For 17 years, ever since first moving to the Northwest, Desolation Peak in the North Cascades has been on the top of my to-hike list. It’s sort of ridiculous I still haven’t been there yet, especially given my strange fascination with fire lookouts and their history. I’m also a big literary fan and in case you don’t know, the famous Jack Kerouac spent 63 days during the summer of 1956 at Desolation, acting as a lookout. His experiences were chronicled in Lonesome Traveler, The Dharma Bums, and Desolation Angels.
I guess part of the reason I haven’t yet hiked to Desolation is because of its remoteness. A peak like Desolation gets its name for a reason after all! There are really only 3 ways to get there:
- Drive 2.5 hours from Seattle to the East Bank Trailhead on Highway 20, then it’s only a 42-mile roundtrip trek by foot.
- Drive 2.5 hours from Seattle to Ross Lake, paddle roughly 14 miles (including a truck portage over Ross Dam) to the Desolation Peak trailhead, then it’s only 11 miles roundtrip by foot. Or paddle just a few miles further to a more northern boat dock and it’s only 8.5 by foot. Oh, and 14 miles of paddling back. With the portage again.
- Drive to Hope, British Columbia then 30 miles south on a dirt road back into the US across an unmanned border (yep, totally legal!) to the Hozomeen campground, paddle about 18 miles roundtrip, hike 8.5 miles by foot, and skip the truck portage!
I finally made a plan this year to make it to Desolation by driving to BC, border jumping, and then spending 2-3 days kayak camping on Ross Lake. I figured approaching from the north at Hozomeen would be an adventurous and less-traveled way in. Simple, right!?
After securing loaner sea kayaks from a friend, we scheduled a Fri/Mon off over the first weekend of August for our epic kayak camping-border jumping-Desolation Peak weekend! Woohoo!
Then the Monday of our vacation weekend, Canada decided to inundate us with their wildfire smoke. I’m not holding a grudge, I promise. Ok, I don’t actually blame Canada. But still. The timing was just bad.
Visibility across the PNW went from perfect to zero. Smoke covered hundreds of miles, reaching as far south as Oregon. The Thursday night before we were set to leave, we considered postponing our trip. The problem is, my rampant optimism reared it’s silly little head.
“No way!” I exclaimed. “The wind is coming. It’s going to clear!”
I don’t know why Nick listens to me.
So Thursday night we tied kayaks to the Jeep, loaded our gear, and hit the road Friday to Canada. For Ross Lake boat-in permits, you have to stop at the Marblemount Ranger Station unless you are going in through Hozomeen, in which case you can get your permits from Sedro-Woolley.
Sidebar: if you’ve ever wondered how in the world Sedro-Woolley got it’s name, you can read the whole story. We talked at length about this on the long drive home. And no, Sedro-Woolley High School’s mascot isn’t the Mammoth. It’s an epic fail.
Back to permits! We stopped at the ranger station and somehow managed to snag pretty much the last of any boat-in camping spots for the weekend on Ross Lake. Whew. That was lucky, I thought. Or not. It was clear the smoke wasn’t deterring anyone.
Every mile we got closer to Canada the smoke grew thicker until we finally turned south from Hope, BC and headed to Hozomeen, where we’d camp for the night and launch our kayaks Saturday morning. The smoke was so thick you couldn’t see anything and the air was a disgusting orange-brown.
“It’s going to clear!” I exclaimed, but it was maybe the first time I realized there was like a 1% chance it actually would. I suffer from reality denial.
Hozomeen campground had been advertised as “very light” use. We expected a little dinky campground in the middle of nowhere. Even the ranger who issued our permits told us “oh, Hozomeen… yeah, it’s light up there”.
Everyone was clearly wrong because when we arrived it was like Seafair, except Canadian. But still in the US (just barely). Loud campers with music never really went to sleep and blow-up flamingo and unicorn floaties littered the road. I guess it was also a Canadian holiday weekend.
At least we managed to get a site somewhat away from the loudest parties. 5 minutes after setting up camp and exclaiming “Hey, there aren’t any mosquitoes!” I realized I was wrong.
Saturday AM we awoke to even more smoke. Nope, I wasn’t giving up. The wind was coming! So we launched our kayaks into the Mad Max-like apocalyptic doom that was Ross Lake. You could sort of see the faint outline of the jagged North Cascades like shadows through the smoke.
I think maybe Nick got annoyed the 3rd time I exclaimed “Hey! You can almost sort of see snow up there on the peak! Maybe? Oh… maybe not.”
The usually windy Ross Lake was dead calm. Zero wind. As we paddled, I found myself wondering what was lurking in the smoky lake. Nessie? Shit.
The wind never came. And we never saw the North Cascades. We spent a night camped on the shore of Ross Lake but bailed on our Sunday camp, deciding we’d come back again when we could actually see the mountains and maybe not get lung cancer. We even paddled right up to the Desolation Peak trailhead.
“Farewell, Desolation, thou hast seen me well … All I want is an ice cream cone.” – Jake Kerouac
We paddled off Ross Lake, left the flamingo floaties of Hozomeen behind, and got ice cream at DQ.
Disappointing for sure, but sometimes the most memorable adventures are the ones that go totally south. It was pretty surreal paddling along Ross Lake in the thick smoke, seeing dazzling red sunsets and a blood red moon, the lake eerily smooth like glass all weekend. We still laughed, kayaked about 20 miles in 2 days, explored some amazing coves with epic waterfalls, drank beers, and had a great time.
Desolation, I will be back.