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Elephant Butte
Mountain/Rock

Elephant Butte

 
Elephant Butte

Page Type: Mountain/Rock

Location: Washington, United States, North America

Lat/Lon: 48.79240°N / 121.2184°W

Object Title: Elephant Butte

Elevation: 7380 ft / 2249 m

 

Page By: Eric Sandbo

Created/Edited: Mar 20, 2005 / Mar 25, 2005

Object ID: 153837

Hits: 7223 

Page Score: 89.77%  - 30 Votes 

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Overview


As a destination, Elephant Butte is off the beaten track, perhaps visited by a dozen or fewer people per year, nearly all of whom are passing through on the way to or from the Southern Pickets. In a region known for spectacularly rugged scenery, it's only slightly less rugged than its neighbors and offers fine views in all directions. Climbers heading to or from the Pickets with heavy packs will take a two or three days getting from the road at the village of Diablo to Elephant Butte. Distance is about 10 miles, one way, with considerable elevation gain and loss. Traveling light, the round trip can be made in one long, masochistic day {see the “Day Trippin'” trip report) on steep trail, a long, trailless, wide-open ridge, and a fairly steep drop and climb involving some snowfields and short class 3 rock steps.

[I use “Sourdough Mountain” and “Sourdough Ridge” interchangeably here and on the SE Ridge route page. Apparently Sourdough Mountain is just the SE terminus of the ridge. Fred Beckey's guidebook seems to refer to the ridge as Stetattle Ridge, after the creek to the SW, but my USGS quad and National Park map don't show a name on the ridge at all. Since the high point of the ridge is about 800 feet higher than Sourdough Mountain, perhaps it should have its own SP page. I'm also unclear whether Beckey intends the name Stetattle to refer to the ridge extending from Elephant Butte to the Southern Pickets, also.]


Getting There


Drive Washington's State Route 20 (the North Cascades Highway) to Gorge Lake, the lowest of the three reservoirs on the Skagit River. The highway crosses the lake on a causeway and bridge. At the W end of the causeway a spur branches NE to the village of Diablo, a Seattle City Light company town for workers at the Diablo Dam and powerhouse.The town is backed up against the foot of Sourdough Mountain. After driving across the little Stetattle Creek bridge, look for the town's indoor swimming pool at the bottom of the forested slope. Park nearby and find the Sourdough Mountain trailhead behind the pool building, elevation 890 feet.

Note: If you're ever driving through the North Cascades with a non-hiker who's curious enough to walk a few hundred feet, drive into the cul-de-sac W of the pool in Diablo, park out of the way, and walk across the yard between two houses to the start of the Stetattle Creek trail, on the E side of the creek. You'll find yourself instantly in wilderness, beside a crystalline stream rushing down white granite under moss-draped trees. The trail goes for miles up the valley, but most of it's hundreds of feet up on the canyonside. Right here in sight of the houses is about as beautiful a sample of North Cascades forest as a non-hiker could hope to see. And if you're not with a non-hiker, grab a waterbottle and go. But bring a watch. It's the kind of trail that keeps luring you onward. In fact, Beckey's guidebook promotes this trail as the approach route to Elephant Butte. Klenke has tried it and recommends against it. See his note in the main page feedback comments.

Back to the matter at hand: Hike up the Sourdough Mountain trail to about 4300 feet. The trail is consistently pretty steep, with a SW exposure and just enough forest to deaden the air. If you start up this with a heavy pack on a hot summer afternoon, you're asking for heat exhaustion or worse. The valley floor is in the Ross Lake National Recreation Area. At about 4100 feet you'll cross the boundary into the North Cascades National Park. Look for an unmarked trail junction at about 4300-4400 feet. A left turn here will take you straight N up the ridge crest W of Sourdough Creek to the crest of Sourdough/Stetattle Ridge. You'll break out of the trees just before reaching the crest at around 6,000 feet. The NE side of the ridge is very steep. Stay on or SW of the top. The trail peters out immediately, but it doesn't matter. What does matter is that you look back and memorize the scene. After hiking miles and miles of trailless ridge we found the trail on our return with seconds of daylight to spare. We weren't concerned about hiking down the trail by headlamp, but if you don't find the trail to start with, you've got a problem. Now, just hike the ridgetop NE over a series of minor humps (maximum 6,728 feet) for about four miles to the last hump (6154 feet). Turn left and head down and into the forest to the pass at 4920+ feet.


Red Tape


Most of this trip is in the North Cascades National Park. If you're camping, you'll need a free Backcountry Permit, available from the ranger station in Martblemount in summer. Party size limit is six “pairs of eyes”, that's people + stock animals. This route is inappropriate for stock animals, so that part of the calculation should be zero. I wouldn't worry about other parties filling the quota before you on Sourdough and Elephant.

Be considerate of the Diablo residents when parking. There's plenty of room to park without interfering with access to the pool or people's homes.


When To Climb


The hiking guidebooks say Sourdough Mountain is best July through October. We did our Elephant Butte trip in August.

Given reasonable winter conditions, the Sourdough trail / Stetattle Ridge portion of the trip (most of it) is one of the safer snowshoe/ski trips in the Cascades, as long as you go straight upslope from the trail at 4400 feet elevation. Staying on the trail as it continues into the Sourdough Creek gully is a bad idea in winter. Avalanches there have gone all the way to Diablo Lake, rearranging cabins at the lakeshore.

We tried to pull this off as a New Years weekend snowshoe trip once, but got so cold the first night we hightailed it home in the morning. It's a shame, because that ridge was easy, wide-open traveling, once we got onto it.


Camping


All along Sourdough / Stetattle Ridge are perfect little grassy pockets waiting for a tent. You'll need to fill water bottles from little snowmelt ponds or with snow. Either way it should be purified.


Mountain Conditions


The National Park posts current road and trail contions here. you might get last-minute updates from backcountry rangers by calling the phone numbers at the bottom of the Backcountry Permit page. The Seattle office of the national Weather Service tracks North Cascades weather.


Books and Maps


My edition of Fred Beckey's Cascade Alpine Guide devotes only a couple of column-inches to Elephant Butte. 100 Hikes in the North Cascades spends a couple of pages on the Sourdough Mountain trail, which will get you started, as long as you don't follow it across Sourdough Creek and up to the lookout.

The USGS 7.5-minute quad map with Elephant Butte and most of Sourdough Ridge on it is Mount Prophet, WA. The part of the Sourdough Mountain trail that you'll travel is on the Diablo Dam quad. A side trip to Sourdough Lake or the fire lookout requires the Pumpkin Mountain and Ross Dam maps.


Geology Tidbit


Fred Beckey's guidebook says the reason the pass between Elephant Butte and Sourdough is so sharply defined is that it's an old fault. The rock between the two mountains has been pulverized as the mountains slid against each other.

The creek that runs down the fault N from the pass drops almost 2,000 feet before running into a permanent snowfield. That's unusual; creeks are supposed to run out of snowfields, not into them. The scenario is duplicated just 1 1/2 miles W.

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