This isn't a technical climb (no ropes needed), basically just a hands-and-feet crawl up a 500-foot pile of car-door-sized granite slabs that happen to lie on top of each other more or less horizontally. Holds are huge and we stick to the rock like Velcro, so it's a mostly safe-feeling climb. Except for when Rick, who like me is much more a hiker than a rock climber, steps on a slab that rocks a little bit.
We set out early this September morning on a trail run/hike to Hidden Lake Lookout, a retired fire observation station built in 1931 and maintained for the past 30-plus years by Friends of the Hidden Lake Lookout, a Skagit County Group. The Hidden Lake Trail is steeper than I remembered — I'd hiked it before but not tried running it — and about a half-mile from the trailhead, our trail run morphs into a speed-hike. Which is fine, because not long after passing through a forest of silver fir, we begin a switchbacking, elevation-gobbling ascent up the Sibley Creek basin.
With the sun rising above the Hidden Lake Peaks — there are actually several Hidden Lake Peaks; the one we eventually climb is the most prominent — we ascend a grand amphitheater of purple lupine and crimson paintbrush, mini-waterfalls and jagged crags. Cheeky marmots, fuzzy lumps lazing on boulders in the sun, whistle at us from across the valley.
After about 2.5 miles and 1,800 feet of climbing, the grade eases as the trail traverses south across heathery meadows and granite boulder fields. We're running again and are rewarded with emerging views to the west of Mount Baker and Twin Sisters, and deep down into the evergreen valley of the Cascade River. About a mile farther, after a couple rock-garden switchbacks, the lookout comes into view a few hundred feet above us. I spot it before Rick and am impelled to pull one of the oldest (and dumbest) tricks in the book.
"Look out!" I yell, as if he were about to become prey for a low-flying pterodactyl.
"Oh yeah, there it is," Rick says, ignoring my attempt at humor.
After ascending a short, snow-filled, rock-rimmed gully we reach a notch at about four miles (6,500 feet) and are instantly awash in North Cascade peaks. It's all bright sun and glaciers, valleys, forests and sky-kissing spires as far as the eye can see. Below us, jewel-like Hidden Lake — the lake and peak's namesake — sparkles in the sun, a few mini-icebergs afloat in its shallows.
With the lookout in sight, we head to the right (south) and climb a technical trail that snakes through boulders and is at times hard to follow. It's about a half-mile more and 300 feet higher to the lookout. Fading red dots spray-painted on boulders at key spots lead the way, as do cairns placed by those who've gone before. After a hands-and-feet crawl up the final few yards, we reach the lookout: a small wood box bolted to a pile of rocks. It's available for overnight stays on a first-come basis and in fact, just as we arrive at about 11 a.m. on a Saturday, a couple who'd spent the night are heading down. "There's no charge if you're poor or a college student, but most people send between $10 and $25," said Dr. Fred Darvill, a Northwest climbing legend and author who heads up the Friends of Hidden Lake. "Of course if you're Bill Gates or someone like that, you probably should leave several thousand dollars."
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Sadly, Darvil, a true Northwest legend, recently passed away.)
Darvill said it costs about $300 a year to maintain the lookout. There are pre-addressed donation envelopes inside. We also find a double bed, blankets, dishes, propane stove, pots, pans, maps and 360-degrees worth of mountains — a room with a view if there ever was one.
A bookshelf stuffed with paperback bestsellers and mountain guidebooks offers a title that catches my eye: "The Madams of San Francisco" by Curt Gentry. Something to curl up with on a lonely night in the mountains, I suppose.
Rick and I made pretty good time to the lookout, so we spring for dessert — the scramble up Hidden Lake Peak. As the raven flies, it's about a half-mile northeast of the lookout and, at 7,088 feet, about 200 feet higher. First though, we descend to the notch where earlier we went right toward the lookout. Once there, we find a trail heading up in the opposite direction, which soon turns to large flat boulders and from there, we're pretty much on our own. We stay to the left of the ridge (the Mount Baker side) and are able to find mostly big, bomber-hold rocks — that only occasionally moved — all the way to the top.
"This is the peak, baby!" Rick calls back to me after about 20 minutes of scrambling.
I look up and above the large granite flake where he's perched, I see nothing but blue sky. A couple minutes later, I join him. Though it doesn't seem possible, the views, which were stupendous at the lookout (and the notch below the lookout), are even more so from the peak. It's like we've stepped out onto the wing of an airplane. Wedged in the rocks we find a plastic tube containing the summit register and while I click off photos, Rick fills it in.
"What kind of trail run is this, McQuaide?" he writes.
An amazing one. A little steep maybe, but amazing nonetheless.
TO GET THERE: For the Hidden Lake Lookout hike, take Interstate 5 to Exit 230 at Burlington, Skagit County, and go east on Highway 20 (North Cascades Highway) for about 40 miles to Marblemount. Just past Milepost 106, go straight onto Cascade River Road where Highway 20 takes a hard left. Cross a bridge over the Skagit River and continue on Cascade River Road for 9.8 miles to Forest Road 1540. Turn left and follow the rough, narrow gravel road for 4.7 miles to the road-end trailhead. Elevation: 3,500 feet. Northwest Forest Pass required for parking.
Statistics: Nine miles round-trip; add about a mile if you scramble up Hidden Lake Peak. Elevation gain: 3,400 feet. High point: 6,890 for lookout, 7,088 for Hidden Lake Peak.
Safety: This hike/run/climb took place on a windless, sunny day when there hadn't been precipitation for at least a month, and the trail was about as melted out as it ever gets. Snow, rain or any kind of bad weather will raise the difficulty level significantly and raise safety issues as well, especially the higher you go. Check the weather forecast and the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest Web site (www.fs.fed.us/r6/mbs) for the latest conditions, or call Mount Baker Ranger District, 360-856-5700. And always go prepared with the hiker's Ten Essentials (maps, compass, flashlight/headlamp, extra food and water, extra clothing, sunglasses, first-aid kit, pocket knife, matches and fire starter).