Dancing on Sauk Mountain

As the snow begins to retreat in the North Cascades, and the color scheme ever so slowly shifts from white to green, I get the itch.

Of course, having plied these North Cascades for numerous happy decades, I am used to waiting: there’s a lot of snow up there, and it melts out slowly, unveiling the verdant greenery in its own sweet time. The hiking season, we must have faith, will come.

The greenery is intoxicating, and the opportunity to gaze out upon a vast landscape of icy peaks is welcome indeed, a balm for the summer-hungry soul.

It is during this time (when the itch has become almost unbearable) that Sauk Mountain calls my name. Located in Skagit County, near Rockport, the Sauk Mountain Trail climbs in gentle switchbacks up a south-facing slope that is among the first to emerge from the snow in these northern mountains, accessible some years as early as late June.

Mt. Baker from Sauk Mountain

Virtually every step up the trail offers a feast for the senses: the views out over the Skagit River Valley are constantly mesmerizing and the trail itself climbs through a lush, intensely green, pitched meadow. The scent of renewal fills one’s nostrils. After the long months of winter’s muted greys, the vibrant green of the slope—if not the uphill grade—will take your breath away.  

As the switchbacks convey you to the top of the ridge, the views expand to include waves of snow-covered peaks stretching to the horizon. To the southeast, Glacier Peak floats above the range. On a clear day, you can see Mount Rainier, like a fata morgana in the distance.

The flower show starts early with trillium and glacier lilies, and becomes an alpine Monet’s garden as the summer unfolds, one of the most prolific wildflower displays in these mountains: a riot of columbine, tiger lily, phlox, Indian paintbrush, penstemon, mountain hellebore, arnica, asters, and dozens more.  



Achieving the top of the ridge after approximately one mile, the trail swings around to the peak’s north side, which will undoubtedly be covered with snow in the early season. Generally, the snow is not a problem as the route now traverses the ridge crest across gently undulating terrain. A new world of wild peaks opens to the north, including a stupendous view of the dramatic Picket Range. Take a moment to drink it in.

A side trail descends to the right, leading down to Sauk Lake, far, far below. I must admit that although I’ve climbed Sauk at least a dozen times, I’ve never visited the lake. I have a well-established aversion to immediately losing elevation after having just gained it.

The ridge crest is marmot paradise—it’s common to see these critters scurrying across the meadows and rocks. I swear I once saw a pair of them boxing like old-time pugilists, the only thing missing were handle-bar mustaches.

Sauk Mountain Crest


In the early season, you should expect the rest of the route to the summit proper (where once a fire lookout cabin—occupied for a time in 1953 by Beat poet Philip Whalen—stood) to be snowbound. If there is snow here, take pause. If you don’t have an ice axe (and the requisite knowledge to wield it), think twice about going farther. There are many places on this precipitous slope where a slide would be extremely unpleasant. The emergency room is no place to spend an early summer afternoon.

If this is the case, find a comfortable place along the ridge (there are many) to sit back and watch the clouds caress the North Cascades for an hour or three. There is much to see: Baker, Shuksan, White Chuck, White Horse, Hidden Lake Peaks, and hundreds more. The Twin Sisters Range is close at hand. Beyond them, far to the west, the Salish Sea, crowded with islands, gleams like burnished steel as evening approaches. I like to hang around until the sunset paints the peaks pastel pink and magenta and then hike down by headlamp, but that’s just me.

Wildflower Gardens on the Ridge


In early summer, Sauk Mountain is a touchstone, a profoundly satisfying prelude to the season of alpine splendor in the North Cascades that waits in the wings. The minimal elevation gain (only 1190 feet to the old fire lookout site) and gentle grade provide a perfect reintroduction to mountain hiking for knees and psyche. The greenery is intoxicating, and the opportunity to gaze out upon a vast landscape of icy peaks is welcome indeed, a balm for the summer-hungry soul. At this time of year, I can think of few places better suited to sitting on a rock and counting one’s blessings.

Visiting Sauk Mountain


Sauk Mountain is a popular destination, so expect company. Come on a weekday if you can. ‘Leave No Trace’ principles are mandatory, and it is essential to exercise care when hiking on the switchbacks to avoid dislodging rocks that could tumble downslope onto hikers below. This is not a place for unattended children.

Getting Out There


The Picket Range

Follow the North Cascades Highway (WA-20) east for 35 miles from I-5, and turn left on Sauk Mountain Road (FS-1030) near milepost 96. Follow this usually bumpy unpaved road (high-clearance vehicle recommended) for 7.9 miles until the road turns sharply right and climbs steeply uphill to the trailhead. This last short section is very rough, and some hikers elect to park along the road at the base of this section and walk a short distance to the trailhead. The views from the trailhead parking lot are better than many hiking destinations.

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