The Perfect Gateway: Steep Ascent up North Cascades

“Down valley a smoke haze
Three days heat, after five days rain   
Pitch glows on the fir-cones
Across rocks and meadows
Swarms of new flies.

I cannot remember things I once read   
A few friends, but they are in cities.   
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup   
Looking down for miles
Through high still air.”

– Gary Snyder
“Mid-August on Sourdough Mountain Lookout”

Eager to check out views of the glaciated mountain backdrops that had once inspired many poets, I dragged my tired feet one in front of another, from one gruesome switchback onto another, and slowly made my way up the steep slopes of Sourdough Mountain.  The route up was no joke; the trek undertook 3,000 vertical feet within the first 2 miles, and eventually made 5,116′ gain in 6 miles (12 miles RT) .  The major hurdle though, was how out of shape I had become.  My physical body was already exhausted from a 2,791′ gain in 10.2 miles hike the day prior, and I could barely lift my legs off the ground without feeling the muscles tightening in my legs.

Gravity was absolutely in action.

Route to the Cascades 

Photo by Flickr user brewbooks from 2006 | License details

Back in 2018, I stumbled across pictures of towering mountain peaks from North Cascades National Park in a friend’s FB post.  The park I did not know existed prior to that point instantly topped my bucket list.  It is also then I realized backpacking permits to the Cascade Pass is pretty hard to acquire. Luckily each permit applications allowed up to four choices, so even without winning the first choice, I was still able to camp at various parts of the park and take in the cascading beauty.

My friends and I visited Lake Chelan region our very first time in the park, and then Thornton Lake + Sourdough Mountain this time around. It is funny how sometimes the plans don’t turn out as intended, but the result still surprised you with a great reward.  The hikes we ended up doing turned out to be BREATHTAKING.  North Cascades offered phenomenal views, especially when we stood near or above the tree line and had a clear view of the horizon.  

Lake Chelan. Pc @ TL (Edited by me)
Wildflowers along the trail with Diablo Lake in the distance

Hiking the Cascades

Day 1: Thornton Lake
Thornton Lake Trail Map. (C) CalTopo. OpenStreetMap Contributors.

The Thornton Lake trailhead was located almost halfway up the mountain, at 2,500′. The road up (brown line on the map) was rough and steep in sections, so a high-clearance vehicle would definitely make the drive easier. We rented an intermediate SUV and it was just perfect for the trip. When we arrived at the railhead ~2:30 pm, the parking lot was overfilled with cars and many parked on the road shoulders.  We followed suit, reversed parked into one of the empty spots, and started gearing up for the hike.  The weather was beautiful and oh man, was I excited to be on the trails again! 

The trail grade was gentle for the first couple miles, then once past the water crossing, the trail climbed steadily upwards through thick forest consisting of “Douglas-fir, Pacific silver fir, hemlock, cedar, and aider (NPS)” until it broke out into open meadow at about mile 5. The route continued to a fine view of the lake with Triumph Peak beyond. We turned around here (~5.1 miles, 2,791′ gain), but another scramble up would have led us towards Trappers Peak (5,948′, another 1000’+ gain).

First Water Crossing. PC by Devin C.
Mid-way on the trail
Mountain peak in the distance
Thornton Lake

Since Devin and I started the hike late, we decided to turn around once we reached the lake instead of continuing onwards to the peak.  Right as we headed down, another group of hikers started making their way up, presumably because they had campsites reserved in the area.  What a great idea. Guess we will have to come back another time for an overnighter!

On that note, I was super glad Devin kept a look on the watch. At first I wanted to push a bit more to hike towards Trappers Peak, but even when we turned around at the lake we still walked the last mile in the dark.  It was the first time I was hiking on a trail after sunset.  With minimal ambient light source and no one else around, we made sure to look back from time to time and verify there were no animals trailing… whew, luckily there were none… and hastily walked back towards the parking lot.  

What a great hike!  

Evening Stay – Buffalo Run Inn

That night we stayed at Buffalo Run Inn 30 min outside the park.  It was a cute little hostel-style inn with shared bathroom and living room areas on the 2nd floor.  Didn’t use the common area much but there was a TV and some board games available.  Each person was also provided with a bath and a hand towel; a Terra Green facial bar; and an Eco by Green Culture Shampoo.

Normally breakfast is not included with the stay. A day prior to our check-in the inn manager asked us to switch rooms to accommodate another group of visitors; we agreed without hesitation, so the inn gave us some breakfast as a thank you token.  They were just what we needed!  The muffin and juice fueled us nicely for the second day hike into Sourdough Mountain.

Special shoutout to the staff at the inn:  we arrived prior to our check-in time (4pm) and the staff was kind enough to store our luggage for us; they even carried our bags into our room so we had them ready when we came back.  Thank you so much!

