Lookouts: Sourdough Mountain

When I decided I wanted to hike up 30 peaks before I turned 30, I knew I had to put Sourdough on the list. This hike has a reputation for being tough but incredibly beautiful and bonus: there is a lookout at the top! And not just any lookout but a lookout made famous by the poet Gary Snyder with views of the endless jagged North Cascade peaks as well as Ross Lake and the emerald green Diablo Lake. It’s nearly a vertical mile to the lookout but worth every last excruciating step.

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Diablo Lake from Sourdough Mountain trail

In 1952, Gary Snyder was looking for work through the Marblemount forest service and requested to be sent to the “highest, most remote, and most difficult-of-access lookout” in the district. They all laughed at him and sent him to Crater Mountain. He fell in love with the lookout life on that sharp-peaked mountain with a non-existent trail. He had to stash his supplies farther down the mountain and take many trips scrambling up and down to the lookout. But he relished in the solitude and practiced his zen buddhism. At the end of the season he didn’t want to leave the mountain and couldn’t wait for the next summer to return.

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Sourdough lookout now boarded up.

But the forest service decided not to man the Crater Mountain lookout in 1953. Turns out that the over 8000ft summit of Crater Mountain was too high to make a good lookout. Often the high lookout was obscured by clouds while nearby lower peaks were clear of the ceiling. So Gary was assigned to Sourdough Mountain. Gary called Sourdough “so mild in comparison” to Crater Mountain, which is hard to believe, but he no longer had to scramble up to the lookout with supplies. The mules dropped it all off at the front steps. Unfortunately, that summer would be his last at Sourdough or any other lookout for the matter. It was the McCarthy era and Gary was black-listed from government work for having relationships with alleged communists. Heartbroken and determined to work in the outdoors rather than have a regular 9-5, he resorted to a logging job in Oregon. Some of his best poetry came from this hard time in his life.

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Ross Lake from Sourdough lookout.

But before Gary Snyder there were the Davises.  The nearby Davis Peak is named for Lucinda Davis, a single mother with three children who moved from Colorado into an abandoned cabin which she turned into a supply store for the busy mining areas of Thunder and Ruby creeks in the 1890’s. Lucinda and her son Glee made the first horse trail up to the summit of  Sourdough where they would go for picnics. In 1915, Glee set up the first fire lookout site in the North Cascades on Sourdough. It was just a tent camp then before Glee built the first lookout structure in the cupola style of the time in 1917. The lookout stood watch until the 1930’s when it was replaced by a more modern style. This modern structure is the lookout that Gary Snyder would later man in 1953 and still stands today.

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Davis Peak and the lovely North Cascades.

Things to Do Around a Lookout

Wrap up in a blanket in cold weather and just read

Practice writing Chinese characters with a brush

Paint pictures of the mountains

Put out salt for deer

Bake coffee cake and biscuit in the iron oven

-Excerpt from poem by Gary Snyder

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The inviting ridge at the summit of Sourdough.

I climbed for what seemed like all day through the ghost forest on Sourdough when I broke out into the high meadows. I was yet to see another person on the trail and I stopped in my tracks to gaze upon the glacial green Diablo Lake almost a mile below. The sitka valerian and spirea swayed softly in the wind as my skin soaked up the sun. I tore myself away with the promise of even more rewarding views at the lookout. Just as I crested the summit I passed a man and his son just starting their descent. “You made it all the way up here on your own?” he asked. “You bet I did,” I replied.

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Davis Peak from the Sourdough trail.

Bonus Camp Read!

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Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems by Gary Snyder
This is Gary’s first book of published poems and it is the one that made him famous. There are a few poems in the book about his time as a lookout and as a logger in Oregon, but most of the poems are about his time spent in the Sierra Nevada in California where he still lives today. His style is heavily influenced by the beautifully simplistic Japanese style and was a revolution in American poetry in it’s day. This collection is a wonderful example of his great nature poetry and makes a great addition to the outdoor book lover’s bookshelf.

Car Camp, Day Hike or Backpack?  Backpack
The slim 50th Anniversary chapbook with it’s beautiful gold metallic cover is perfect for meditating over while in the mountains or in any natural space that is special to you.

See Also: Poets on the Peaks by John Suiter

Hikes Featured in this Post:
Sourdough Mountain

2 Replies to “Lookouts: Sourdough Mountain”

  1. Gorgeous photos, as always! I definitely need to add more lookouts to my hike to-do list. So far I’ve only been to Heybrook, and that hardly counts!

  2. Ohhh, so on my bucket list, has been for years! Hope my aging knees (and toes) are up for it…maybe this fall since I’ve had a good run hiking this year. Thanks for sharing your beautiful photos and your informed prose about Gary Snyder, etc. I got to hear him speak a few years ago and in his 80s he was lively and wizened. Inspiring! BTW great to hike with you!

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