Granite Mountain Lookout

We decided to hike Granite Mountain over July 4th weekend. The holiday came on the heels of a brutal, four-day heatwave the previous weekend; and trails that had still been a little dicey from an above-average snow season were on the verge of their final thaw. While it pains me to think about all the ramifications the unusual heat has on the PNW, and what it means on the whole for our changing climate, I was selfishly a little bit grateful that the last bit of snowmelt meant we could finally get into the mountains.

Granite Mountain’s 5,600-foot summit is located near Snoqualmie Pass in the Central Cascades. The peak is crowned with one of Washington’s 93 iconic fire lookouts – first constructed in 1924 and rebuilt in 1955. Unlike many trails in the Cascades, the trail to Granite Mountain Lookout (#1016) is surprisingly accessible, beginning just a few hundred yards off I-90 on NF-9034.

The day we hiked, the weather called for some early morning clouds with full clearing by midday. As we made the hour-long drive to the trailhead from Snohomish, we noted that the cloud cover looked pretty impenetrable. It was still early, though, and we remained hopeful that we’d get some clear skies later that afternoon. The views of Mt. Rainier are supposed to be pretty incredible from the lookout, as are the vistas overlooking the turquoise trio of Granite Mountain Lakes.

When we visited, we opted to take the boulder scramble to the summit. A few hike reports suggested the traditional (summer) route was pretty slick in spots, and we weren’t sure whether our spikes would be enough traction. Several reports advised that the boulder field was not dog-friendly, but we figured we’d let Sanchez at least have a go at it, as she regularly surprises us with her ridiculous athleticism.

If you’re looking to warm your legs up for the season, this trail will certainly do it. It’s a pretty steep grade, gaining nearly 1,000 vertical feet per mile over the four miles to the top. The first half of the trail largely switchbacks through a shaded forest, before popping out onto a ridge covered with wildflower meadows.

I would assume this ridge offers some lovely views in nice weather, but unfortunately can’t confirm that statement. Those stubborn clouds just refused to yield. While we may not have had even the hint of a view from the ridgeline, the low-hanging wisps of fog created an almost enchanted landscape. Bear-grass and pink mountain-heather covered the hillsides – a vibrant contrast to the stark, grey skies. Everything was silent and still, and we saw virtually no other people.

As we neared the top of the mountain, the trail split into two – the main trail branching off to the right, and the boulder field just ahead of us toward the left. The meadows here were particularly lush, and beautifully framed the barren, granite boulders and intermittently-shrouded lookout. Not knowing how stable the snow was along that last portion of the main trail, we made our way to the boulders.

The quarter-mile scramble at the end added a bit of a fun challenge to our trip up. We’d met a guy earlier on the trail with a Pitbull mix who warned us that Sanchez wouldn’t stand a chance at summiting, as his dog had to turn back. We started to wonder if it would be too much for her, but weren’t turning back without at least trying. Sanchez ended up conquering that scramble like a champ! The lower portion was a little more challenging, as some of the boulders through here are the size of a small vehicle. Some clambering with our hands was definitely required, and Sanchez did struggle on a few of the wider gaps between rocks (she did ultimately need to be hoisted in just a couple of spots).

Near the summit the boulders transitioned into a field of much smaller talus, and suddenly Sanchez was off like a rocket. This type of scrambling is her happy place. She would race up the rocks to the end of her long lead and stop and wait anxiously for her significantly slower human companions to catch her. The few people we did pass on the boulder field seemed universally impressed with her abilities, with one woman going on to post in her WTA hike report that she met a dog of ‘knee-sized height that ascended [the boulder field] just fine.’

We enjoyed a leisurely lunch at the lookout, and ended up spending about an hour and a half waiting for the skies to clear. A couple teasing sun rays managed to penetrate the thick clouds, fooling us into thinking we had a chance at a view. Sanchez was beyond disgruntled with the protracted delay, and let us know in no uncertain terms. When we finally accepted Stephan finally convinced me the views were not meant to be, we headed back to the trailhead… one of us now scampering confidently the entire length of the boulder field.

In the end, it was quite the effort for zero view, but still a great hike. Sanchez had an absolute blast, and I think she was pretty proud of her scrambling achievement (i.e. a jackpot of cookies and heaps of praise). My knees may have been screaming by the end, but I would definitely make a return trip to see just how much beauty lie beyond those uncompromising clouds.

Total distance: 8.2 miles
Elevation gain: 3,580 feet

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