Trail Talk | Sourdough Mountain Magic

In this feature from Mountaineer magazine, Craig Romano reflects on the transcendent beauty and serendipitous encounters he experienced while hiking Sourdough Mountain for the first time.
Craig Romano Craig Romano
Mountaineers Books Guidebook Author
September 17, 2022
Trail Talk | Sourdough Mountain Magic

It wasn’t my first hike in the North Cascades, but my second that had me forever hooked on this incredible range of craggy, glaciated mountains. A warm, sunny morning greeted me when I hit the trail to ascend Sourdough Mountain. The day would leave a deep impression on me, forever securing Sourdough as one of my absolute favorite places in the world.

My path to Sourdough

I grew up in New England and had visited Washington by bicycle twice prior to the summer of 1985, when I set out in a car to return to a handful of national parks to hike – Isle Royale, Theodore Roosevelt, North Cascades, Olympic, Crater Lake, Redwood, Lassen, Capitol Reef, and Arches. The North Cascades would be the highlight among all of those other incredible places.

Prior to this time, I had hiked all over the Appalachians, from Maine to Tennessee, and I had seen many of the country’s other ranges and sub-ranges via bicycle. I’d ridden through Rocky Mountain National Park and biked across alpine tundra. In Washington, I rode over Stevens Pass on my first trip, and Chinook Pass lined with 6-foot snowbanks in Mount Rainier National Park on my second. I biked along the rim of the Grand Canyon and up the entire California Coast, including the famed Big Sur country. All of these places offered absolutely stunning landscapes and harbored incredible warehouses of biological diversity. But Sourdough Mountain and the North Cascades would provide me with one of the most deeply spiritual outdoor experiences of my life. Overloading my senses like never before, Sourdough validated my belief in a higher power and order, and inspired a reverence for (and a desire to protect) a world left untrammeled by man.

A steep climb

Though I was an athletic 24 years old at the time of that first ascent of Sourdough, it was grueling. Despite all of my long distance cycling experience, I was not in the hiking/running shape that I am in today decades later. I had never hiked a trail with more than 4,000 feet of elevation gain, so Sourdough’s more than a vertical mile was indeed a challenge. And I had never hiked across a sprawling slope of alpine wildflowers displaying a full kaleidoscope of dazzling colors, nor had I trudged across a summer snowfield so grand. The experiences on Sourdough that day simply blew my mind.

Neither had I ever looked out on so many craggy, serrated, and spiraling peaks. The mountains in the east are gentle waves of green. The Rockies are big broad sentinels. The Coast Ranges are collectors of clouds and mist. But the North Cascades appeared as giant rows of shark teeth fading into the horizons. And those teeth glistened. I had never seen so many glaciers in my life.

Craig.PNGCraig cooling down on a Sourdough summit snowfield, July 1985. Photo courtesy of Craig Romano.

Back in 1985, those glaciers and snowfields were so much bigger than they are today. So much water crashing and tumbling down shear rock faces. There was not a doubt in my mind how these mountains became known as the Cascades.

The hike was grueling, and its stats filtered out many other would-be Sourdough ascenders. I encountered very few folks along the way, and by the time I hit the summit snowfields, not another human soul was in sight. But I did see a soul in the form of a young black bear, sprinting across the mountain’s white carpeting.

As I approached the fire lookout, I saw an American flag swaying frantically in the strong summit breeze. I was startled by a loud, “You made it!” The greeting came from a very friendly fire keep welcoming my presence. It was back during a time when there were far fewer folks flocking to the mountains - and not many had been making their way up this grueling peak far from the then much smaller metropolitan areas of the Northwest. We sat on the lookout steps under the intense rays of the summer sun, bombarded by rays reflecting off the snow as we chatted. My new lookout friend was a disciple of Jack Kerouac and proud to be following in his footsteps. I grew up in the Merrimack Valley not far from where Kerouac was raised, and that piqued his interest. But it was our tales of being on the road that really had us lost in conversation and reeling about in a stream of consciousness. Time stood still, helped no doubt from a slow-moving summer sun. That moment – in fact, that entire day – has remained firmly imprinted in my mind’s eye. It’s sometimes hard to grasp that so many years have gone by since that chance encounter.

The descent

I reluctantly left the summit to begin the knee-knocking descent. The mountain’s magic now firmly cast upon me, the trail felt surreal, as if I were slowly moving across a giant easel brushed by Maxfield Parrish and Thomas Cole. One mile directly below me, Diablo Lake’s turquoise waters sparkled. Across the deep valley cut by a pre-harnessed Skagit River stood an unbelievable flank of jagged, glacier-shrouded summits – among the most austere mountains I have ever cast my eyes upon. And at my feet softening this harsh environment were rows of delicate red, yellow, and purple blossoms dancing in the late afternoon thermals.

That evening, back in my campsite at Colonial Creek, I stood staring across Diablo Lake at the hulk of a mountain I had just climbed. I watched it fade into the darkness of the night. And as I retreated to my sleeping bag, the mountain stayed vividly in my mind as my tired body welcomed a much-needed and deserved sleep.

To this day, that hike has remained one of my finest. My second trip into the magical North Cascades is one I can never quite replicate, for the time and where I was at during that period of my life will never be repeated. Back then, I never imagined that I would someday live just an hour away from that special place. That I would continue to return to it, not to reclaim some of the magic cast upon me on that long ago hike, but to see what new magic and insight it may instill in me this time. I look back and see how far I have come in my ongoing journey searching for meaning and validation in the world.

I cannot accurately describe in words the full scale of emotions I experienced on that long-ago summer day. I can only recall in my heart what it felt like. I don’t hesitate to look back on that moment during times of doubt and darkness. The magic of Sourdough Mountain has and continues to sustain me. I look forward to my next return to this special place.

Craig Romano is an award-winning guidebook author who has written more than 25 books, including Backpacking Washington 2nd editionDay Hiking North Cascades 2nd edition, and 100 Classic Hikes Washington (Mountaineers Books) which feature Sourdough Mountain. Purchase his titles in our Seattle Program Center Bookstore, online, and everywhere books are sold.

Lead IMage of Diablo Lake and Thunder Creek Valley from Sourdough Mountain. Photo by Craig Romano. 

This article originally appeared in our fall 2022 issue of Mountaineer magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, visit our  magazine archive

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Kat Schonberg-Hamar
Kat Schonberg-Hamar says:
Sep 18, 2022 02:10 PM

This is a favorite hike of mine as well! It’s a beast but the payoffs are worth it. I led a hike up there in late August and there were so many delicious berries!