Route Name: Standard trail
Elevation Gain: 4500 ft
Total Miles: 9.40 mi
Gear: Overnight camping gear. No climbing gear required after snow melt.
From Trail Head to Camp: 3.0 hours
From Camp to Summit: 1.0 hours
Weather: Mostly sunny, High 70, Low 50
After an ankle sprain forced me to abandon plans of joining other SAC members more demanding Skagit 60 summit assaults, I decided Desolation Peak was within my currently limited range of doability and it had been on Andrea's hit list for a long time. It also seemed perhaps the most ideal location in all of Washington to view the comet NEOWISE before it faded away for another 6,700 years. And the timing for astrophotography was perfect, as the moon was new and there was not a cloud in the forecast. So, Andrea and I put together a plan to tackle this difficult-to-reach but easy-to-climb objective and made the necessary reservations. Wanting to cheat our way out of the 20+ mile approach hike along the East Bank Trail of Ross Lake, we instead opted to rent a motor boat from Ross Lake Resort. Once we settled into the motor boat idea, it seemed silly not to spend more time exploring the wonders of Ross Lake, so we reserved the boat for three days.
Saturday morning we headed up Hwy 20, hiked down to the lake, picked up our little boat at the resort, and began our adventure. Day one saw us boating up to the Big Beaver trail head, hiking 5 miles up to our camp at 39 Mile site, then day hiking another 5 miles to Luna camp. The Big Beaver trail is lined with giant, old-growth cedars and firs, some of the largest in the state and worth the hike just to see. This is a common approach for climbing Luna peak and accessing the northern Pickets. I had used this trail years earlier as an exit from an epic Pickets traverse but had not revisited since. It was nice to see the place in a sane state of mind. Oh the memories.
On day 2, we hiked back to the boat and lazily motored our way 20 miles up and across the lake to reach the Desolation Peak dock and trail head. From the water, the well-maintained trail steadily climbs 3,500 ft to camp. We had reserved the one and only campsite available, so there was no pressure to rush up the mountain to claim a spot. My ankle was thankful for the lack of hurry. The only trouble was trying to determine if we needed to haul water all the way to camp, or if there was still access to snow. We decided it wasn't worth the risk of dehydration so we loaded up 11 liters! of water at the lake and started the climb. Fortunately, right after we started up the trail we met some folks on their way down that told us there was an active stream about half way up (1.8 miles) as well as some snow patches remaining at the summit. We gleefully dumped out all but 2 liters and resumed our climb. We made good time and got to camp in the late afternoon. After a nap and some dinner, we headed up to the summit lookout, which is a mile up the trail and 900 feet of gain above camp. Earlier in the day, a looming cloud layer had me questioning the wisdom of lugging 15 pounds of camera equipment all the way up this mountain only to be skunked by overcast skies. But as we neared the summit, the sky was crystal clear from horizon to horizon, and I was thankful I had hauled the grown up camera gear and star tracker all that way. We were in for an amazing night of astronomy.
We stayed at the summit for hours. I nerded out on the comet, the visibility of 5 planets at once, and the clockwork-like overpasses of the International Space Station every 90 minutes. Andrea chatted with the very nice NP volunteer that was tending the lookout about mountains, stars, UFOs and all things Kerouak. Around midnight we headed back down to camp where Andrea wisely went to bed and I stayed up for several more hours taking Milky Way photos and enjoying the incredible desolation of the peak.
On day 3 we descended back to our boat and spent the morning leisurely exploring the lake and streams on our way back to the resort. While more expensive than the (completely free) option of hiking in on the lake trail, I highly recommend the boat option (either rent your own or hire the water taxi) because you get to check out the many worthwhile places along the lake and you will have fresh legs to climb.