Sauk Mountain Trail: the North Cascades

Sauk Mountain is in the Northern Cascades near Concrete, Washington. It’s on Highway 20 westbound, just before Rockport State Park. Noelle here, by the way. We turned left off Hwy 20 onto Forest Service Road 1030. The seven mile road is steep in places and mostly one lane with pullouts for passing. It took us about a half hour to drive up, with some of those minutes being a little tense. Steve told me at one point that he needed me to be a little more positive during the drive. Ha! I was positively scared a few times. But I tried to be more supportive and less outwardly nervous.

The drive up though….

The last 1/4 mile is very steep with big washouts in the road. Several cars had parked on the edges of the road to avoid even attempting the last bit. We paused to allow some hikers time to walk down and asked how much further the road went. I said we were questioning our choices. They laughed and said we were almost to the top, where there’s a fairly large parking lot. So Steve dropped the truck into 4WD and up we scrambled. Being so top heavy gives us pause, but there really was no alternative. We couldn’t turn around with all the cars parked roadside, so up we went!

We were not at all surprised to see a Toyota Prius in the parking lot! Those cars go EVERYWHERE! I’m not even kidding and I’ve probably said it before, but last summer I took some sketchy gravel roads. Inevitably, I’d only see one other car and eight out of ten times, it was a Prius. So crazy. I don’t know if Prius drivers are just bad-asses or if Prius cars are actually just that dependable.

Anyway, check the road conditions for yourself before heading to Sauk Mountain.

Sauk Mountain Trail Details

  • 4.2 miles, roundtrip
  • 1200′ elevation gain
  • 5500′ highest point
  • No parking pass or entry fee required
  • Views of Sauk and Skagit River valleys, Cascade mountain peaks, (and on clear days) the Olympics and San Juan Islands

At the top, there’s a large circle-shaped parking area. It probably holds 25 or so cars. We parked in the one open spot and decided to eat some lunch before doing anything else. Frankly, we both needed to unwind from that drive up. We drove up on a Sunday afternoon at the end of September. It was a beautiful clear day and the trail was pretty crowded. We hung out in the camper till around 4pm and then hiked out only a little bit, planning to do the full hike the next morning.

Beautiful toilets are a must!

The edge of the parking lot hosts the most adorable A-frame outhouse. It definitely wins points for being the most picturesque toilet I’ve seen in a while.

World’s cutest outhouse

Sauk Mountain Trail goes along the base of the mountain in a gentle warm-up to the switchbacks up through the hillside meadow. Can meadows be on hillsides? Because it looks like a grassy, flowering meadow, only it’s vertical. It’s beautiful during our visit, but I think early September would have seen more flowers in bloom. Probably still had some blueberries on the bushes then too.

Anyway we shared the parking lot with a camper van for the night. It was quiet and clear with sooo many stars. What an awesome view! We sat at the picnic table for dinner and then set up our lawn chairs for the sunset. Life doesn’t get a whole lot better.

Up early and ready to hike Sauk Mountain

The next morning we donned hiking shoes and grabbed trekking poles for the steep and narrow trail up Sauk Mountain. A few cars/hikers arrived early in the morning, but for the most part we hiked alone. Quite a few areas show where hikers take shortcuts up the side of the trail, which just erodes it and all around destroys the trail. I get that sometimes the switchbacks suck, I really do. But we try to respect the trail and leave it in the same shape we found it. I’m a rule follower (well as long as the rule makes sense), so it kind of irks me when people take shortcuts that damage trails.

Closer to the top of the mountain are small shady spots of fir trees. They’re only on the furthest South side of the trail, so I tried to only take breaks when I got to them. That didn’t work too well though, as I ended up sitting on some rocks in the middle, just looking around. I chatted with my Dad for a bit and had a good cry. It came out of no where. Steve was up above me and I saw him look down and ask if I was okay. I said yeah, just talking to Dad. He smiled and asked if he was talking back. I said no, laughed a little, dried my tears and got up to hike some more. I’m not sure where that spot of grief came from, but I think it has to do with just walking.

