NW Trails: Sauk, Poe and Desolation peaks

Waxing Poetic on the Trail

I think that I shall never see
hikes as lovely as these three

(with apologies to Joyce Kilmer)

Story and Photos by Craig Romano

Photo above right: The view of Ross Lake from the ascent to Desolation Peak.

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Hikers who like to wax poetic while tramping the trails of the Cascades may want to stuff a book or two by Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, or Philip Whelan in their backpacks along with their journals. This trio of beatnik poets and philosophers spent considerable time in the 1950s perched on North Cascades’ summits working as fire lookouts and seeking inspiration.

The mountains have a way of inspiring folks. Perhaps you have penned a piece or two while plopped on a peak peering out over the primeval wilderness? Need a new muse? Consider a hike to one of these three poetic peaks.

Sauk Mountain

Skagit Valley

Roundtrip: 4.2 miles

Elevation Gain: 1,200 feet

Fees/Restrictions: Northwest Forest Pass required

Green Trails Map: Lake Shannon, WA-No. 46

Mt Baker from Sauk Mtn image

The 10,781 foot Mt. Baker is visible from the rocky top of Sauk Mountain in Skagit County.

From this 5,537-foot summit, peer out over the confluence of two of the North Cascades’ mightiest rivers, the Sauk and the Skagit. Then cast a gaze north to ice and glacier-shrouded 10, 781-foot Mount Baker, Washington’s third highest summit and snowiest peak. If you still need some rousing for your latest works, face east to the jagged and serrated waves of cloud-piercing summits that form one of the most rugged and awe-inspiring alpine backdrops in America.

If this doesn’t stimulate the poet inside of you, Sauk’s sprawling wildflowers meadows certainly will. Sauk hosted poet-turned ordained Zen monk Philip Whalen back in 1953 where he worked to pay off a debt owed to friend and fellow poet-lookout Gary Snyder. Whalen would spend two more summers on this peak and nearby Sourdough Mountain.

The hike is short and steep. Starting at the edge of a meadow, commence in switching and backing up Sauk’s steep west face. Keep your mind off the climb by focusing on all the flowers at your feet. After about 1.3 miles of marching up herbaceous slopes, crest Sauk’s hogback ridge. Then head north skirting below some crags. Stay left at a junction (lest you want to drop 1,200 feet to Sauk Lake) and traverse a somewhat rocky area where lingering snowfields warrant some caution. At 2.1 miles reach the 5,537-foot summit. Now grab your journal and scan the horizons.

Poe Mountain

Lake Wenatchee area

Roundtrip: 6 miles

Elevation Gain: 2,200 feet

Fees/Restrictions: Discover Pass Required

Green Trails Map: Benchmark Mtn-No. 144

Shasta the dog image

Shasta, the German Shepherd, cools to the inspiring scenery from Poe.

No, the great early American master of the short story Edgar Allen Poe never stepped foot on this peak. And no, there is nothing macabre about this peak either. Au contraire, for Poe Mountain’s open flowered summit ushers joyous telltale views of ridges, valleys and sprawling peaks.

Poe is one of the Poet Peaks, a name bestowed upon the prominent points of Wenatchee Ridge by forest supervisor A.H. Sylvester. While not the highest of the Poet Peaks, Poe is the easiest to ascend. However, this former lookout site is no easy climb. The route via Irving Ridge is a little saner than the way up the peak’s south face. Enjoy the extensive alpine views along the way.

The way immediately begins with a steep climb, gaining 700 feet in .7 mile to Irving Pass, a sleepy little hollow on Poet Ridge. From the pass, head left along the ridgeline climbing steeply once more. At about 1.2 miles, meadows and views begin. The trail continues westward across the ridge rounding bumps and knobs and steadily gaining elevation. At about 2.5 miles, skirt just beneath a 6,000-foot knoll before beginning a short descent.

After dropping a couple of hundred feet to a saddle beneath Poe Mountain you’ll come to a junction. The trail right is a boot-beaten shortcut connecting with the south slope trail just beneath the summit. Once up top enjoy a plethora of prolific peaks from Poe with Glacier Peak, Mount Rainier and Mount Stuart all proudly standing in the distance. In the immediate vicinity along the Poet Ridge; sight and cite Bryant, Longfellow, Whittier and Washington’s Irving.

Desolation Peak

Ross Lake-North Cascades

Roundtrip (via water taxi): 12.4 miles

Elevation Gain: 4,950 feet

Fees/Restrictions: fee and reservation required for water taxi (rosslakeresort.com).

Green Trails Maps: Ross Lake no. 16, Diablo Dam no. 48

Craig Romano on Desolation Peak

NW Trails editor Craig Romano pens a few lines of his own on Desolation Peak.

There is absolutely nothing desolate about this peak. Desolation is alive in color—shrouded in dazzling alpine flowers during the summer bloom. The view? C’est magnifique! Stand mouth agape at the cobalt waters of fjord-like Ross Lake cradled beneath glacial covered cloud-catching peaks. It was inspirational to Franco-American beatnik poet Jack Kerouac and no doubt will be for you as well. So, Allons-y!

You can hike 23 miles via the East Bank Trail to reach this peak deep in the North Cascades—or take the water taxi from the Ross Lake Resort instead for a much easier approach. However, the climb from Ross Lake to Desolation’s 6,102-foot summit is just as steep either way.

Hike one mile and 450 vertical feet down to the dock near Ross Dam where your pre-arranged water taxi will shuttle you to Desolation Landing. Then prepare for an invigorating climb. Steadily keep ascending, eventually leaving forest for open slopes.

In 1926 a fire scorched this mountain leaving it desolate. While much of the mountain’s upper elevations are still denude of forest cover—they sport clusters of colonizing trees and blankets of brilliant wildflowers. But it’s the view that’ll captivate you the most especially south along Ross Lake—Washington’s glacial-fed cobalt blue inland fjord (albeit manmade).

Pass Desolation Camp and continue up open southern exposed slopes—downright hot in summer’s afternoon sun. After cresting a 5,850-foot knoll, the way slightly descends before making the final push to Desolation’s 6,102-foot summit. The recently restored 1932 fire lookout perched atop the peak’s open summit surrounded by an ocean of glacial covered sky piercing peaks makes it without a doubt one of the most beautiful lookouts in the nation.

Hosting Jack Kerouac for 63 days in the summer of 1956 makes it one of the most famous. Fearsome 8,066-foot Mount Hozomeen just to the north captivated and mesmerized the poet, as it will you, too. “Hozomeen, Hozomeen, most beautiful mountain I’ve ever seen,” waxed Kerouac. From this glorious summit, take time to gaze out to the hundreds of other beautiful mountains within view.

Craig Romano is Trails Editor of Outdoors NW and the author of eight Northwest hiking guidebooks including Backpacking Washington, Day Hiking North Cascades, and Day Hiking Central Cascades (The Mountaineers Books), where you’ll find more information on these and other poetic hikes. Visit him at CraigRomano.com

Trailhead Directions

Sauk Mountain: From Burlington (exit 230 on I-5) head east on State Route 20 for 36.5 miles to Rockport State Park boundary at Milepost 96. Turn left onto FR 1030 following this steep road for 7.5 miles to a fork. Bear right and continue .25 mile to trailhead.

Poe Mountain: From Stevens Pass head east on US 2 for 20 miles to Coles Corner. Turn left onto SR 207 proceeding 4.2 miles to a Y-intersection upon crossing the Wenatchee River. Bear left onto North Shore Road which becomes FR 65 at 7.6 miles and continue west for 7.7 miles bearing right onto graveled FR 6504. Reach trailhead in 6.3 miles.

Desolation Peak: From Burlington follow the North Cascades Highway (SR 20) east to Marblemount. Continue east for 33 miles to just beyond milepost 138 to large parking area on your left signed for East Bank Trail.

HIkers ascend Desolation Peak above Ross Lake image

Hikers ascending Desolation Peak with Ross Lake below.


Sauk Mountain: Mount Baker Ranger District: Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest; www.fs.fed.us/r6/mbs/

Poe Mountain: Wenatchee River Ranger District (Leavenworth), Wenatchee National Forest; www.fs.fed.us/r6/wenatchee

Desolation Peak: Ross Lake National Recreation Area (North Cascades National Park); www.nps.gov/noca

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