Thursday, August 11, 2016

Sauk Mountain

Sauk River, Glacier Peak, and the peaks of the Mountain Loop Highway from Sauk Mountain
4 miles round trip, 1200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Long, rutted gravel road approach; high clearance vehicle may be preferable. Northwest Forest Pass required for parking.

Sauk Mountain provides the easiest access to a 360-degree summit panorama in Washington's North Cascades. This multi-peak mountain stands just north of the confluence of the Skagit and Sauk Rivers, providing outstanding views both south towards the peaks along the Mountain Loop Highway and east into North Cascades National Park. The summit view encompasses some of the most renowned North Cascades peaks: Johannesburg, Shuksan, and the Pickets can all be seen. This isn't one of those hikes where the trail meanders through the forest forever before reaching one paltry view; here, the stunning views start from the trailhead and only get better all the way to the summit. The trail traverses south-facing open meadows that feature blooming wildflowers for much of the summit. The only catches? The reason that such extraordinary scenery can be had for so little effort is that most of the uphill climbing is done via car in a long, dusty uphill gravel road with substantial ruts. The trail itself, while in decent shape, is eroded in some spots, making ascent potentially tricky for those with a fear of heights.

I've done this hike a number of times- it's such a beautiful place with relatively easy hiking and it's undoubtedly the easiest way to get a panoarmic view of the North Cascades. One of those visits to Sauk Mountain was with my parents: we drove up from Seattle on a gorgeous August day. We followed I-5 north to Burlington, then took Route 20 east past Concrete to the turnoff to the left for the poorly marked Sauk Mountain Road, just before reaching Rockport. The road up was a little narrow with a lot of potholes; it was pretty steep and was fairly severely rutted towards the end. We were able to make it okay in a sedan, though a higher clearance vehicle would have been nice. Despite the rough drive up, the parking lot at the trailhead was almost still completely full: this is a fairly popular hike.

The trailhead is situated amidst the green meadows of Sauk Mountain's upper slopes and is a scenic destination in its own right. The cliff-lined peaks of Sauk Mountain towered directly behind us, just 1200 feet above. To the west, we could see a 180-degree view stretching from the rocky peaks of the Twin Sisters along the entire Skagit Valley to the jagged peaks of Whitehorse, Sloan, and White Chuck along the Mountain Loop Highway.

Sauk Mountain viewed from the trailhead
The trail stayed relatively level for a short stretch after departing from the parking lot, passing through some small patches of trees before breaking out onto an enormous sloped meadow. From here, we followed the narrow trail along its relentless uphill climb through a set of tight switchbacks ascending the slope. Looking downhill, we could see confluence between the milky Sauk River and the turquoise Skagit River.

Beginning of the trail
Peak wildflower season had come and gone already, but there was still a decent amount of tiger lilies, Queen Anne's lace, paintbrush, thistles, and fireweed in bloom.

Tiger lilies in the Sauk Mountain meadows
The trail was never terribly steep, but at times crossed an eroded switchback-cut that ran down the length of the mountain. These crossings required navigating over sections in which the trail narrowed to just a single foot's width, though they were all short enough segments that one could simply hop across. Still, it's a good reminder about what happens when hikers cut switchbacks: it hurts trails!

Sauk Mountain switchbacks, trailhead in the top left corner.
After a fairly large number of switchbacks, the trail began approaching the top of the ridge. Mount Baker started coming into view to the north, though part of the mountain was still blocked by the multiple summits of Sauk Mountain. When the trail finally reached and rounded the ridge crest, a whole new set of peaks exploded into our view. Glacier Peak loomed to the south while the wild, teeth-like spires of the North Cascades lay to the east.

North Cascades from Sauk Mountain
We passed the junction for the trail to Sauk Lake, keeping left to stay on the trail to the Sauk Mountain summit. Rounding a corner, the glacier-covered spire of Mount Shuksan and the short remainder of the trail to the rocky peak of Sauk Mountain emerged to the north.

Final approach to Sauk summit, Mount Shuksan in the distance
A final uphill push through the rocky terrain surrounding the peak brought us to the end of the trail, a former lookout site. The trail ends at one of the Sauk Mountain's multiple summits; unfortunately, it's just a few feet shy of being the mountain's true summit. However, for just about everyone, this false summit provides sufficiently spectacular views that the summit status is irrelevant; from the top, you can see all of the peaks that were visible en route with the exception of Mount Shuksan, which is blocked to the north by the true summit. Peakbaggers who can't resist reaching the real peak can do so by a stretch of somewhat exposed Class 3 scrambling along the ridgeline from the end of the trail.

What can one see from the summit of Sauk Mountain? Essentially, everything. The undeniable stars of the show were Sauk Lake, a blue gem tucked in a cirque just east of the peak, and Mount Baker, the glacier-capped queen of the North Cascades.

Sauk Lake and Johannesburg Mountain
Mount Baker from Sauk Mountain
One of the most interesting part of the views was the rare glimpse of the Picket Range in North Cascades National Park. This line of sawtoothed peaks is notoriously difficult to visit or even see without technical climbing; the range is surrounded by the most rugged and extreme terrain in the country. Sauk Mountain provided a far-off view of the range's jagged summits and vertical glaciers.

The Pickets from Sauk Mountain
Looking west, we realized that we could see all the way out past the mouth of the Skagit River to Anacortes and the San Juan Islands- in the very far distance, we could even spot Vancouver Island! The viewshed to the south was equally crazy: the summit of Mount Rainier rose very faintly over the cluster of Big Four Mountain, Sperry and Vesper Peaks, and the Monte Cristo massif.

Twin Sisters and Skagit River valley
We enjoyed the incredible wrap-around views for an hour and then returned to the trailhead via the way we ascended.

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