Desolation Peak Trail


Every day Never Closes


Photo Credit: Bud Hardwick
Desolation Peak promises to reward those who climb the steep mountain trail with a spectacular viewpoint. This alone would justify a good share of its popularity since few other mountain summits of the region offer a hike-up trail approach and there are no others in such a dramatic position virtually rising from the shore of Ross Lake. Additionally, there is a ridge-top campsite that offers an ever changing panoramic scene of light glistening off lake waters and the snowcapped peaks of the North Cascades. Beyond the camp on the very summit of the mountain, an historic fire lookout can be seen, and is still operational during times of high fire danger. Yet, in addition to all of these desirable features it is the writings of just one of the many summer firewatchers that have occupied this summit that has made the greatest contribution to the peak’s legendary fame.

Desolation peak lookout was the home and workplace during one short summer for firewatcher Jack Kerouac. Often described as one of the founders of the “Beat” movement; his summer of fire duty was the inspiration for his now classic book Desolation Angels; a reflection of his time, thoughts, impressions, and development during his stay at the Desolation Peak Lookout. Prominently referred to in his writings was the impact that Hozomeen Mt, to the north of the lookout, had on him during all its changing forms in sunlight, darkness, star-shine, fog, cloud, and storm. While some of his experiences have been romanticized the isolation and loneliness that he endured, as did nearly all firewatchers of that era, is more realistically described in his journals. For some visitors, though entrance to this standard “issue” fire lookout is not allowed, merely visiting its locale and witnessing the same views that so deeply affected this famous author may provide a deeper understanding of his writing.

For those beginning their hike at the Lightning Creek Landing, a pleasant two mile nearly level forest walk provides a useful warm-up for the strenuous gain that will soon be required. At a junction with a short spur trail coming up from the Desolation Boat Dock, the steep climb begins. The hike passes through a forest in transition. In 1926 a forest fire swept across the Skagit River Valley (long before the creation of Ross Lake) and scorched and raged its way up and over the slopes of this mountain. Unlike the more common smoldering forest fires which burn slower and cooler, the intensity of this burn destroyed all life in its path. Swept entirely bare of living trees this prominent peak’s barren and deathly appearance gave rise to its name Desolation.

The exertion and summer temperatures combine to make drinking water during this hike a serious issue. Going up the trail there are several potential sources of water including early season snowmelt. For those prepared with filters and disinfectants there may be an opportunity to carry less water and replenish their supply as they go. The question is which sources will be available? Always difficult to be sure, it’s best to err on the side of caution. Far better to carry a little more water than needed rather than suffering from debilitating dehydration. It’s also good to note the location of water sources while climbing so you can plan resupply points on the way down if necessary. Even Desolation Camp on the ridge-top is dry with the exception of possible snow banks which often melt away by summer. The views come at a price.

Along this well traveled trail there are few opportunities to surprise wildlife but their signs are often evident and in some cases fascinating. Trailside trees with claw marks quickly give rise to thoughts of which animal might have made them. It’s easy to imagine a bear waking up from hibernation and rubbing and stretching itself into another summer of activity. Or a mountain lion, cleaning its claws and marking its territory may be a possibility. Then again, they may have been made by the much smaller, bark eating, slow moving, and very timid porcupine. As the trail gains altitude, the forest thins and in early season beautifully flowered meadows provide a welcomed distraction. More good excuses to pause, catch your breath and remember to enjoy the journey not just the destination.

Gaining the ridge, views expand dramatically and a spur junction to the campsite splits off from the main trail. Onward a false summit beckons. Once over this, the lookout appears and as you gain the last bit of elevation, Hozomeen Mountain seemingly rises up to fill your northern vista. While finally relaxing and enjoying your mountain top visit try to find non-vegetated surfaces to sit on; bare rock surfaces are best. The plants at this exposed location endure extreme conditions and have a very short season to replenish their nutrients and in some cases provide a tasty treat for hikers and wildlife. It will be of interest to some visitors to bring a regional map covering many square miles in order to identify distant peaks, glaciers, and valleys, but for others a piece of paper of assigned names adds nothing to their experience, and who can blame them. In Jack Kerouac’s own words “I just wanted to lie {down} and look at the clouds.” If the lookout is occupied, fire conditions are probably serious and the public is asked not to distract the firewatcher from his duties. For those properly preregistered and settled into the nearby Desolation Campground, a short walk back is all that is required. Day hikers will have to start down before it becomes late or a long headlamp hike may be necessary to finish their day.

Be aware of seasonal and daily weather conditions before beginning this hike. The effects of lake, valley, and mountain weather can all combine and the occasional and potentially dangerous lightning storm would not be pleasant to experience on this exposed and prominent mountain top. The Desolation Peak Trail may be a strenuous outing but for those both motivated and prepared the rewards are as exceptional as they are varied.
Written By: Bud Hardwick
On: 6/21/2010


The Desolation Peak Trail is a one-way in-and-out trail that begins at the eastern shore of Ross Lake and ends on the summit of Desolation Peak. There are two trailhead options. Land bound travelers can begin their trail hike from the Lightning Creek Landing (see article this website). Boaters have the option of accessing the trail from the Desolation Boat Dock about two miles closer to the summit. During low lake water levels the dock can be inaccessible; a nearby rocky beach may be an alternative.


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