Ultimate Guide To Desolation Peak Trail in Washington, 2022

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We’re only talking about a short nine mile in and out hike, but the Desolation Peak Trail has a lot of history and baggage accompanied with it.  Part of the Ross Lake Recreation Area, this healthy hike could fall along the line of a strenuous hike from trail head to return, or you could opt to take the boat launch options and enjoy a shorter hike and more enjoyable day-trip of boating and hiking. 

Some tell of the famous Jack Kerouac trip to Desolation Peak making the most of the boat trips to the more critical pieces along the trials, but whether you’re looking for a more “purist” hiker, or one along the lines of this famous 1950’s beat poet, the Desolation Peak trail is one that is well worth your exploration and adventure-sense. 

Come see what the trail has to offer.  If you’re looking for artifacts from the bygone days of the beat-poets, you’ll find something worth noticing, if you’re looking for something beyond the beat poets and more on the level of a universal understanding of the universe, you can find that as well.  The Desolation Peak tour along the North Cascades is an amazing trek worth your time and effort for the scenery as well as the historical significance. 

Come along for the hike in it’s own pristine environment, whether you’re here for a Kerouac awakening or of you’re here for a regular wilderness hike, the Desolation Peak Trail will not let you down as its long and worthy hiking trails will serve as an awakening to you whether you seek the wisdom of the Beat poets or just your won wisdom after taking on such an amazing hike, the Desolation Peak has something for everyone, no mater your reasons for undertaking the hike.

About The Desolation Peak AREA: Fast Facts

  • Location: Ross Lake National Recreation Area
  • Length: 7.89mi (AllTrails),9.4mi (WTA)
  • Elevation Change: 4475.06ft (AllTrails), 4400ft (WTA)
  • Highest Point: 6102ft (per the Washington Trails Association)
  • Type of Hike: Out & back


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Just short of the Canadian border, Desolation Peak has a great history of exploration and exploitation under its belt.  With some of the most beautiful landscapes available ion all of the entire Pacific northwest, Desolation Peak doesn’t have to advertise to draw in visitors to top the peaks it offers.  Legend and lore surround the mountains here with a history that proceeds the mountain tops long before you arrive.

Deep valleys carved out by eons of glacial intrusion an recession, these mountains were carver out of the earth by centuries of miles thick ice pressing down the valleys and carving paths around the mountain peaks. 

Deep craggy peaks and beautiful carved valleys between them are a standard anywhere you explore in the North Cascade range, but the mountain range around Desolation Peak is exceptional in its beauty when compared to those surrounding the park.

Due to weather patterns, the surrounding area centered on Desolation Peak is generally free from clouds and weather during the summer months making for an amazing hiking climate for most months of the year. 

However, when winter rolls in, Desolation Peak and the surrounding area is in for one amazing change as the storms roll in and the snow lays deep on the peaks and the valleys, especially on the western faces of the mountain peaks as the clouds roll by and deposit their precipitation on the range.

You’ll find a sense of isolation and calm when you hike Desolation Peak.  You;’ll understand why this hiking trail is considered by many to be one of contemplation and self-reflection.  Perhaps because of the Kerouac connection, or maybe in spite of it.


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The trail head for Desolation Peak is right along the edge of Ross Lake.  Some people opt to boat in to the trail-head and make for the peak from there, some choose to hike in and make their way to the trail head by foot, thereby making more of an “honest” hike out of the Desolation Peak hike.  We’re not here to tell you one if better than the other. 

Any way you manage to climb the peak, hike the trail, spend time out in the woods… that is time well spent and don’t let anyone tell you that boating ion across Ross Lake is any kind of “cheat’ or that hiking in the longer route is a more “authentic” hike.  Any hike you enjoy is a hike well worth the time spent.

The Desolation Peak hike is a mere three mile trek up the mountain from the trail head at Ross Lake.  However it is fairly isolated from the rest of the trail world. 

A 16 mile hike from the North Cascades Highway to the south, or a few mile boat ride from the end of Silver Skagit Road to the north, there is no direct road that brings you to the trail head to Desolation Peak, and that may be part of the romanticism surrounding this hike. 

