border peaks was Tomyhoi Lake, nestled in the forest below grand Tomyhoi Peak. This angle allowed me to more fully appreciate the absolutely massive cliffs on the east face of Tomyhoi for the first time.

Mount Larrabee and the Border peaks
Tomyhoi Peak rises over Tomyhoi Lake
To the east were views just as impressive of the heart of the North Cascades. Sleese Mountain, a notable Canadian peak, peeked out from behind the Pleiades, while Mount Redoubt could be seen a few watersheds back. Whatcom Peak jutted out prominently and although the Challenger Glacier was largely blocked from view, the fierce wall of the Pickets to the south of it was in my line of sight. Farther to the south, the glaciers and high peaks near Eldorado were visible, too, as were closer glacier-covered summits like Ruth Mountain. 

The Pickets
Upon returning to the trailhead, I was lucky and ran into a group of three hikers from Whidbey Island who I had chatted with and taken photos for at the summit. They had driven up in a pickup truck and agreed me to give me a ride back down to the Yellow Aster Butte Trailhead, saving me a long road walk back to the car.

This hike epitomizes everything that is great about the North Cascades: sparkling lakes, endless peaks in all directions, wildflower meadows, steep glaciers, fierce mountain walls rising above forested wilderness valleys. This is a hard trail to get to and it's not necessary to go out of your way to do this particular hike; but the beauty of this hike and of the North Cascades in general will remind you of how wonderous this world is and draw you back repeatedly to this enchanted mountain realm.

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