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Conquer the Sourdough Mountain Trail for Unforgettable Panoramic Views

High Point

High Point:
6,110 feet

Total Ascent

Total Ascent:
5,000 feet

Difficulty

Difficulty:
Very Difficult

Distance

Distance:
10.4 miles

Waypoints

Waypoints:
48.7114° N, 121.1394° W

Route Type

Route Type:
Out and back

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Embark on the Sourdough Mountain Trail’s challenging ascent, where every step rewards you with breathtaking panoramic views of the North Cascades, diverse ecosystems, and an unforgettable journey through one of nature’s most stunning masterpieces.



Overview

The Sourdough Mountain Trail in North Cascades National Park is a challenging yet immensely rewarding hike known for its steep ascent and breathtaking panoramic views. This 10.4-mile round-trip trail features a significant elevation gain of approximately 5,000 feet, making it one of the more strenuous hikes in the region. However, the effort is well worth it, as hikers are greeted with stunning vistas of jagged peaks, serene alpine lakes, and sweeping valleys. The Sourdough Mountain Trail is a must-visit for those seeking an adventurous and scenic trek in one of the most beautiful regions of the Pacific Northwest.

This trail is not for the faint of heart. It demands physical preparation, mental fortitude, and proper gear. However, for those who take on the challenge, the rewards are plentiful. The trail offers a journey through diverse ecosystems, historical landmarks, and some of the most stunning natural beauty in the North Cascades.


Read our complete Washington travel and adventure guide here.


Directions to Trailhead

The Sourdough Mountain Trailhead is located near the town of Diablo, Washington. To reach the trailhead:

  1. From Seattle: Travel northeast on Interstate 5 (I-5) and take exit 230 for WA-20 E toward Burlington/Anacortes. This drive is approximately 115 miles and takes about two and a half hours.
  2. Follow WA-20 E: Continue on WA-20 E (North Cascades Highway) for about 86 miles, passing through Marblemount. The drive along WA-20 E is scenic, offering glimpses of the majestic Cascade Range, dense forests, and the Skagit River.
  3. Diablo: Once you reach Diablo, turn right towards the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. The small town of Diablo is nestled in a picturesque setting with the emerald waters of Diablo Lake creating a stunning backdrop.
  4. Parking: Park in the designated trailhead parking area near the Environmental Learning Center. Ensure you have a Northwest Forest Pass or America the Beautiful Pass displayed in your vehicle, as this is required for parking. The parking area is well-marked, but it can fill up quickly during peak hiking season, so an early start is recommended.

The drive to the trailhead is a journey in itself, providing a preview of the natural beauty that awaits on the trail. Along the way, you’ll pass several other trailheads, campgrounds, and viewpoints, each offering unique perspectives of the North Cascades.

Places to Stay

For those looking to stay overnight before or after the hike, there are several options in the vicinity that cater to a variety of preferences, from rustic camping to more comfortable lodging:

  1. North Cascades Lodge at Stehekin: This lodge offers comfortable accommodations with stunning views of Lake Chelan. It is a bit of a drive from the trailhead but provides a serene and scenic environment. The lodge is accessible by boat, plane, or on foot, adding to the adventure.
  2. Ross Lake Resort: Located on Ross Lake, this resort offers unique floating cabins and a peaceful retreat in the heart of the North Cascades. The cabins are accessible only by boat or foot, ensuring a secluded and tranquil experience.
  3. Newhalem Campground: A great option for campers, this campground is located along the Skagit River and provides a rustic experience with access to several hiking trails in the area. The campground offers basic amenities such as picnic tables, fire rings, and restrooms.
  4. Marblemount: For those seeking more amenities, the town of Marblemount offers several motels and bed-and-breakfast options. Marblemount is the last major town before entering the North Cascades, making it a convenient stop for supplies and rest.

Staying overnight in the area not only makes for a more relaxed hike but also allows you to explore more of the surrounding natural beauty and attractions. Each lodging option provides a unique way to experience the majesty of the North Cascades.

