Sunday, June 9, 2013

Desolation Peak in a day - North Cascades National Park, WA

“So shut up, live, travel, adventure, bless and don't be sorry”

In some ways, having to ford Roland Creek is a blessing: the chilly snowmelt cools down my burning feet, and at the pace I’m moving the squishiness isn’t too bothersome. Just 6.5 more miles back to the trailhead…

Over 40 miles into the day, I’m moving at a slow shuffle, popping jelly beans and washing them down with creek water. My left arch is sore and curling my toes down while I hike the hills actually helps.

Two miles left: a party of backpacking women scoots off the trail to let me pass. They’re either extremely courteous or I look as bad as my body is tired.

Sitting down in the trunk of my car feels weird. For the last 10.5 hours I’ve been on my legs, even when I spent 15 minutes on the summit of Desolation Peak, I realize I never sat down.


After Sun Mountain I was really excited to do some running in the mountains. There is little snowpack compared to an average year and in a few more weeks more high-country routes hopefully will open up.

I had a few other options in the North Cascades I was considering, but without any firsthand trip reports I chose to do a route I knew was essentially snow-free: Desolation Peak (6,102’) via the Ross Lake East Bank Trail.

It’s about 15 miles of mostly flat, rolling terrain from Highway 20 to Lightning Creek and the turnoff for Desolation. Sometimes scenic, but mostly through dense forest, there aren’t too many great views along the trail until you’re all the way on the Desolation trail.

Bring an extra set of quads and calve muscles. After the turnoff it’s an average of 1,000 feet of vertical gain per mile for 4.7 miles. And even knowing that there’s a false summit doesn’t help very much when you crest it, and look up to see the lookout, another 200 vertical feet up.

The summit is cool and windy, and after refilling my hydration bladder with snow I snap a few pictures, eat a bit and start back down.

Panorama from Desolation Peak, from north (r) to south (l), looking west.

Opposite view from above, from north (l) to south (r), looking east.

25 down, 22 to go. 
Finally, when I reach the bottom of Desolation and turn onto the East Bank Trail, I know I’m going to be able to do this.

Before yesterday my longest run was 50k (31 miles). After getting lost early on and mentally beating myself up way more than necessary, I had my doubts. Could I use it as an excuse to quit? Maybe only do 36 miles roundtrip and skip out on summiting Desolation? I hate that I even let myself think those thoughts. I knew what I wanted to do, and as long as I wasn't injured or in danger, I should have been mentally stronger. I hope that’s a lesson I don’t soon forget.    
Even if I simply have to hike the 15 miles from Lightning Creek, I know I can make it. I’m tired; no acute pain, just fatigue.

I pass Rainbow Point and know that if I can keep moving well, I’ll get some good water when I ford Roland and then it’s just a hike over Hidden Hand Pass, a descent and some rolling terrain back to the car.

I’m still moving well. I make it to the bridge over Ruby Creek and hike the ¼ mile up to the car.

Rehydrated and downed some protein recovery drink, followed by ice-cold Mountain Dew from the Newhalem General Store and then Dairy Queen in Sedro-Woolley. Quality, no?
I made the day a bit longer by making silly mistakes: I blew right past the turnoff for the East Bank Trail before Ruby Pasture, and ping pong-ed around for two and a half (!?!?) miles (miles 2.5-5). Then after the Lightning Creek bridge crossing, you need to take the right trail (labeled Hozomeen) for a few hundred yards before reaching another fork; go left on the trail labeled Desolation. Oh well; character building.

It was a fabulous day and I have to say thank you to the groups of people, and two National Park Service rangers, who I met along the trails and were very supportive, giving me great words of encouragement along the way. It was nice to hear that they thought I was doing something cool, as opposed to stupid/crazy/masochistic J .  

Car to summit (includes the three “bonus” miles while lost): 25 miles, 5:29:17
Roundtrip: 47 miles, 10:19:37, 10,100’ total vertical gain (10:36 total time, including the 15 minutes spent on Desolation summit)


There are many streams for water early on. There is only one small stream between Lightning Creek and the Desolation Peak trail. I think it’ll dry up relatively soon, so fill up from the Lightning Campground on the lake before heading to Desolation, just to be safe. There is a bit of patchy snow, and 200 yards of solid snow, below the summit, but it’s soft and melting.

Roland Creek is the only ford, everything else is passable on rocks or logs.


Overall, felt like great training for White River.

Enjoy the trails!


  1. Epic. That's awesome White River training. I'm wondering what your recovery is like, sounds like you're building up just fine.

  2. Thanks Dave. I feel OK today; definitely sore, but not as bad as after a race when you're bombing the hills, you know? I always have some recovery drink (currently Light Muscle Milk) after every long run to get 30g of protein in immediately after finishing and that really seems to help with soreness (maybe partly psychosomatic?). Will take 2-3 days for resting, stretching and foam rolling now though. How'd you feel after your 50 at Sun Mtn?

  3. Luke, that is a great run! I did it a couple of decades ago and I also became quite dehydrated ( it was 96 in Seattle that particular day). It is fun mentally revisiting several of my favorite runs that others such as you and Eric E. are doing these days. I especially loved to do many long runs in the Pasayten. One can understand why horses are so popular there, with such long valley trails in and out. Feel free to contact me if you have specific questions about runs, although with wildfire damage and now-sporadic trail maintenance, conditions may be quite different now compared to during the 80s and 90s.

  4. three years later, it's time i revisit this.