Hidden Lake Lookout

Akin to our luck hiking Cascade Pass, which was accessible for just ten days during the summer of 2021 due to weather-related road closures, we were also able to add Hidden Lake Lookout to our list of that year’s ‘Top Trail Fails.’

After a record-setting winter and protracted snowmelt in 2021, Hidden Lake astoundingly still hadn’t completely thawed out by the third week in July. Hoping to see the water in all its sapphire glory, Stephan and I decided to put off the hike for a couple more weeks as temperatures soared. Before that two weeks was up, however, wildfires swept across that area of the North Cascades and the trail closed so firefighters could use the lookout as a staging area. After closing on the 10th of August, the road and trail didn’t reopen until the end of September, more than a month after we’d left Snohomish. It was the second big miss on our Cascades must-hike list.

Two years later, as we made our way from California to Canada, we decided to squeeze in an eight-week return to Snohomish to hopefully bag a few Cascade trails we missed back in 2021. With a much more average snowpack this year, we were finally in luck. After reading a hike report on July 10th that said the lake was “mostly thawed,” we were now wise enough to make haste and head up our on first free day that next weekend.

Getting there

The trailhead for Hidden Lake Lookout is at the end of forest service road NF-1540 off Cascade River Road. While the road is very narrow and switchbacked, we found it nowhere near as precarious as other reports made it out to be. It’s dirt, it’s potholed, and it requires some slow and careful driving. If you regularly drive out into the wilderness, though, it’s exactly what you’d expect from any obsolete service road.

Once you turn onto Cascade River Road from Highway 20, it takes about thirty minutes to drive the 14 miles to the trailhead. By comparison, it took us over an hour to drive the 12 miles up NF-37 to Mt. Baker’s Skyline Divide Trailhead in 2021. If you’ve got a capable vehicle and confident driver, the trip to Hidden Lake’s trailhead should not be that big a deal.

After making a sharp left onto service road NF-1540, it’s only 4.5 miles to the trailhead. While the dirt road is rutted and washboarded with blind corners and some overgrowth, it’s largely in decent shape. The exception is one supremely furrowed section about a half mile from the trailhead on the final switchback. The potholes happen to be right on the corner as the road pitches steeply uphill. If you can confidently choose a line and go for it, you should be okay. That said, if you plan on making it all the way to the trailhead, you will probably want a high-clearance AWD. If you don’t think you can make it, there is room for a few cars to park right before this last corner – but just a few. If you drive up here, you absolutely cannot just park anywhere and block the road to traffic. It’s already super narrow.

On the trail

The out-and-back hike to Hidden Lake Lookout is absolutely gorgeous, navigating forests, open meadows, and ultimately a rocky pinnacle to the historic fire lookout. Clocking in at 8 miles with 3,300 feet of elevation gain, it’s a fairly steep and consistent climb all the way to the top.

For the first mile or so, the trail climbs steadily through a shaded forest as it contours the East Fork of Sibley Creek. After about a mile, the path pops out of the woods onto a grassy hillside. From here, the views of 10,781-foot Mount Baker begin to open up to the northwest. When we hiked in mid-July, the wildflowers here were insane. The green slopes and higher meadows were blanketed in blooms of all colors: paintbrush, aster, harebell, columbine, Columbia lilies, Lewis’ monkeyflower, rosy spirea, heather, goatsbeard, and Sitka valerian.

After another mile of switchbacks up the open hillside, the trail eventually enters the higher alpine meadows. The landscape here becomes more rocky and rugged, peppered with small tarns, babbling creeks and pockets of heather. The scenery becomes even more beautiful as the path winds beneath the glaciated ridgeline that’s home to the pointed peaks of The Triad, Eldorado, and Dorado Needle. Looking north, Little Devil Peak and its small glacier also come into view.

The ascent through the alpine meadows moderates slightly, gaining around 1,100’ of vertical over the 1.8 miles to the saddle. As you make your way to the saddle, you’ll likely find lingering snow patches through mid to late summer. Since the trail is well-traveled, though, there will likely be footprints to follow across the few snowy sections. Make sure you try to stay on route as best as possible as to not trample the fragile vegetation.

Once the trail crests the 6,600-foot saddle, you’re treated to your first view of Hidden Lake, a deep blue tarn nestled in a rocky, alpine basin. Across the lake, Quien Sabe Glacier hangs along the western slopes of Boston Peak and Sahale Mountain. To the north, you can look across the saddle to Hidden Lake Peaks, with Eldorado Peak and Eldorado Glacier visible just beyond. Now six days after that initial report of a “mostly thawed” lake, the water was completely ice-free.

From the saddle, it’s a steep quarter-mile to the lookout gaining an additional 300 feet of vertical. Built in 1931, the historic lookout is perched atop granite boulders at an elevation of 6,900 feet and offers sweeping panoramas of the North Cascades. Notable peaks to the south and north include two of Washington’s five stratovolcanoes, Glacier Peak and Mount Baker, respectively, as well as Baker’s (Koma Kulshan’s) jagged counterpart, Mount Shuksan.

After soaking up the views and descending back to the saddle, we chose to scramble the northern end of the ridge to Hidden Lake Peaks (7,087’). From the saddle, it’s about a one-mile return over blocky terrain (class 3) gaining another 500 feet of vertical to the highpoint.

If you’re confident scrambling, the views from Hidden Lake Peaks are equally exceptional. The summit offers another great vantage point for admiring jewel-toned Hidden Lake, and you can look back across the ridge at the pinnacle crowned with the small lookout cabin. Just north of Hidden Lake, there’s another eye-catching tarn filled from Hidden Lake Creek. Just beyond the turquoise pool, Eldorado Glacier spills down the southern side of Eldorado Peak.

It may have taken us two years to get there, but this trail was well worth the wait. With showy summer wildflowers, scenic ridge walks, frozen glaciers and a historic lookout, you’d be hard-pressed to find a hike with more diverse beauty. We were so grateful for a second chance to return to this remote swath of Washington’s North Cascades.

Total distance: 8.5 miles
Elevation gain: 3,762 feet

Know before you go

  • Dogs are allowed on the trail to Hidden Lake Lookout, but are not allowed to descend beyond the saddle to Hidden Lake (the lake sits within the boundary of North Cascades National Park).
  • If you plan to camp at Hidden Lake, you need to acquire a backcountry camping permit. Permits are limited and there are no facilities around the lake. Be prepared to pack everything out and bring your own bear-resistant food canister. If you don’t obtain a permit for the national park, there are also a few dispersed camping sites along the trail before the saddle.
  • It is possible to camp overnight in Hidden Lake Lookout. The lookout is available on a first come, first served basis, and is equipped with a double bed as well as some floorspace. Be prepared to arrive early if you want a chance at scoring the lookout cabin.

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