Hiking the Hidden Lake Peaks
Story and photos by Aubrey Laurence
Explore an alpine wonderland. It may sound strange, but if you hike often enough you can become desensitized to many of the great views you come across. Sure, you still appreciate them to a point, but overexposure has a cruel way of dulling your senses.
That’s how I was beginning to feel late last summer after hiking on a weekly basis for months. I needed a great hike to reset me, bring me back to reality and humble me once again. The Hidden Lake Peaks hike turned out to be the answer.
This hike is the kind that will remind you of why you love to hike, and it will make you want to do it more often. It offers a variety of terrain, a challenging amount of distance and elevation gain and plenty of eye candy. It has it all — lush forests, wildflower-filled meadows and granite slabs, with endless views of glaciated mountains, sparkling tarns and serrated ridges that fade into the horizon.
Adding a special and ephemeral quality, there’s only a small window of time to climb these peaks snow-free, which is typically from mid-August through early October. While it can be done other times of the year, it requires technical gear and know-how because there are some sketchy, snow-filled gullies to traverse that can be dangerous. Additionally, the approach route is in an avalanche-prone area.
Like most hikes in the North Cascades region, this hike begins in a temperate rainforest. Unlike most, it’s only for a short distance. In fact, more than 75 percent of the trail is in open meadows and above treeline, providing you with more time to drink in the alpine wonderland.
Just over four miles in is the border of North Cascades National Park and the 6,600-foot saddle connecting the two Hidden Lake Peaks. The true summit (7,088?) is to the left/northeast and the lookout summit is to the right/south (6,890?). If you have the energy, it’s really worth visiting both summits, which only adds about a mile and 500 feet of elevation to your day.
Just before the saddle, braided trails lead up a couple similar-looking gullies, neither of which is very steep or difficult, though they may be holding some snow all year long. If you’re going to the lookout first, take the gully on the right, and either head up through the snow or do some scampering along the edges of the granite slabs.
You may come across red-colored snow nicknamed “watermelon snow,” caused by a type of algae that has a pink or red hue and thrives on perennial snow patches. Supposedly it has a sweet taste, but do not eat it because it is toxic.
Beyond the saddle, follow the narrow, switchbacking trail to the right along the east side of the peak as it climbs the remaining 300 feet up the steep slope. You will traverse some ledges, so step cautiously and always beware of falling rocks inadvertently kicked from hikers above. Towards the top you will encounter some easy boulder hopping before gaining the airy summit.
On a clear day, the 360-degree view from the summit is one of the finest in Washington state. To the northwest is majestic Mt. Baker; to the north is the jagged Rivalry Ridge in the foreground and the Picket Range in the background; to the northeast is El Dorado Peak; to the east you can see Forbidden Peak, Boston Peak and Sahale Mountain, with Cascade Pass just around the valley’s bend and out of view; and to the south, gaze at the venerable Glacier Peak, the rugged Buckindy Group and the ever-frosted Snowking Mountain. If you’re lucky, you may even see Mt. Rainier even farther to the south, as well as the Olympic Mountains to the southwest.
Amazingly, the views from the slightly higher north summit – the true summit – are even better than the south summit. This peak also offers about a half-mile (each way) of fun scampering and scrambling on solid rock with minimal exposure. If you take the easiest routes along the ridge, the scrambling never exceeds Class 2, though you can find more challenging routes if you prefer.
From the small north summit, which is capped with a pointed boulder, you’ll have a commanding view of an icy-blue tarn directly below, plus an intimate vantage point of The Triad and the 2,000-foot-higher Eldorado Peak directly to your northeast.
The views from both summits are nothing less than spectacular, but this hike is far greater than just its summit views. There are plenty of sights, sounds and smells to capture your attention along the way up and down these peaks. At every rise and turn in the trail, I discovered something new. It was truly inspiring and humbling.
If you are like me, this hike will not only refresh your hiking spirit, but will have you wishing it would never end. X
For more information on the lookout, visit “Friends of Hidden Lake Lookout” on facebook.com.