Nestled in the high North Cascades, accessible by foot or boat on Ross Lake, sits the infamous Desolation Peak Lookout. If you’re up for the adventure of a lifetime, check out this “bucket list” of an expedition for the paddler, hiker and reader in you. At least that’s what I had in mind to celebrate a milestone birthday- sit atop Desolation Peak and breathe in the air of the Beat Generation Poets and take in the views from the fire lookout where they stayed. The destination had been on my list for a long time and it seemed like a now or never endeavor.
“Desolation Peak is in the North Cascade Mountains of Washington state, about 6.2 miles (10.0 km) south of the Canadian border and in the Ross Lake National Recreation Area. Jack Kerouac spent 63 days during the summer of 1956 as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak. He wrote about his experiences in the books Lonesome Traveler, The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels.” – Wikipedia
Getting there is a journey in and of itself. You can choose a northern approach from Canada or from the south via Diablo Lake off of Highway 20. We chose to take the southern route. We drove from Bellingham and made our way across Highway 20 East. Our first camp was in the back of the truck in the parking lot at Colonial Creek campground- on Diablo Lake. You can see where HWY 20 (yellow line) crosses the water in the map below. We obviously had a long way to paddle.
Our first day, we paddled from Colonial Creek campground on Diablo Lake- a popular spot for outdoor recreation of all kinds. It is also the headquarters of the North Cascades Institute and their Environmental Learning Center. From the campground, you make your way “up the river” to the base of Ross Dam.
In order to get your kayaks from Diablo Lake, up over Ross Dam and into Ross Lake you can utilize the services of Ross Lake Resort Truck Portage. The cost for the 2 of us was $15 per kayak. Very reasonable.You simply show up at the bottom of the dam- pick up the phone and let them know you’re ready for pickup.
“In existence since 1950, Ross Lake Resort is situated in a line of twelve individual cabins and three bunkhouses built on log floats. The resort is located on the west side of Ross Lake, just north of Ross Dam. It is the only facility on the lake and characterized by its remoteness (no direct road access).” – Ross Lake Resort. It is a very inviting spot, with floating cabins and boats-a-plenty. (I want to go back there for sure)
As we made our way north on the 20-mile long lake, we passed by many waterfalls and small creeks emptying out into the lake. Campsites dot the shore and are accessible by boat or on the hiking trail. We would hug the shoreline checking out the flora and fauna and then head out into the middle of the lake to get spectacular views of the mountain ranges all around us.
We finally arrived at Cat Island Campground for the night. The island sits at the foot of the range where the lookout is located. It would be a short distance for us to travel in the morning to start our ascent to the famed fire lookout. The next morning, we paddled to shore and easily found the Desolation Trail that extends the length of the lake. The fall colors were out to greet us along the way as we entered the woods.
After sitting in a kayak the previous day, and paddling an estimated total of 17 miles, you’d think it would be refreshing to stretch the ‘ol legs. Well, the trail isn’t very forgiving. It is as excited as you’ll be to get there, so it takes an aggressive route to do so. Once you head away from the lake, you start going UP. The trail traverses up the slope and it’s not really til you get above tree line that you start switch-backing up steeper inclines- as seen in the map below.
The season was just right though, not to mention the weather that we were graced with (the forecast was not initially in our favor). While difficult, the scenery makes up for the challenge- especially with the fall colors OUT THERE to greet us. I can only imagine how warm sections of this hike are in the summer- crossing open sections with the sun bearing down.
Finally, a glimpse of the white structure perched on the peak that would be our destination. It’s a ways to go, but within reach.
Getting closer to the top, it’s so rewarding to see the lake you had paddled and the peak you were climbing. Looking back down on the lake, you can see Tenmile Island Campground just off the east shore. Cat Island, where we stayed, is located north of there (Yes, it feels like you go straight up Desolation Peak). Ross Lake has an abundance of campgrounds to choose from- I am constantly amazed. Check out the long list of Campsites in North Cascades National Park.
The views just never stopped as the peaks reach for the skies- even as clouds try to stop their progress.
The stunning views can also be educational when you can see how the geology and geography play together to create amazing natural patterns in the landscape. The natural events that have occurred over time shape the land and make for spectacular scenery.
As we got nearer, the sight of the lookout was one that I had been dreaming of for decades. Ever since I started reading Kerouac and complementing my physical need for adventure with the introspective and intellectual side, I knew that one day I would sit atop this peak. I was fortunate to have a good friend join me in the adventure (of a lifetime) to have somebody to share the experience with. Below, is my companion Andy Wallis, for whom I have to thank for these photos- here he is seated on the steps of the lookout. The sign in his hands reads: DESOLATION LOOKOUT , ELEVATION 6085.
We hung out for a bit and had the shutter snapping up photos 360 degrees around us. While on top, we could see a third member of our party joining us a day late, pulling into Cat Island below. After our celebratory lunch and shout out to the wilderness as those had done before us, we headed back down the slope to our campground to connect with our newest member in our party.
The plan was to do the hike again the following day- but my legs argued against that even before we made it all the way back to camp. So, instead, we spent the following day on a leisurely paddle on the lake, exploring the shoreline and the many beautiful streams and creeks that enter from the slopes above. There were plenty of campsites to choose from on our way out- each with a cool name- Lodgepole, Ponderosa, Dry Creek, Tenmile, Devil’s Creek, Devil’s Junction Campgrounds. We chose to land and stay at Dry Creek for the night.
Our last day was spent with more idle paddling and a hike on the Big Beaver Creek trail- which is also a part of the Pacific Northwest Trail. As we exited the woods, the rain and the wind were just starting to pick up. We got on our appropriate gear and headed into what soon became a small storm. The wind was in our face as we made our way back to the dam for our lift back down the hill. The mountainous lake conditions showed their ugly teeth and bit down on our fun factor for the last few miles out.
This was a great one to check off the list. It takes time to piece it all together, but well worth it. I hope you can get OUT THERE and experience it for yourself.
New York Times article: Climbing a Peak That Stirred Kerouac (11/16/12)
Other references: Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder, in his 1969 collection “Earth House Hold,” wrote of a summer spent at a fire lookout’s cabin on Desolation Peak in the North Cascades during the ’50s. In a passage dated June 28, 1953, Snyder detailed a trip to Gooseberry Point, stating “We went back by the same road, and by the outskirts of Bellingham Jack pointed out a ratty looking place called Coconut Grove where he said he had spent time drinking with a ‘rough crowd.’ They drank beer out of steins and called the place the Cat’s Eye instead.” Though some have postulated that the ‘Jack’ in this passage refers to Jack Kerouac, it does not. Kerouac spent a summer on Desolation Peak in the summer of 1957, four years after the passage related in Snyder’s book.