Sauk Mountain Trail rest
Chatting with my Dad

…walking meditations…

Last year, in my portion of the Pacific Crest Trail, I found so much freedom in the clearness of my mind from just walking. One foot in front of the other, hearing my own breath, seeing the beauty around me. It simply opened my mind to being in the moment. Kind of a walking meditation. So I think allowing myself to be in that mindfulness zone, opened my heart to a surge of grief. I felt thankful for a brief connection to my Dad as I huffed and puffed up the switchback to the next grove of trees where I could stop for a minute. Have I mentioned before that up-hills slay me? haha.

About a mile and a half in, the trail crosses a small saddle in the ridgeline and begins to head back the other way. Glacier Peak is ahead as well as the huge expanse of the North Cascades. Once you circle around, a trail appears to the right, leading downhill. It goes to Sauk Lake, which looked beautiful enough from above. Rather than lose all the elevation we just gained and then have to climb back out of it again, we opted to enjoy the lake view perched on some rocks instead.

Views from the top of Sauk Mountain

We took one side trail to check out the view, but then headed back to the main trail to continue the climb. As we followed the path through the rocks, we had a few more switch backs before reaching the top. At the top are mountain peaks in a 360 degree view. I know their names from our trailbook (Day Hiking: North Cascades), but don’t know which was which in reality. It didn’t matter though, as it was amazingly beautiful! Mt. Baker, The Pickets, Whitehorse Mountain, and Glacier Peak. Far to the West is Mount Constitution on Orcas Island, but I don’t think we could actually see it. We could, however, definitely pick out Mount Rainier to the South. What a beauty she is!

There used to be a fire lookout at the top, but it was removed by the Forest Service in the 1980s. We ate our sandwiches at the top of Sauk Mountain, before heading back down. It took about an hour and half to go up and about an hour to get back to the parking lot. Quite a few more people arrived while we were at the top, so our trek back down was a bit more crowded. We passed several groups, most of whom were masked up. I pulled up my buff as we passed people, but I actually wondered at the need to do so. It doesn’t seem like there’s a very high chance of catching the virus when we’re outside, but I’m not really wanting to take any chances either. So masking up is where its at!

Room with a view

We decided to stay another night on Sauk Mountain before heading back down the next day. The parking lot was busy throughout the night, making me a little nervous a couple of times. People were still arriving after midnight, which is strange because that road up cannot be very easy in the dark. We read the next day that there was a meteor shower, so I’m guessing that’s why people were coming up so late. It was odd though and made for a rough night of nervous sleep for me. Not for Steve though, as he sleeps through most anything!

Our drive down to Highway 20 had me being much more positive for Steve’s benefit. Ha! We stopped about halfway at a little pullout to let our brakes cool off. They were smoking like crazy when we first stopped. After a half hour, we went again. Those brakes are new, but they were smoking like nobody’s business.

I’d definitely recommend the Sauk Mountain hike. I’d definitely not recommend the drive up to it! However, we did learn what the truck and camper can do, so that was great. We chose this RV combination in order to have the ability to go off the paved road and we certainly were able to do that. All in all, a good experience.

Sauk Mountain Trail visitor
Small hitchhiker


  1. Big Dummy

    You both take some pretty wonderful pictures. I’ve never done the Sauk trail even though we live here; too much Doctor Who to watch. And I’d probably have another MI. But talking to Dad? Thought would be pretty special and worth it.

    • mcgarveysan

      Thanks, Mark! We try to take good pictures…well, Steve tries harder than I do as I just use my phone! Sauk is a great trail with a difficult drive up. You could make it though! And, yes, chatting with my Dad made it a very special hike. It’s interesting the places I’ve felt the waves of grief and also his strong presence. He was certainly not a hiker, but he did teach us to love the outdoors.

  2. Liz from RetroFresno

    Gorgeous views. This armchair traveler is filled with awe. I could never go up a road in a truck. Nope it wouldn’t happen. Haha. You’re sharing of your grief is touching. It’s been many years since my dad died. But I’m finding I’m missing him much this year. Safe travels.

    • mcgarveysan

      Thank you Liz! It was difficult going up that road as a passenger. Steve’s an excellent driver but still! It’s funny how grief comes and goes, isn’t it? Catches me unaware at some of the most random times. Glad to hear from you ! Big hugs.


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