Snowshoer's/skier's paradise on Sourdough-Stetattle Ridge. The Sourdough Lookout was completely buried by the heavy winter snowfall.
With a forecast for bluebird skies and stable snow, the North Cascades seemed to be the place to go. After tossing around a variety of ideas and spending way too much time pouring over trip reports and topos and forecasts, Sourdough Mountain with Brian and Paul eventually moved to the top of the list. It's hard to imagine having chosen a more beautiful place to spend a sunny winter Saturday.
Sourdough Mountain can be approached via Diablo (south) or Pierce Mountain (east) sides. In the winter, these trails are covered in snow, and the typical approach is from the Diablo side. The route wastes no time in gaining elevation, heading up through steep timber for about 4000 feet before breaking out into the open. We found the snow to be in pretty good condition, and made quick work of the timber before hitting deeper powder that slowed us down bit up high.
The summer trail branches off to the right to cross Sourdough Creek, but the winter this slope tends to be avalanche prone, so the best route continues northward until it hits the ridgeline. From here the summit of Sourdough Mountain is only a short ridge-run to the east. To the west is the tantalizing sweep of Stetattle Ridge, a snow pathway towards ever-closer views of the Picket Range. We chose to head to the east, to the rambling summit of Sourdough Mountain. Stetattle Ridge would have to wait for another day, perhaps an overnight trip involving a glorious sunset and sunrise on the surrounding Cascades scenery.
The summit of Sourdough Mountain is nearly a vertical mile of elevation gain (actually probably more with the ups and downs) from the car. But the views are worth every bit of effort. Glittering a mile below are Diablo and Ross Lakes, and gleaming all around are craggy white-capped peaks, the 360° view dominated by Davis Peak, Pickets, Jack Mountain, Ruby Mountain, Colonial Peak, Snowfield Peak, and Pyramid Peak.
After we tagged the summit of Sourdough Mountain, Brian and I continued onward to see if we could find the Sourdough Lookout, which is about a mile further along the ridge. Paul decided to stay behind and soak in the view. When Brian and I arrived at the final bump on the ridge where the lookout is located, all we found was a giant cornice. We stood on top of the cornice. My GPS later indicated we were standing right on top of the lookout.
A scenic snow romp to collect Paul, and then three of us headed down. We were back at the car 8 hours and 58 minutes after we left that morning. What a great way to spend a winter day!
Driving Directions: Drive State Route 20 to mile 126 (20 miles east of Marblemount), then turn onto Diablo Road (there is a sign for the town of Diablo). Proceed 0.7 mile, crossing an iron bridge that spans Stetattle Creek. Bear right and reach the trailhead in 0.25 mile (elev. 900 ft). Park on the right side of the road. The trail begins on the opposite side, near the tennis courts.
Even though the lookout was buried under a wall of snow, I figure I can at least partially count it towards my goal of visiting all standing fire lookouts in WA.
Listed on the National Historical Lookout Register, the summit of Sourdough was one of the first "lookout" points established by the U.S. Forest Service in 1915. Glee Davis built the original cupola cabin lookout in 1917. A neighboring peak to the west of Sourdough is named for the Davis family. The present building (a L-4 ground cab) was constructed in 1933. Bush Osborne chose the location to test his fire locating device. The Osborne Firefinder soon became standard equipment in lookouts. Beatnik poet Philip Whalen worked a couple of summers on Sourdough as a lookout back in the 1950s. The lookout was rehabilitated in 1998-99, and has become a popular hiking destination. The lookout is staffed in the summer. All other times of year, it is closed to the public. Or simply buried, as shown in the following aerial photo I took in February 2013 on a flight with pilot and aerial photographer John Scurlock.
It is my goal to eventually visit all the remaining standing fire lookouts scattered about the mountain ranges of Washington. Click the following link to go to my webpage on fire lookout structures of Washington, which gives a bit of history of fire lookouts as well as a complete listing of the remaining standing lookout structures in the state.
Roundtrip distance: 13 miles (11 to summit, without sidetrip to search for buried lookout)
Start elev.: 900 ft Summit elev: 6140 ft
Lookout elev: 5985 ft
Elevation gain: 5240 ft (to summit), 5085 ft (to lookout)
Ascent: 4 hours to summit, 1 more to lookout, Descent: 4 hours, Total car-to-car: 8 hours 58 min
4:15 am: Seattle constituent embarks on I-5 northward
5:30 am: All party members meet in Sedro-Woolley
6:58 am: Arrive at TH (900 ft)
7:07 am: Start climbing up
7:17 am: This Area Is Safe From Flooding sign (~1200')
7:28 am: Hit snow on trail (1700 ft)
7:33 am: Sunrise
7:40 am: Put on snowshoes (2000 ft)
8:13 am: Left switchbacking trail and started heading straight uphill (2900 ft)
9:27 am: Started to break out into the open (4800 ft)
11:18 am: Summit (6140 ft)
12:12 pm: Lookout (5985 ft)
12:18 pm: Begin descent
4:05 pm: Arrive back at car
5:04 pm: Sunset
We hit snow around 1700 ft. Then came a few thousand feet of snowshoeing up through open timber.