The fact that you have to embark on an adventure before you even begin this hike… that may be a tale worth telling within the context of the hike itself.  Consider this an amazing hike, worthy of exploration, no matter how you get here.

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There aren’t a lot of facilities spotted along the Desolation Peak Trail.  It is a short five mile hike once you reach the trail head, but getting there is part of the adventure.  Whether you boat in across Ross Lake, come in from Cat Island, or hike in from the southern trail system, the Desolation Peak trail begins at the Ross Lake shore and continues up the slope until you reach the iconic fire watch building where Kerouac spent his 63 days at the peak. 

If you’re looking for an interesting recreation of the beat poet trail, or if you’re looking for a validation of what has been done before to be done once more, the Desolation Peak trail can be of service to your needs. 

However, you don’t even need to understand or even be aware of the prolific beat generation poet’s work in order to get something worth while out of the Desolation Peak hike. This dry walk up a nearly five mile stretch if beautiful yet isolated stretch of Pacific Northwest landscape will bring you close to nature where that is your intention or not. 

No National Park designated bathrooms or rest stops, the entire hike falls within the Ross Lake Recreational district so while you may not have any water or bathroom facilities along the way, you can bring along your four legged hiking companions.  Ross Lake Recreational allows pets on their hiking trails and Desolation Peak Trail appears to be in the National Park system, its remote nature means you are able to bring your leashed pets for this hike.

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This is a pretty straight forward hike up a constant slope.  A four and a half mile trek up the mountain with a 5000 foot elevation increase  as a fairly constant pace makes Desolation Peak a pretty regular test of your strenuous activity and your endurance.  Of course, on the way down it the same in and out hiking trail so you drop the same 5000’ over the same 4.5 miles, but that climb up to the peak can be a challenge for novice hikers.

Pretty much the entire hike is a series of switchbacks making the hike easier than it looks.  Only the last half mile is a straight hike up the ridge slope to the fire watch hut.

If you boated in from Hozemann Campground from the north, or Ross Lake Resort from the South, or of you’re a purist who hiked in the 17 miles from the East Bank Trail, you’re starting this trek from the docks at the shore of Ross Lake.  Use the bathroom facilities here as they are the last you will see for the remainder of the hike.

For the first three and a half miles you will zig zag back and forth as you climb steadily through the shaded forest before emerging into the open ridge for the final mile of the hike.  As you walk that final ridge-line you will see an established campsite, this is the final chance to get fresh water, but this source runs dry during the summer months, do not rely on this for you water, the Desolation Peak Trail is notorious for being dry and… well… desolate.  Pack in plenty of water and be ready for a hot and dry hike to the summit.

Once you reach the fire lookout, you will find a library of Kerouac books left by passersby who took the trek for this reason alone.  Feel free to peruse the books and take in any kind of inspiration you may find, or disregard the books as someone else’s journey and make your own memories and discoveries as you sit at the top of Desolation Peak.

For more incredible hikes in North Cascades, check out our guide to Finding the 10 Best Hikes in North Cascades National Park.

If you’re planning a trip to North Cascades and are looking for a great place to stay, look no further than THE 6 BEST HOTELS NEAR NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK.


The Desolation Peak trail is one of great reward for the journey, a lengthy hike up the side of a mountain that ends ion an isolated hut famous for a poet from seventy years ago.  However, the trail has its own intrinsic value, apart from its famed predecessor or those that followed in his footsteps. 

If you are looking for a worthy hike that will be a good workout while granting incredible views of the surrounding peaks, come to the shores of Ross lake, just north of Cat Island, and walk up the Desolation Peak Trail, you will find everything you are looking for, and so much more.

As part of a multiple day trek, the Desolation Peak trail is a great way to spend the day while out on walkabout along the shores of Ross Lake.  The views reflect the name as once you reach the pinnacle, the mountaintop seems so isolated, yet surrounded by lush green forest on all sides. 

Wildflower growth and sub-alpine climate makes for Desolation Peak to market itself as one of the premier hiking trails in the North Cascades.  The fact that it has a famous tie in to a writer of Americana, legend and lore surrounds the romanticism of that era, deserved or not, hike the trail and experience it for yourself.

Next, check out the other top hikes in North Cascades National Park outside the Desolation Peak by following the links below: