top of page

Desolation Peak - A Challenging North Cascades Summit

Desolation Peak is a challenging and beautiful summit to attain in the North Cascades. It reaches an elevation of 6,102,' and the Desolation Peak Trail starts at Ross Lake.

The mountain is known for the Desolation Peak Lookout, a small wildfire lookout that you can still visit on the summit. It's over 15 miles from the nearest road. So, you're going to have quite the adventure to get there.

Desolation Peak

Location and Getting There

Desolation Peak is located in the North Cascades of Washington State, east of the Cascade crest. It is situated within the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest and rises to 6,102 feet above sea level. It's accessed by driving into the National Park on Highway 20, known as North Cascades Highway. Please note that in winter, the highway is closed at Ross Lake all the way to the Early Winters area.

To get to Desolation Peak, you'll need to start at Ross Lake, which is located in the Ross Lake National Recreation Area. The trailhead is located at the southeastern end of Ross Lake near the town of Newhalem. From there, it's a 5-mile hike with an elevation gain of around 4,000 feet.

The trail is well-marked, but it can be quite steep in sections. Once you reach the top, you will be rewarded with spectacular views of the North Cascades and a unique historical experience.

View from Desolation Peak Summit
View from Desolation Peak summit

The Desolation Peak Trail

The Desolation Peak Trail is a popular hiking destination in the North Cascades of Washington, and it has been a beacon of inspiration for many, including the famous American author Jack Kerouac.

The trail gains around 4,400' of elevation in about 9.5 miles out and back to reach the high point of 6,102'.


Elevation Gain

Time Required


9.5 miles

4,400 feet

​9+ hours


The route to the summit starts with the East Bank Trail along Ross Lake or, if you want an added adventure, from Ross Lake by boat. You can take the boat to the other side of the lake, where the hike starts, cutting off a significant portion of the trail. You'll only have about 8 miles to hike total from the trailhead.

You can get transportation across the lake from the Ross Lake Resort to the Desolation Trailhead.

About two miles in, if you're hiking from the East Bak Trail, you'll turn to the east and start hiking uphill. This is where the climb gets tougher! Much of the area is clear due to the historic burn of 1926, after which the mountain was named.

the rest of the trail is very straightforward, with a number of small switchbacks that take hikers to the plateau that boasts the gorgeous Desolation Peak Lookout.


The climate at Desolation Peak is variable. It's part of the marine region of the Pacific Northwest, meaning that throughout much of the winter and spring, it will be covered in snow and very hard and dangerous to access.

But, in the summer, which is the best time to visit, you're guaranteed to find cloudless days and temperatures that can reach up to 90 degrees.


Desolation Peak is one of the striking mountains of the Cascade Mountain Range in the Pacific Northwest. Specifically, it belongs to the North Cascades, known for their jagged and severe-looking profiles and long access trails. Mountains reach heights of over 14,000' in Washington, but just because a mountain is tall, it doesn't mean that it's the most impressive or difficult peak to climb.

Mount Hozomeen
Mount Hozomeen is a constant sight while on the summit of Desolation Peak

Desolation Peak is just over 6,000' and is an incredibly scenic and historic mountain that's surrounded by glacial valleys, ridges, and spires. The mountains were formed 50 million years ago when the North American Plate moved above the Pacific Plate.

Desolation Peak Climbing History and Name

The mountain was first climbed in 1926 by Lage Wernstedt. He named it for the impressive forest fire that swept the slopes of the mountain the same year.

Jack Kerouac and Desolation Peak

During the summer of 1956, Kerouac spent six weeks working as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak for the United States Forest Service. It was during this time that he wrote a great deal of what would later become his novel, The Dharma Bums.

Though living conditions at Desolation Peak were isolated and spartan, the natural beauty surrounding him inspired the beat poet and novelist to write. As he hiked up to the peak from Ross Lake, he encountered stunning views of jagged mountain ridges, snow-capped peaks, and glassy lakes. He also observed wildlife such as marmots, deer, and eagles as they went about their daily lives.

In addition to writing, Kerouac was charged with keeping an eye out for any fires in the region and regularly called down to the fire station at Ross Lake to report on his findings. He also set up poetry readings at the station and gave readings of some of his works.

Kerouac's stay at Desolation Peak influenced his writing in profound ways, and it has served as a source of inspiration for many who have visited since.

His time on the peak can still be felt through the incredible views and peaceful atmosphere of the area, and it remains one of the most beloved trails in the North Cascades.

Desolation Peak Camping

Camping on the summit of Desolation Peak is forbidden. If you want to camp in the area, you're going to need a backcountry permit for all overnight stays. The designated campground closest to the summit is about 1 mile below, at 5,180'.

There are other nearby campgrounds. Like:

  • Rainbow Point Campground

  • Hidden Cove Campground

  • Colonial Creek South Campground

  • Newhalem Campground

You Might Also Like

bottom of page