The Hike

Desolation Peak  is not an easy hike.

The raw numbers are a 4400′ elevation  gain and  9.4 miles roundtrip.  Hiking times vary but many folks spend about 5 hours hiking up and 4 hours coming down. Someone in great shape or young can often do it in much less.  But why hurry ? About 1/2 of the hiking time is above timberline.  There you will get a good dose of sun, heat & views !

This is a general guide to hiking the trail.  Some information is repeated later on in this website in Chapter 5 Hiking Up  — which is more of a personal narrative of my NPS assignment to Deso. Also a number of people have posted videos of the hike on Youtube.

If the weather permits it — shorts work well on this trail as there is very few stinging nettles, devil’s club or thorns overhanging the path.  If I do see some worrisome foliage ahead–I use my hiking sticks to hold it out of the way as I go by.  As far as sunblock — you will probably sweat a lot and so a lightweight sunscreen would work better than one intended for jumping in and out of water as hey tend to be too thick & tenacious.  Remember to reapply 1/2 way thru your day.  As a dermatologist who has excised hundreds of skin cancers — reapplying at noon is more important than a super hi SPF. I like the spray and foam versions but I don’t spray my skin directly — I spray my hand and use it to apply to face, arms, lower legs, etc.  You will also need bug repellant—- remembering to treat your lower legs if exposed.  Unlike Sourdough Mountain — Deso doesn’t seem to have many biting flies.

If you come to the trailhead by Resort rental boat or by Resort Water Taxi — you will start the hike at the Desolation Dock. It takes about 45 ” by resort boat and about 30 ” by taxi to get up the lake.  Be sure to make reservations if taking the taxi as it is limited to 6 people and can be already booked up— especially the first run @ 8 AM.  If using a Resort boat ——it will seem like the Desolation dock ought to be just beyond Lightning Camp but it is further than it looks — keep motoring till you spot it tucked in on the right.

You can also hike from the North Cascades Highway to the trailhead via the East Bank but that approach is more than 20 miles of trail just to get started.  Many folks doing it this way will stay at Lightning Camp the night before…….

( photo by Mike Anglada )

In case you have need—there are two privies — one here about 60 feet to the north just off the dock connector trail and there is also one up at the LO.

You want to get started early because the morning sun will be blocked by the ridge. At the dock you will see signs directing you up the connector trail of about 75 yards to the end of the East Bank Trail and the start of the Deso LO Trail.

Ok now you are on the actual trail — you face the usual Northwest LO hike — hours up thru the trees and then hours above timberline to the top.  There are very few flat spots on this trail — it is almost always up — sometimes ~gradual , sometimes steep.  Working up thru the trees in the morning is quite nice though…..

Occasionally in this area you will see evidence of the old phone line that ran from the LO down to the East Bank Trail. This was before wirelesss communication.  Stringing these lines and maintaining them was quite a task.  If you would like to read a LO memoir from those days that talks quite a bit about it — get a copy of Berray Mountain by Kingsley Greene.  He was a youngster from the East Coast who came to Montana during W W II to man a LO for the USFS.

Ross Lake is at ~ 1600 ft altitude and at about 3700 feet you will run into the only semi reliable spring.  It is on the uphill side and marked by some larger rocks.  In my experience it is flowing into early August but impossible to count on.  If it is flowing — you can filter water here to use going up higher and of a course — on the descent to get you down to the lake.  The LO ( when open ) has water but very limited as it has to be helicoptered up, do NOT ask Jim for water — he only has enough for himself.

Here is a shot of the spring in mid July this year ( 2022 ) which was a wet late spring .  It is not usually running that strong.

Above the spring after a while you will come to a tree with a curved trunk about 10 inches high right across the trail.  This is your marker than you are about to leave the trees and start up an avalanche chute. I usually have a snack and some water here before getting blasted by the sun above.  This picture shows my son Adley adding additional sunblock in preparation.

Ok here you go up the chute.  This is one of the two steeper sections.

However the compensating factor is that the views begin to open up now that the trees are out of the way:  : )

Not long after that you will come to the Desolation Campground where there is a tent site —  requiring a permit issued by the Park along with the required bear canister which the Wilderness Center in back in Marblemount (where you pick up the permit) will usually rent you.  There is no water here  unless some snow is lingering……. it is  dry camp.  I have stayed there three times over the years and twice of those times I have been awakened in the middle of the night by animal noises that turn out to be deer. The first time one of them tripped on a tent guy line and caused a commotion among the other deer and frighten me until unzipping the flap I could see they were only deer with my flashlight.

After the campground the slope eases off just a bit and then comes the fooler.  I call it the ” headwall ” but it is deceptive as it ” lays back ” so I always think I am going to charge right up it.  However, it is slow going because it is steeper than it looks….. you have a mile to go to get to the LO but this makes it seem longer.  There is no camping up at the LO.

As this section lets up —– you start the last part which is a ridge walk.  It is a bit of a roller coaster — up and down.  The reward is that you will begin to see the LO on up ahead…..

and it gets bigger as you get closer–

The small building to the right of the LO is the Radio Repeater Shack.  As you come up the last pitch — suddenly there will be the lookout.  VICTORY !


Jim is a heck of  nice guy and will be able to answer most any question you might have.  He has spent his last 7 summers up there.  His work schedule like most LOs is 10 days on and 4 days off.  So if the LO is not occupied — he is probably “down ” on his days off.  If the the season is “heating up” which means the humidity is low and the temperatures are high, there are ” red flag alerts “,  active fires within sight or the possibility of lightning — then the FMO will ask Jim to stay on duty indefinitely.  Deso is normally staffed from  early July to mid / late September but it depends on the weather and fire season.  Occasionally it is staffed in late June.

Here is a shot of me inside the LO next to the all important Osborne Firefinger….  It was so wonderful to sit inside reminiscing about my shifts up there.  Very little has changed since then or even back to Kerouac’s time— though the Park Service has done a big restoration of the structure with new shutters , paint and a wall all rebuilt all to historical standards. A caution — the lookout is the fire lookout’s house and you need to ask permission to go inside.  Don’t just wander in there.

 For you Desolation Angels  fans — walk around the far side ( north side ) and there will be Hozomeen in all its glory–curiously the hill in between is called Little Jackass Mountain………

After you have eaten your lunch and taken in the sights it will be time to head down.  If you rented a boat — be careful as the long Ross Lake ” fetch ” with the afternoon winds sometimes will create 3 foot waves on the lake making for a long challenging run way back to the Resort.  If instead you are staying the night at the Deso campground — you might back come up to the top for sunset.  It will light up the Nohokomeen Glacier a sublime pink.

Here is my son and I about to head down… can see how far you have to go by the lake below…. Jack Man with Nohokomeen Glacier set in its big cirque look closer than in this photo.

I have climbed Desolation 9 times over the years ( mostly with a backpack )– the first time was about 1996 —- here I am celebrating that first climb when I got back to  the Resort…….a much  younger guy  : )

Be careful if you rent a resort boat — coming back in the afternoon can find Ross Lake very choppy — full of waves from the afternoon wind.  Here is a stamp painting I did of one such trip I made which got a little worrisome in places……..

And one last note:  you might find your toenails bruised from the long descent.  Here are mine a couple of weeks afterward–