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Hidden Lake Lookout

North Cascades

Location

North Cascades -- North Cascades Highway - Hwy 20
View map below

Length

8.0 miles, roundtrip

Elevation

Gain: 3300 ft.
Highest Point: 6900 ft.

Rating

4.59 out of 5

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WTA worked here: 2019
 

Parking Pass/Entry Fee

None
A backcountry permit is required to camp overnight in North Cascades National Park. Call the Wilderness Information Center at (360) 854-7245 the day of or the day before your trip to obtain a permit
 
 

“The view we enjoyed from the summit could hardly be surpassed in sublimity and grandeur; but one feels far from home so high in the sky, so much so that one is inclined to guess that, apart from the acquisition of knowledge and the exhilaration of climbing, more pleasure is to be found at the foot of the mountains than on their tops.”

So offered naturalist John Muir after climbing Mount Rainier, and for peaks like Rainier – desolate and remote – he has a point; but Hidden Lake Peak proves precisely the opposite. Offer the exhilaration of climbing it certainly does, proceeding well above the treeline to a summit that hardly looks attainable from a distance; but it also offers an intimate view of the very heart of the North Cascades, the kind of immersive experience not available by gazing up from the valleys below. From wildflower meadows in its early stretches to stark granite at the top, it is a front row seat for all that draws us upward.

The contrast between the start of the trail and the end could not be greater. The path to the Hidden Lake Lookout starts out in dense forest along and occasionally through and over runoff streams. After about a mile, the trail emerges into the open below soaring cliffs and ridges in a deep creek drainage. Shortly after, it crosses the east fork of Sibley Creek for the first of two times and begins switchbacking over badly eroded tread through fields of false hellebore, slide alder, and–unfortunately–stinging nettles. Soon, though, the unruly undergrowth fades to meadows of wildflowers, in early summer it delivers a stunning display in both color and variety. Roughly a mile from the prior creek crossing, the trail makes it second hop over Sibley Creek.

Here the terrain undergoes yet another radical transformation. For the next three quarters of a mile, you make your mostly level way across a rocky slope filled with heather and blueberries. In fall, this may be the very best place in the Cascades to find highly prized vaccinium deliciosum, the most flavorful of all mountain blueberries. Meanwhile, the giants of the North Cascades come into view. The sheer western face of Eldorado Peak’s perfect pyramid peers over the headwaters of Sibley Creek. In the other direction, Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan hover above the ridge of Big Devil Peak.

At the end of this stretch, the trail swings to the south. Snow lingers late, and even at the end of summer, the gully the trail climbs through may well hold patches of snow. The surroundings change dramatically yet again, with the trees and subalpine meadows giving way to bare granite. In a quarter of a mile, you see the lookout for the first time. It looks menacingly unattainable, perched next to broken rock that seems to reach for the sky in a giant claw at the top of a near-vertical face. To the south, the smooth glaciers of Snowking Mountain make a brief appearance.

In another quarter of a mile, you reach a high saddle that marks the boundary of North Cascades National Park. If the view here doesn’t take your breath away, check for a pulse: the dark waters of Hidden Lake seem to disappear over the lip of a hanging valley beyond which stand some of the staunchest sentinels of the North Cascades – Johannesburg Peak, Sahale Mountain, Boston Peak, and Mount Forbidden.

From here, the trail is much more informal. It traverses to the right over a steep open slope beneath the summit, intersecting the visible ridgeline about halfway up its length. There the route heads right over jumbled boulders. You may be able to pick out a smoother bootpack in the dirt and follow it until reaching the summit lookout. As you would expect from someplace once used for spotting wildfires, 360-degree views of an immense area now open up around you.

What makes the view so remarkable is the extent to which the long ridge containing the most storied mountaineering prizes of the North Cascades is laid out like a ribbon in front of your eyes. Seldom are hikers surrounded by so many mighty mountains in one spot: Sahale, Triad, Eldorado, Torment, Boston, Forbidden, Klawatti, Sharkfin. From here, you can see just how closely one stacks on top of the next after the next.

Not to be overlooked is the lookout itself, a living museum and relic of the network of such structures that once numbered in the hundreds, strung out across the state.

There are many mountaintops where the only traces of the lookouts that once stood upon them are some rusty nails, burnt timbers, and broken glass. Ascend to the summit of Crater Peak or Mount Pugh, and that is all you’ll find there; but here, the lookout endures, despite having been retired from service many decades ago. It speaks both to the durability of its construction and the commitment of the individuals who have given so much to preserve it.

Built in 1932, the Hidden Lake Lookout was decommissioned by the Forest Service sometime around 1953. In 1960, the Skagit Alpine Club secured a special use permit to renovate and maintain it for club activities, but by 1980, the club had turned its attention to the Park Butte Lookout instead.

One of SAC’s members, however, wasn’t ready to let Hidden Lake Lookout go. Dr. Fred Darvill formed a group called the Friends of Hidden Lake Lookout under the auspices of the Skagit Environmental Council and took over responsibility for its maintenance.

Many people think of the lookout as a camping shelter, and it is in fact available on a first-come, first-serve basis; but Dr. Darvill intended its preservation mostly for historical purposes. Darvill, who passed away in late 2007, is a somewhat under-recognized figure in the history of the outdoors in Washington. He was an authority in backcountry first aid and was an effective advocate for wilderness, playing an instrumental role in the creation of the North Cascades National Park. It’s altogether fitting that this spot, looking out over the park, has become such a visible legacy of his work.

As he became less able to visit the lookout, his role as chief steward passed to Robert Kendall. On a jaunt up here, you may very well run into Robert on one of his work parties at the lookout. If you see him, be sure to say thanks for the work he does (or offer to help!), and if you stay in the lookout, be sure to donate what you can to help cover supplies (there’s a rough guideline of $15-$25/night).

Ironically, the lookout has now stood as a historic monument longer than it served its original function as a fire lookout. In 1987, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

This place–the intersection of so much incredible terrain and history–is one of the most remarkable hiking destinations in all of the Cascades; and while it may not be quite as immediately scenic as spots like the Enchantments or Sahale Arm, it holds a special allure that is very hard to overstate.

WTA Pro Tip: While no special permit is required to stay in the lookout (which sits just outside the park boundary), camping at Hidden Lake (or anywhere between the lake and the ridge line) requires a backcountry permit available at the ranger station in Marblemount. There is no trail from the saddle to the lake, so be prepared to clamber over boulders as you find your route. Don’t camp on the shores of the lake or other nearby tarns – the landscape here is quite fragile. Look for bare dirt or established sites. Campfires are not permitted.

 

Hidden Lake Lookout

Map & Directions

Trailhead
Co-ordinates: 48.5141, -121.2219 Open map in new window

Trailhead

North Cascades -- North Cascades Highway - Hwy 20

Hidden Lake (#745)

North Cascades National Park

See weather forecast

Guidebooks & Maps

Day Hiking: North Cascades (Romano - Mountaineers Books)

Buy the Green Trails Diablo Dam No. 48 map

Buy the Green Trails Cascade Pass No. 80 map

Download a map to plan your hike

Getting There

From Marblemount on Hwy 20, drive the Cascade River Road just short of 10 miles to the junction with FS 1540. The road will be signed for the Hidden Lake Trail. Drive the steep, rutted, rocky road 4.5 miles to the road end and trailhead. Be sure to leave room for other people to drive in and out of the trailhead area.

Parking Pass/Entry Fee

None
A backcountry permit is required to camp overnight in North Cascades National Park. Call the Wilderness Information Center at (360) 854-7245 the day of or the day before your trip to obtain a permit
 

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Hidden Lake Lookout

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