Desolation Peak Trail

I came to a point where I needed solitude and just stop the machine of 'thinking' and 'enjoying' what they call 'living,' I just wanted to lie in the grass and look at the clouds.
-Jack Kerouac
Distance - one way to Elevation gain Use Difficulty
East Bank Trailhead to Lightning Creek 15.3 miles (24.7 km) 1924' (586 m) Hiking and Stock Easy

Lightning Creek to Desolation Lookout: 6.25 miles (10 km)

4770' (1454 m)

Hiking only


Desolation Peak Lookout
View of Hozomeen Peak from the Desolation lookout. NPS/B. Gilmartin

Desolation Peak Trail is a steep hike to open meadows, grand vistas and a historic fire lookout. It is a popular day hike for boaters staying on Ross Lake, or a scenic but strenuous side trip for backpackers along the East Bank Trail. Many hikers come to see the site of poet and writer Jack Kerouac's mountainous sojurn. This is a steep hike that is often hot and dry; know your limits and bring plenty of water.

See the detailed trail description for more information on this area.

Special Concerns:

  • This area has very fragile vegetation. Please take care to avoid trampling the vegetation by hiking and resting only on durable surfaces such as the trail, snow or rocks.
  • This is a hot and very dry trail in the summer. There is no reliable water source along the trail or camp once you leave Ross Lake and the snow has melted.
  • The historic lookout is not open to the public.

Backcountry Camping: A backcountry permit is required for all overnight stays. Permits are limited. There is no camping allowed on the summit of Desolation, but there is a designated camp located about 1 mile (1.6 km) below the summit. This small camp holds only one party of up to eight people, and there is no water source after the snows melt. Fires are not allowed, and a bear cannister is required for camping at Desolation Camp. The next closest camps are on Ross Lake, including Lightning Creek and others.

Access: Access is via the East Bank Trail, or from Ross Lake by boat. The East Bank Trailhead is located near milepost 138 on State Route 20. Hike 16 miles (26 km) to the trail junction for Desolation Peak. Boat transportation from Ross Lake Resort (206-386-4437) may be arranged to the Desolation Trailhead. Hikers also can access the trail and Ross Lake from Hozomeen campground on the U.S.-Canadian Border. If accessing the trail via boat, there is also a dock for the Desolation Trail two miles (3.2 km) north of Lightning Creek.


Detailed Trail Description

The trail begins gently, with lakeside views. After two miles (3.2 km), the trail turns east and begins to climb-most of your 4,400 feet (1341 m) elevation gain is still ahead of you. Enjoy the cool forest and fill up with water before leaving the lake. The forest tapers off to exposed subalpine vegetation. Watch for views of Hozomeen Mountain to the north, the Picket Range and Ross Lake to the west, Jack Mountain to the south, and Skagit Peak to the east.

The Desolation Peak Trail takes the hiker from low elevation forests to subalpine meadows. It also allows discovery of plant species from the dryer east-side which grow on this west slope . Ponderosa and lodgepole pine can be found. Watch for wildlife: deer, bear, cougar, grouse, and marmots. Along the trail, one can find remains of charred wood. A major burn occurred in 1926. Periodic fire created the meadows. Opportunistic plants and animals thrive in the open space that results from fire. This mountain is a place of striking variety.

Lookouts are places vacillating between an experience far from the world and the thunderous reality of a mountain storm. Desolation is noted for extreme changes in weather. The people who worked in lookout stations either possessed a fitting solitary character, soon gained it, or made excuses to leave. Beatnik poet Jack Kerouac served as the lookout here in 1956. He wrote the classic book Desolation Angels from that experience. Kerouac described the looming twin peaks of Hozomeen Mountain as "the void."

Summit view from Desolation looking south toward Ross Lake and the Nohokomeen Glacier on Jack Mountain
NPS / Chelsea Gudgeon
Summit view from Desolation looking south toward Ross Lake and the Nohokomeen Glacier on Jack Mountain.

NPS / Chelsea Gudgeon

Wilderness logo of wolf howling at moon.
Ninety-three percent of North Cascades National Park Service Complex is designated as wilderness, set aside by law for "the American people of present and future generations" for our protection and enjoyment. Please follow all Leave No Trace hiking and camping practices to reduce your impact on this special place and leave it unimpaired for future generations.

Last updated: May 17, 2024

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