Field Notes

The Sourdough Mountain Trail is renowned for its steep and relentless ascent. Starting from the trailhead, the hike immediately begins to climb through a dense forest of Douglas fir, western hemlock, and cedar trees. The first section of the trail is shaded, providing a cool respite during the warmer months.

Elevation Gain: The trail gains approximately 5,000 feet in elevation over 5.2 miles. This makes for a physically demanding hike, and hikers should be prepared with proper gear and physical conditioning. The significant elevation gain means that every step brings a new layer of the mountain’s ecology and beauty.

Trail Conditions: The trail can be rocky and narrow in sections, with switchbacks that aid in the steep ascent. Trekking poles are highly recommended for stability and to reduce strain on the knees. During early summer, some sections may still have snow, requiring caution and proper equipment such as microspikes.

Flora and Fauna: The lower sections of the trail feature lush vegetation, including ferns, moss-covered logs, and a variety of wildflowers such as trillium and columbine. As the trail climbs higher, subalpine fir and mountain hemlock dominate the landscape. In the upper meadows, wildflowers such as lupine, Indian paintbrush, and heather create a colorful display during the summer months. The diversity of plant life is a testament to the varying microclimates along the trail.

Wildlife: Hikers may encounter black bears, mule deer, and mountain goats. Birdwatchers can look out for Clark’s nutcracker, mountain chickadee, and various raptors soaring above. Always maintain a safe distance from wildlife and follow Leave No Trace principles to protect the natural habitat.

Water: There are no reliable water sources along the trail, so hikers should carry a minimum of 3 liters of water per person. Hydration is crucial, especially given the strenuous nature of the hike.

Tips for Hikers:

  1. Physical Preparation: Ensure you are in good physical condition and accustomed to steep, challenging hikes. Regular training and conditioning hikes will make the ascent more manageable.
  2. Adequate Supplies: Carry enough water, as there are no reliable water sources on the trail. A minimum of 3 liters per person is recommended. Pack high-energy snacks to maintain energy levels throughout the hike.
  3. Navigation Tools: Bring a map, compass, or GPS device. Although the trail is well-defined, having navigation tools is essential in case of unexpected detours or poor visibility.
  4. Weather Awareness: Check the weather forecast before your hike and be prepared for sudden changes. The North Cascades are known for unpredictable weather, and conditions can change rapidly.
  5. Wildlife Precautions: Store food securely and be aware of your surroundings to avoid encounters with wildlife. Carrying bear spray is advisable. Make noise while hiking to alert animals to your presence.

A hiker descends from Sourdough Lookout via the Pierce Mountain side of the trail. Photo: R Seifried

Journal

Ascent: The hike begins with a gentle incline that quickly becomes a steep, relentless climb through dense forest. The switchbacks seem endless, and the elevation gain is significant. Despite the physical challenge, the trail offers a sense of solitude and connection with nature that is deeply rewarding.

As I began the ascent, the morning air was crisp, and the forest floor was damp from the previous night’s dew. The sounds of the forest – birds chirping, leaves rustling, and the distant murmur of the Skagit River – created a symphony that accompanied my steps. The trail was well-maintained, but the steep incline quickly made me aware of the physical challenge ahead.

The switchbacks were a test of endurance, each one leading higher into the forest. The towering trees provided shade, but the climb was relentless. I paused frequently to catch my breath and to take in the surroundings. The underbrush was thick with ferns and moss, adding a lush, green carpet to the forest floor.

Sourdough Camp: About 3.5 miles into the hike, I reached Sourdough Camp, a small backcountry campsite. This provided a brief respite and an opportunity to rehydrate and take in the views. The campsite is primitive, with minimal facilities, but it offers a peaceful spot to rest before continuing the climb.

