It would be a cardinal sin not to climb this peak. Okay, maybe not. Cardinal Peak is the highest point on the long divide immediately west of Lake Chelan. The peak rises 7,500 ft from the lakeshore in less than five miles of horizontal distance. Along with adjacent Emerald and Saska peaks and nearby Pinnacle Mountain, it is one of four Top 100 peaks on this divide. All four peaks reside in the Glacier Peak Wilderness. Their south and west sides drain to the Entiat River. Their east sides drain to Lake Chelan.
Cardinal is a large mountain for the area. It is one of 144 peaks in the state with over 2,000 ft of prominence. The mountain contains three separate summits and another outlier called Skidgravel Point (8,339 ft). In addition, three small glaciers adorn the mountain like vestments on the peak's east side. These are the Glissade, the Goatrax, and the Skidgravel. There is even a tarn ("Skidgravel Lake" at ~7,900 ft) in a basin on the east side of the peak that some believe to be the highest lake in the state. I personally wouldn't call it a lake, but that's just me.
Rock of Cardinal is principally granodiorite and hornblende quartz diorite. This is the geology of the Cardinal Peak pluton. The peak is highly eroded. It's rubbly basins and lower slopes preclude it from being an attractive rock climbing destination. Even so, the easiest route to the top is class 3 and involves some exposure. The north summit is probably the most difficult to obtain, its easiest scramble perhaps class 4.
There is really only one way to get to this peak that 95 percent of climbers will use. This is via the North Fork Entiat River drainage. Within this drainage, there are three trail approaches that could be used. Another way to get to the peak is to climb directly up from Lake Chelan on the east. Not only would this be a long cross-country route, but it would require being dropped off on the lakeshore at an uncertain landing. I will omit further description of this eastside route. There are a myriad of trails in the area. Some of these, such as the Snow Brushy Creek Trail, could be used to access the area from other areas deeper in the wilderness. These trails will also be omitted here.
All three N. Fork Entiat River trail approaches begin at the North Fork Entiat River Trail No. 1437. To get to the trailhead, exit Alt.US-97 just south of the town of Entiat on the west side of the Columbia River and take the Entiat River Road northwestward. Keep on the road (paved for most of the way) for 32.5 miles to where North Fork Entiat Road No. 5606 junctions off to the right. (If you come to North Fork Campground, you've gone too far.) Take the North Fork road for about three switchbacking miles to its end at ~3,700 ft.
Entiat Approach #1 -- North Fork Entiat Trail
You can take this trail all the way to the west foot of Cardinal. It is the least scenic (forest-bound river views notwithstanding) of the three approaches but the most direct. The trail follows the river for the first 7+ miles to 5,800 ft at which point it turns sharply right (east) to ascend a half-a-mile or so to a junction with the Pyramid Mountain Trail at 6,600 ft. This junction is about a mile southwest of Cardinal's summit. Go left (north) at the junction and walk the trail for maybe a half-mile to an open area. Good camping here. From this open area, a hike east through sparse forest and then talus leads toward the standard route up Cardinal. Total distance to camp = 8.5 miles; gain = 2900 ft.
Entiat Approach #2 -- Pugh Ridge Trail
This trail follows semi-alpine Pugh Ridge. It is quite scenic but not as direct and certainly more of a grunt--especially in the approach direction. It can be used as a deproach route to make for a nice loop back to the trailhead. This is what I did. However, I shall describe this way as if it were to be used as an approach to Cardinal. Take the North Fork Trail as per Approach #1 for about 5 miles to the 4,280-ft level a couple of hundred yards past a creek crossing. A trail (possibly signed as the "Pugh Ridge Trail"), will lead off to the right. The trail climbs steeply up the north bank of the (unnamed) creek crossed previously. In three arduous miles on a trail haphazardly strewn with debris, pine cones, and burned forest (I don't think the trail is maintained), you will finally reach the crest of Pugh Ridge at 6,600 ft. The views now open up to you and you'll be glad (relieved) you went this way. Turning left (north), the trail then follows the crest. Beige pumice from Glacier Peak covers much of the ground. About two-tenths of a mile from where the trail gains the ridge crest there was a strange manmade metal tower (near triangulation Pt. 6661) which baffled me as to its purpose. The trail keeps to the crest for 1.5 miles before dismounting it. At times the "trail" does not exist and one must instead follow cairns. But this is not a problem, for the cairns are generally placed in the grasses within easy site of each other. The trail leaves the crest and descends 400 ft to Buck Camp (6,527 ft). (Note: this camp is at a big meadow. If coming this way on the deproach, it can be difficult to locate the Pugh Ridge Trail. It sort of starts up the other side of the meadow. There might be some marker cairns. If you start descending a trail that follows the creek draining the meadow then you've gone the wrong way). The Pugh Ridge Trail ends at this camp whereupon it junctions with the Pyramid Mountain Trail. Go left (north) at the junction and hike up to Grouse Pass (7,160+ ft). There is another camp along the trail at the head of Grouse Creek (it may be called Grouse Camp). From Grouse Pass to the junction with the North Fork Entiat Trail it is 2.6 miles. Go straight (north) at the junction and walk the trail for maybe a half-mile to an open area. Good camping here. From this open area, a hike east through sparse forest and then talus leads toward the standard route up Cardinal. Total distance to camp = 13 miles; gain = 4100 ft (more ups and downs).
Entiat Approach #3 -- South Pyramid Creek Trail
I have not been this way for the lower half. The upper half coincides with the Pugh Ridge approach past Buck Camp. Before Buck Camp, the trail is the South Pyramid Creek Trail. After the camp, it goes by the name Pyramid Mountain Trail. Take the North Fork Entiat Trail for two miles to where it crosses South Pyramid Creek at 4,000 ft. The SPCT junctions off a couple hundred yards past the crossing. The SPCT follows the north side of the creek for a little over a mile then crosses to the south side. The trail may meet two old connector trails along the way. Keep straight paralleling the creek. The trail crosses the creek three more times before finally reaching Buck Camp in 5 miles. Hike up to Grouse Pass (7,160+ ft). There is another camp along the trail at the head of Grouse Creek (it may be called Grouse Camp). From Grouse Pass to the junction with the North Fork Entiat Trail it is 2.6 miles. Go straight (north) at the junction and walk the trail for maybe a half-mile to an open area. Good camping here. From this open area, a hike east through sparse forest and then talus leads toward the standard route up Cardinal. Total distance to camp = 10.5 miles; gain = 3000 ft.
This peak resides in the Glacier Peak Wilderness, therefore the "leave no trace" policies, etc. apply here. There would probably also be a Trail Park Pass requirement for the trailhead.
When To Climb
Spring to fall.
See the approach descriptions for campsites. Most of the terrain is fairly open, meaning you could camp just about anywhere. But for the sake of erosion, it is best to select unvegetated ground.
Stehekin weather (the nearest town with weather info)
Views from the Mountain
See also the bottom of the Saska Peak page for annotated views from that nearby mountain.