Location: 48.911372, -121.01675 Summit Elevation: 6,102′ Lookout Type: L-4 ground house Site Established: 1932 Current Structure Built: 1932 Date Visited: 6/16/18, 9/7/21
Desolation is amongst my very favorite Washington State lookouts. It’s one of the tougher ones to reach and one of the few still staffed in summer. It’s famous for its incredible view of Hozomeen, which happens to be my favorite mountain in Washington State, as well as Jack Kerouac. The beatnik poet spent the summer of 1956 at Desolation. Poets and lookouts. Doesn’t get any better than this!
Photos from 2018 and 2021.
The Desolation Peak fire lookout was established by the Forest Service on the Mount Baker National Forest in 1932, then later transferred to the North Cascades National Park. The 14′ x 14′ L-4 ground house remains staffed each summer by Ranger Jim Henterly. Desolation is one of the most remote active fire lookouts in the US.
Desolation’s historic L-4 ground cab lookout was home to Beatnik poet Jack Kerouac for 63 days in the summer of 1956. He chronicled his experiences at Desolation in the books Lonesome Traveler, Desolation Angels, and the Dharma Bums.
It’s said that Desolation got its name because of fire. Jack Kerouac wrote about a 1919 fire that scorched Desolation, though the Forest Service believes it was a fire in 1926 that led to most of the damage.
“In 1919 a fire had raced in the upper Skagit and all the country around Desolation, my mountain, had burned for two months and filled the skies of northern Washington and British Columbia with smoke that blotted out the sun. The government had tried to fight it, sent a thousand men in with pack string supply lines that then took three weeks from Marblemount fire camp, but only the fall rains had stopped that blaze and the charred snags, I was told, were still standing on Desolation Peak and in some valleys. That was the reason for the name: Desolation.”
– Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums
When I think of Washington State fire lookouts with the best views, Desolation is certainly amongst the top of the list!
Memorable Desolation visits.
Desolation is amongst a handful of lookouts that took me repeat tries to finally visit. My first attempt in August 2017 was stymied by thick wildfire smoke. I wrote a blog post about my attempt to kayak Ross Lake to Desolation in a Smokepocalypse with my partner at the time. We turned around at the Desolation dock. We returned the following summer in June 2018, finally making it to the lookout but could only spend barely 10 minutes at the summit due to an incoming lightning storm, my second time being caught in a fire lookout during lightning. As we paddled back to our camp along Ross Lake, a second round of lightning moved in and I’m pretty sure I’ve never paddled faster in my life.
Finally just this past fall in September 2021, I returned to Desolation’s summit a second time with my dad and stepmom via the Ross Lake water taxi. My dad, at 73, tackled the tough climb to the summit and was all smiles! It was so great to share this beautiful place with him! I was also able to spend some leisurely time on the summit, meeting and chatting with Jim Henterly and swapping stories from my time this past summer staffing Goat Peak. It’s always great to meet a fellow lookout!
Desolation is one of the tougher fire lookouts to reach and requires some advance planning. There are really four primary approaches to reach the Desolation Peak trailhead: on foot on the East Bank trail, on a water taxi from the Ross Lake Resort, or by paddling Ross Lake from either Hozomeen to the north or from Diablo Lake to the south. I suppose it’s also possible to hike in to Desolation on foot from Hozomeen via Hozomeen Lake.
Ross Lake has 19 boat-in campsites, all requiring backcountry permits, but paddling Ross is a wonderful way to spend a few days on a Desolation adventure. There are some pretty fantastic waterfalls and coves to explore along Ross’s boundaries. Do be aware though that Ross Lake is notorious for strong winds and white caps, especially in afternoons. If you paddle, start early and be very prepared. The water also rarely gets above 50. Check the NPS website for more information on Ross Lake paddling and campsites.
Once you’re at the trailhead, don’t underestimate the trail to Desolation. It’s a steady consistent climb gaining more than 4,000′ all the way to the summit. No camping is allowed on the summit and the only nearby campground is Desolation Camp, a mile below the summit, requiring a backcountry permit.
Below is an overview of the different routes to Desolation. On both my attempt in 2017 and successful summit in 2018, I approached Desolation by paddling in from Hozomeen on the north side of Ross Lake. In September 2021 I took the Ross Lake Resort water taxi with my folks to the Desolation Peak trail.
Paddling from Hozomeen.
Distance (RT): 20 miles paddling + 9.4 miles hiking Elevation Gain (Desolation Trail): 4,540′
The nice thing about paddling to the Desolation trailhead from Hozomeen is that it doesn’t require a portage like paddling in from the south on Diablo Lake. Of course, you will need to do a border crossing into Canada.
From Hope, BC, travel approximately 37 miles (60 km) along the Silver Skagit all the way to Hozomeen Campground. A few miles before the campground, the road crosses back into the United State, but it is an unmanned border crossing. There is a boat launch right at Hozomeen that makes for easy kayaking.
There are a number of boat-in only campsites along Ross Lake, but most need to be reserved. For both trips in 2017 and 2018, I stayed at the Boundary Bay campground. From Hozomeen, Boundary Bay is approximately 5.5 miles and then the Desolation trailhead at Lightning Creek boat camp is another 4.5 miles. Boundary Bay is a nice halfway spot.
Paddling from Diablo Lake.
Distance (RT): 31 miles paddling + 9.4 miles hiking Elevation Gain (Desolation Trail): 4,540′
Starting from Colonial Creek campground on Highway 20, it’s about a 3.5 mile paddle on Diablo Lake to the portage dock below the Ross Dam powerhouse. You’ll need to arrange a portage through the Ross Lake Resort. No reservations are necessary but portage hours are limited and summer months can be busy. Check out the portage details on their website.
Once over Ross Dam, it’s a 12 mile paddle to the Lightning Creek Boat Camp and Desolation trailhead.
East Bank trail approach.
Distance (RT): 44 miles Elevation Gain: 7,786′
It’s also possible to reach Desolation completely on foot by following the East Bank trail, starting on Highway 20 at milepost 138.
The East Bank trail has moderate elevation gain and fabulous views of Ross Lake with several campsites available along the way. All require backcountry permits, so be sure to plan ahead if you choose to hike this route.
Ross Lake water taxi.
Distance (RT): 2 miles to taxi + 9.4 miles Elevation Gain: 553′ to taxi + 4,540′
The easiest and shortest way to reach the Desolation fire lookout is by booking a water taxi at the Ross Lake Resort straight to the Lightning Creek boat dock and Desolation trailhead. It does require a one mile hike to the taxi dock from Highway 20 and a climb back up on the return trip.
This last September I took the water taxi with my dad and stepmom while they were visiting and I have to say, it was a pretty fun experience! The taxi fair to Lightning Creek (as of December 2021) is $135 each way and it’s split between the number of passengers. Well behaved dogs are allowed on the taxi.
Distance (RT): 9.4 miles Elevation Gain: 4,540′
However way you reach the Desolation trailhead, be prepared to climb. The trail wastes no time heading upwards and will give you no break until you reach the summit. While the grade isn’t steep, it’s a consistent climb with over 4,000′ gain on an often dry trail. Definitely bring more water than you think you’ll need. It can be a grueling outing.
The trail starts in beautiful old growth forest, slowly climbing up into subalpine where the views of Ross Lake and the surrounding North Cascades get bigger with every step.