|Eldorado and Forbidden Peak|
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required
While the views of the North Cascades from Lookout Mountain Lookout are undeniably spectacular, the trail up to this summit is only for those who prefer their hikes served with a strong dose of misery. The never-ending ascent up Lookout Mountain is steep, often overgrown, littered with blowdown, and badly eroded at points, making this a very challenging hike for most; additionally, as the hike starts from the Cascade River Road, it's necessary to climb the full height of the mountain, which also means that most of the hike is confined to the forest. But hikers who endure through the travails of this hike will find a jaw-dropping view of some of the most famous peaks of the North Cascades, including an up-close encounter with majestic Eldorado Peak. This hike should not be confused with the other Lookout Mountain Lookout in the North Cascades, a much easier hike with less impressive views that lies on the other side of the watershed divide in the Methow Valley.
I hiked this trail on a beautiful and sunny July Saturday, leaving Seattle and taking I-5 north to Arlington, then Highway 530 east through Arlington and Darrington to Rockport, then Highway 20 east to Marblemount, then finally turning right onto the Cascade River Road at the Skagit River bridge and following the road 8 miles to the Lookout Mountain Trailhead. Parking was on a wide shoulder to the right (south side of the road), with about enough space for a dozen cars. The trail started across the road.
The trail wasted no time and immediately began climbing, passing an information board and trail register about fifty paces into the hike. The next 2 miles were relentless: the trail was a sustained switchback climb up a ridge through the forest that covered 2200 feet of elevation gain. The forest appeared to be old growth, with some absolutely massive Douglas firs reaching 4 feet in diameter and a Western cedar stump of a tree that must have once been 5 five in diameter. I didn't bother to count, but there were at least 30 switchbacks along this stretch of trail (and at least 50 on the entire hike). There were no views in the forest. The trail was littered with occasional blowdown but there were no true obstacles; the difficulty lay mainly in the length and sustained nature of the climb.
At 2 miles, the trail very suddenly broke out into a clearing and flattened out a bit. While the gentler uphill grade was welcome, the lack of trees was not: the forest was replaced with an overgrown bushy slope where stinging nettle and other pleasant vegetation reached just over my head. The trail was barely visible through this overgrown mess and was often rocky and uneven underfoot. Halfway through pushing through the nettle, I muttered to myself, "This is enjoyable. You like hiking! You are having fun."
|Tiger lilies in the overgrown clearing|
Three miles from the trailhead, the trail towards Monogram Lake branched off to the right of the trail. The junction is signed, but the post indicating the split is small and easy to miss; hikers who fail to see the post and continue to follow the most obvious trail will end up at the lookout. In the next mile past the signed junction, the trail continued to climb steadily through the forest; in this stretch, I had to negotiate multiple blowdowns, some of which were a bit of a pain to climb across or go around. Additionally, the trail was muddy or covered with running water at multiple points in this stretch.
Four miles from the trailhead and 3500 feet up the mountain, the trail emerged into a massive, verdant mountainside meadow. Wildflowers littered the mountainside, adding brilliant colors to the green slopes. Columbine, lupine, and valerian were in a blooming frenzy, crowding the sides of the trail. The wildflowers were complemented by extraordinary views down the Cascade River Valley: I could see directly downvalley to the peaks of the Ptarmigan Traverse, of which Dome Peak was the most prominent. Lookout Mountain itself and the lookout tower appeared almost directly above, seeming so close yet at the same time still so inaccessible.
|Columbine blooming in the meadow|
|Valerian blooming in the clearing|
The trail continued climbing through the meadow, ascending via switchbacks as it aimed for the saddle just east of the Lookout Mountain summit. Views only improved during this ascent: nearby Little Devil Peak and its combination of rocky and meadow-filled slopes were prominent but steep, jagged, and regal face of Eldorado Peak stole the scene.
|Eldorado Peak and the meadow|
The trail followed the mountainside down to the south ridge of Lookout Mountain, making a sharp turn once meeting the ridge to follow it to the summit. At the switchback on the ridge, the trail came to an absolutely arresting view: the south ridge dropped precipitously away beneath my feet to huge meadows with wildflowers and the mile-deep valley of the Cascade River was lined with snowbound mountains.
|Cascade River Valley with the Ptarmigan Traverse peaks|
|Big and Little Devil Peaks|
The Pickets, that wall of spires north of the Skagit River, formed the piercing skyline to the northeast. The awe that these mountains must have inspired in early European explorers is apparent in the names that were bestowed: the Pickets include peaks named Challenger, Fury, and Terror. Nearby are the similarly poetically named Mount Triumph and Mount Despair.
|Mount Despair, Mount Triumph, and the Pickets|
|Mount Baker and Bacon Peak|
|Sauk Mountain rises above the Skagit River Valley|
The lookout is maintained by volunteers and is in remarkably good shape: always unlocked, the lookout cabin is available for overnight stays on a first-come, first served basis. The cabin contains two twin mattresses and a folding chair; there's a stove and oven in the lookout as well but it didn't appear to be functional. While stays are free, the volunteers who run the lookout take donations and ask that hikers who stay the night leave the place cleaner than they find it. The lookout itself seemed of reasonably sturdy construction but the Forest Service recommends that to prevent the catwalks outside the lookout from collapsing, no more than 2 people should stand on each side of the lookout at a time.
|Inside the lookout|