Sourdough Camp felt like a sanctuary. The clearing in the forest offered a moment of relief from the relentless climb. I took the opportunity to sit down, rehydrate, and refuel with some trail mix. The camp had a few tent sites, each nestled among the trees, providing a serene and secluded camping experience for those who choose to stay overnight.

Final Push: The last stretch to the summit was the most challenging part of the hike. The trail became even steeper, with loose rocks and narrow paths. As I approached the summit, the trees thinned out, revealing expansive views of the North Cascades. The sense of anticipation built with each step, knowing that breathtaking vistas awaited at the top.

The final push to the summit tested my endurance and determination. The trail was rocky and narrow, requiring careful footing and the use of trekking poles for stability. Each step brought me closer to the tree line, and the forest began to open up, revealing glimpses of the surrounding peaks.

The air grew cooler, and the vegetation changed to hardy alpine plants. The switchbacks seemed to multiply, but the promise of the summit kept me going. As I emerged from the trees, the panoramic views of the North Cascades took my breath away.

Summit: Reaching the summit of Sourdough Mountain was an exhilarating experience. At 6,110 feet, the summit offers 360-degree views of the surrounding wilderness. The historic Sourdough Mountain Lookout added a touch of nostalgia to the scene. Although the lookout is no longer staffed, it remains an iconic symbol of the park’s history and the vital role these structures played in wildfire detection. The summit was an ideal place to relax, enjoy a well-deserved meal, and soak in the stunning scenery.

The summit of Sourdough Mountain was everything I had hoped for and more. The views were expansive, with jagged peaks, deep valleys, and glistening alpine lakes stretching out in every direction. The historic Sourdough Mountain Lookout stood proudly, a testament to the park’s history and the dedication of the fire watchers who once manned these remote outposts.

I took a moment to sit down, savoring the sense of accomplishment and the incredible beauty that surrounded me. The summit was a perfect spot for a well-deserved meal, and I unpacked my lunch, taking in the panoramic views while enjoying a sandwich and some fresh fruit. The cool mountain breeze provided a refreshing contrast to the heat of the ascent.

Descent: The descent was much quicker, but required careful footing due to the steep and rocky terrain. The journey down offered different perspectives of the landscape, with late afternoon light casting long shadows and highlighting the rugged beauty of the North Cascades. Despite the physical exhaustion, the sense of accomplishment and the memories of the stunning vistas made every step worthwhile.

The descent was a stark contrast to the arduous climb. Gravity was on my side, but the steep and rocky terrain demanded careful attention to footing. The trekking poles were invaluable, providing stability and reducing the impact on my knees.

As I made my way down, I marveled at the changing light. The late afternoon sun cast long shadows, creating a dramatic play of light and dark across the landscape. The views seemed different on the way down, offering new perspectives and angles that I hadn’t noticed on the ascent.

The forest was alive with activity as I descended. Birds flitted from branch to branch, and I even spotted a few deer grazing in a distant meadow. The descent was quicker, but I took my time, savoring the last moments of the hike and reflecting on the incredible journey.

Conclusion

The Sourdough Mountain Trail is a challenging but immensely rewarding hike that offers some of the best views in the North Cascades. The trail’s steep ascent, diverse ecosystems, and panoramic vistas make it a must-visit for experienced hikers seeking an adventure in one of the most beautiful regions of the Pacific Northwest.

Whether you’re drawn by the physical challenge, the stunning scenery, or the historical significance of the Sourdough Mountain Lookout, this trail has something to offer. Proper preparation, physical conditioning, and a sense of adventure are essential for making the most of this hike. The Sourdough Mountain Trail is a testament to the rugged beauty and diverse landscapes of the North Cascades, and it provides a memorable experience for all who take on the challenge.

From the dense, shaded forests at the start of the trail to the expansive, sunlit summit, the journey is one of discovery and awe. Each step brings new sights, sounds, and sensations, culminating in the breathtaking views from the summit. The Sourdough Mountain Trail is more than just a hike; it’s an adventure that leaves a lasting impression on all who undertake it.


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