Day 2: Sourdough Mountain Lookout

The second day we decided to start early so we won’t get caught in the dark again. We also opted to hike up Sourdough Mountain Lookout instead of Desolation Peak, which required a boat ride and for us to hike out by 5 pm to make the return trip. This was non-ideal given the sun set around 8 pm, and we wanted to spend more daytime enjoying the views on the top. On the drive up, we stopped by an overlook to check out views of Diablo Lake. There were lots of tall bushes near the overlook, but the view of the lake glistening under the sun was the perfect treat I needed to start the morning. ❤

Travel Tip: Desolation Peak can be accessed either via a 16-miles hike in or via Ross Lake by boat. The boat runs daily from 9 am to 5 pm; trips must be scheduled in advance. At the time of writing, each boat trip costs $140 for the whole group.

Diablo Lake Overlook
Sourdough Mountain Lookout Trail Map. (C) CalTopo. OpenStreetMap Contributors.

From the get-go the trial to Sourdough Mountain Lookout was a steep ascent.  Online reviews said the hike was gruesome and they were not joking.  Eager to check out views of the glaciated mountain backdrops that had once inspired many poets, I dragged my tired feet one in front of another, from one gruesome switchback onto another, and slowly made my way up the steep slopes of Sourdough Mountain.  The route up was no joke; the trek undertook 3,000 vertical feet within the first 2 miles, and eventually made 5,116′ gain in 6 miles (12 miles RT).  The major hurdle though, was how out of shape I had become.  My physical body was already exhausted from the 2,791′ gain in 10.2 miles hike the day prior, and I could barely lift my legs off the ground without feeling the muscles tightening in my legs. Gravity was absolutely in action.

Switchbacks in the forest
Mountain valleys

Once we came out of the dense forest (around Sourdough Campsite), we were greeted by open vistas. Almost each step of the way from there onwards offered beautiful scenery of Diablo Lake, of mountain ridges, and oftentimes of both.  

Devin overlooking the mountain valley
View along the hike

Standing on the hill, the breath of fresh air and the sight of the magnificent panorama revitalized me. I reminded myself of an even greater reward at the top of the mountain, and continued stepping one foot in front of another. At last, the fire watchtower became bigger and bigger until it filled my entire view. 

Walking towards Sourdough Mountain Lookout

Upon reaching the watchtower, Devin and I quickly sat our daypacks and ourselves on the ground.  100% exhausted, but it was totally worth it.

Ross Lake. PC: Devin C

Devin prepared a delicious meal with Packit Gourmet (a local Austin backpacking brand!) Pasta Beef Bolognese while I walked around to photograph the surroundings.  The lookout point offered a 360 deg view with Diablo Lake on the right and Ross Lake on the left. The trail continued down towards Pierce Mountain campsite, and if desired, further down towards Ross Lake along the side of Pierce Mountain. Didn’t get to check out the campsite this time, but it’s on our to-do list for the next visit.  We were already amazed by the magnificent views during the day, can’t imagine how much more spectacular witnessing the sunset and sunrise there will be!

On our way down we stumbled upon a baby and a mama deer foraging right besides the trail. They didn’t seem to be afraid of us at all!

Deer foraging
Deer Encounter
Evening Stay – Colonial Creek Campground

In the evening we stayed at Colonial Creek campground and ate some more delicious Packit Gourmet meals.  Entrée was pizza margherita over rustic skillet bread, and dessert was strawberry cheesecake.  The cheesecake was really sweet on its own, but Devin had the creative idea to add Delta cookies we got from airlines into the mixture, and the crunchiness totally made the mixture even tastier!  

Packit Gourmet meals

The campground was away from most major light pollution so we were able to see plenty of stars in the evening. Was too tired to take a picture though; another item added for next time!

Travel Tips: Around 5 miles in there is a junction with three visible paths: left, middle over a hill, right through a boulder.  The left one goes nowhere; the middle one goes up a steep rocky hill and eventually a very open meadow (picture shown below).  The actual path is on the right and can be reached by stepping through the big boulder.  Our offline maps did not download successfully so we were completely lost, luckily we saw hikers when we backtracked from the middle path back to the junction, and they pointed out the way to go.  Apparently a lot of other hikers took a wrong turn as well!  If you are hiking the area, make sure to help set up a cairn by the boulder if there is not one already.

Saw open meadow when we got lost
Junction – Left Route

Junction – Middle Route
Junction – Right Route, continues on the trail

Leave a comment if you enjoyed this post or have any questions.  Have a great hike!

Cheers,

Shu Mui  

Published by Shu Mui

An outdoor enthusiast whose goal is to see the world, one step at a time. This blog documents my journeys and I hope you can leverage them for your trips. Bon voyage!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: