One of the most challenging trails in the North Cascades, the arduous haul to the historic 1933-built lookout atop Sourdough Mountain is worth every ounce of sweat you’ll expend. And you’ll expend plenty! A one mile vertical climb over 5.5 miles, can you say steep? But, a priceless panorama of craggy, spiraling, glacier-cloaked, cloud-piercing, unbelievably breathtaking peaks is the payoff. And directly below an added scenic dividend; Diablo Lake’s sparkling surrealistic turquoise-tinted waters.
I first hiked Sourdough Mountain in the summer of 1985. It was my second hike in the North Cascades. And it was one of the highlights from a two month cross-country trip from my home to New Hampshire to the West Coast and back. In 1989 I left New Hampshire for Washington once more—but this time to stay and to hike as many peaks in the Evergreen State that I could possibly fit in my lifetime. But I keep returning to Sourdough Mountain despite its challenging approach. I only live an hour away from the trailhead now helping to make this peak a perennial favorite.
Ironically I am in better shape now than I was in my 20s. With years of marathon and Ultra running training and annually hiking over 1,000 miles as a guidebook author, the mountain seems easier to me to hike now—but it’s not easy. It’s never easy. And that’s much of its attraction to me. I love earning the views from this nearly 6,000-foot summit. And I love sitting on the mountain among just a few other hikers—all who have rightfully earned their spot on this North Cascades National Park peak.
The trail starts from a lowly elevation of only 900 feet, and wastes no time from there heading for the heavens. And even though this is the west where switchbacks generally are the rule and grades are generally moderate—Sourdough is a steep one. The trail relentlessly gains over 3,000 feet in the first two miles.
At about 4.0 miles into the hike, Sourdough Creek’s cascading waters greet you at a pocket meadow. The worst is over—and an incredible journey across wildflower-saturated meadows is about to begin. Unfortunately for many ill-prepared and ill-fit hikers, they never make it to this point. Many turn around well before this spot, defeated by the ruthless initial climb.
If you’ve made it this far though—carry on! Fill your water bottle and begin traversing subalpine forest groves and sprawling meadows bursting with wildflowers. And pause frequently to catch your breath while marveling at the emerging in your face views of Ruby Mountain, Pyramid Peak, Colonial Peak and its massive glacier. But it’s Diablo Lake’s turquoise waters twinkling one mile directly below that’ll blow you away.
After switchbacking through those heavenly meadows, the trail darts across the broad summit ridge which often harbors snow well into summer. A restored 1933-built fire lookout—once staffed by beatnik poets Gary Snider and Philip Whalen, greets you. I’ll never forget back in July of 1985 on my initial hike, when I was greeted by a Kerouac-admiring fire keep who tossed to me a cold bear while exclaiming “You made it!” That memory along with Old Glory flapping against a deep blue sky and a black bear running across glistening snowfields is indelibly marked in my mind’s eye.
And while that experience will never be replicated, the amazing views from the summit have remained constant. Practically the entire North Cascades kingdom is revealed before you. To the north; Mount Prophet, Hozomeen Mountain, Ross Lake and the wilds of British Columbia. At nearly 9,000 feet, Jack Mountain dominates the eastern horizon. To the south it’s Colonial and company while the Pickett Range commands your attention to the west. Views like this are worth returning to over and over again—despite the 5,000 foot vertical climb to reach them.
For full details of this hike and 124 others in the area, check out my book Day Hiking North Cascades (Mountaineers Books).
About Craig Romano
CRAIG ROMANO grew up in New Hampshire, where he bonded with the natural world. He is the author and co-author of 12 books, including Day Hiking North Cascades, Backpacking Washington, and Columbia Highlands: Exploring Washington’s Last Frontier, which was recognized in 2010 as a Washington Reads book for its contribution to the state’s cultural heritage. He lives with his wife Heather, and cats Mazie and Giuseppe, in Skagit County. Visit him at CraigRomano.com