Breaking out into the open at around 4800 ft.
Breaking out into the open around 4800 ft.
Wet slide activity along Sourdough Creek below to the east.
Paul on the ascent up the south side of Sourdough, with Colonial Peak in background.
Once up high, the terrain is open and the views are spectacular. Davis Peak in left background.
With views like this, you don't even notice the effort. Colonial, Snowfield, Pyramid in background.
A wind-formed snow alligator.
Looking up towards the summit area of Sourdough Mountain, our destination.
Paul ascending the ridge towards the summit of Sourdough Mountain.
Brian summiting Sourdough Mountain.
Rimed trees on the ridge between Sourdough Mountain and Sourdough Lookout.
Half rime, half tree.
The GPS coordinates for this photo indicated Brian was standing right above the buried lookout. Probably right here.
Looking east from the Sourdough Lookout site. This ridge runs over the summit of Sourdough Mountain and joins Stetattle Ridge. The Pickets are in the distance.
Cornices on the ridge between Sourdough Mountain and Sourdough Lookout.
Inspiration Peak and McMillan Spires.
Paul had not joined Brian and me on our quest to see if we could locate the Sourdough Lookout. He made arrows in the snow to show us which way he had rambled when we were on our lookout quest.
Rimed trees and wind-blown powder.
Heading back out from this winter paradise. Colonial, Snowfield, Pyramid in distance.
Re-entering the zone at which we are no longer safe from flooding if the Ross Dams breaks....
The Sourdough Mountain trail begins behind the tennis courts.
March 2013 Trip Report
Snow-camping on Sourdough Mountain.
The Sourdough-Stetattle area is a spectacular location, especially when encased in snow. On my first time up here in February 2012, I noted I needed to return for an overnight trip someday. The opportunity to do this overnight adventure to the Sourdough-Stetattle area came just over a year later on a stellar early spring weekend in March 2013 (click the link for the trip report). The lookout was completely buried on this trip as well.
October 2013 Trip Report
A brilliant autumn day autumn visit to the Sourdough Lookout, battened down in preparation for the winter storms ahead.
Fall colors on the approach to Sourdough Lookout. Snowfield group across the valley and Diablo Lake below.
Sourdough Lookout at the end of Sourdough Ridge.
Sourdough Lookout, locked and battened down for the season.
Tension straps around the lookout help it weather the harsh North Cascade winters. The lookout is looking pretty good for being in its 80th year (as of 2013), and this winter strapping probably extends its lifespan quite a bit.
Adrian enjoying a warm perch on the steps of the lookout.
Instead of retracing our steps back along the trail, we hiked along the ridgecrest over to Sourdough Mountain. There was about half a foot of recently deposited snow on the ridge.
A lake along the ridge between Sourdough Lookout and the official top of Sourdough Mountain. Snowfield group in distance.
Another photo of the beautiful scenery in the vicinity of Sourdough Ridge. This is wonderful terrain for a mountain romp.
Brilliant fall colors.
After crossing over Sourdough Mountain, we did some cross country travel to get back to the trail. We underestimated how much we needed to descend and spent awhile convinced we had already crossed the trail until we eventually found it.
Brilliant fall colors on the trail to/from Sourdough Lookout.
More on my website
This trip report is copied from my website, which has several other climbing trip reports and photographs from the North Cascades and elsewhere: www.stephabegg.com.
Gotta love staying in shape in the N. Cascades winter with serious elevation gain from the lower trailheads. Fun stuff. You should also try the Helen Buttes from Cow's Heaven trail if you haven't already.
And, one of my favorite poets, Gary Snyder, the one who inspired Keroauc to spend a summer up on Desolation, also spent a summer up on ol' Sourdough. . . Snyder wrote something like, "at the end of the summer, I was the only one of the lookouts who didn't want to come down. . . " Love it. Good for you for getting up there on a bluebird day in the winter!
Google maps says 124 miles, 2.5 hours from Seattle to trailhead. Both of my partners drove in from Seattle and drove back that evening, defintely worth it. Congrats on moving to one of the best places to live in the world. =)
Nice report, one of my favorite areas. It is actually a part of the “crest”, so if one has ambitions to know the full crest of the North cascades, this area has to be visited. Also, you appropriately suggested an overnighter out to the north end of Stetattle ridge; I’ve done that to point 6728, and highly recommend bringing your skis – the ridgetop skiing is the best there is, and the views of the McMillan Spires is indescribable (if you wanna see, I have a photo of this on this site, it is something like the tenth one of the mere 27 shots I have in my image gallery…it looks truly Himalayan).
I have actually been waiting years for the right conditions to coincide with time off from work someday to return here and expand it into a ski loop by getting back to point 6728, then over to and up Elephant Butte, then enjoying a well-earned glide down to Azure Lake. From there, the plan goes down Stetattle Creek to hopefully find the remnant trail at about 2000 feet to hike back out making an ideal 3-day loop. Timing will be everything on this plan, need low avy danger, yet snow as far down Stetattle Creek as practical for early to mid-Spring, otherwise the route will deliver me into a brush hell before finding the trail. If I ever pull this off, maybe I’ll do a trip report. If someone has already done this or does it before me, I’d love to hear about it.