Early Summer Alpine Trail Running in the North Cascades

June in Washington has us trail runners feeling (and acting) like caged animals. We know the high country is there. We’re called by miles of accelerated alpine bliss so close, yet so much of it is still under a solid layer of snow.

A man trail running in front of Ross Lake in the North Cascades

Enter Ross Lake and Aspire Adventure Running’s Desolation Duo trip. This weekend adventure into the heart of the North Cascades is the antidote to those restless legs, and the high point of the course grants breathtaking views that rival any late-August jawdropper.

Basecamp for the weekend was the Colonial Creek campground, on the shores of Lake Diablo. The Aspire Crew and I set up the camp kitchen and cozy spaces as runners began to arrive. I’m always drawn to water and unobstructed views, so I set up my tent on the beach, before jumping into the kitchen to get the spaghetti and meatballs rolling. After dinner, a fire and some excited conversation, everyone turned in early. I took a little time to soak in the stars over Sourdough Mountain before crawling into my own tent for lights out.

French Toast is an Aspire breakfast classic. Topped with almond butter, strawberries, whipped cream, and maple syrup, it’s great fuel for a day on the trail.

camp french toast

The day’s adventure began with a quick shuttle to the trailhead and about a mile of running down to Ross Lake. At the lake, I rang the bubble gum pink phone on the old wood post by the dock to reach the Ross Lake Resort and let them know we had a group of 6 runners ready for transport. Within minutes we were loading onto the boat.

runners in the Ross Lake ferry in the north cascades

The ride up the lake was a gorgeous and refreshing experience. The morning wind whipped at our faces and I could feel the shared excitement for a gorgeous mountain day. 

The boat taxi dropped us off at the Desolation Peak trailhead and the group of us scrambled up the lake shore boulders to the packed dirt. We stopped for a moment at the trail sign for Desolation Peak before everyone broke and headed uphill at their own clip. My role from here would be to act as a “sweep” for those running the marathon distance, following the group and ensuring no runner was left behind.

In 1956 Jack Kerouac spent the summer on Desolation Peak, manning the fire lookout. He wrote his novel “Desolation Time” in part about his time on the remote summit. This novel, and more specifically this peak, was the beacon that drew me to the Pacific Northwest. Kerouac was an inspiration and guide to a younger version of myself, providing cultural context and encouragement to be bold and make the life I wanted to see. In some way this was a bit of a pilgrimage, and the views that were beginning to show themselves as we climbed out of the forest were equally inspiring. 

Perhaps two-thirds of the way up, I heard a crunch and cracking off to our right. I signalled for the other runners to be quiet, looked downhill, and there was black bear digging for grubs in a decomposing log. We were all thrilled to watch from our respectful distance above until the bear lumbered away downhill. 

We passed through vibrant lupine and Indian paintbrush as we climbed, and by the time we made the final push to the summit we had crossed only a few minor patches of snow at around 6000 ft.

five trail runners stand in front of the Desolation Peak Fire Lookout in the North Cascades

After several hours of ascent, our group pushed up the last climb and arrived at the summit of Desolation Peak. We met up with the runners that had pushed ahead and we all took it in together. From the summit, we were graced with 360 degrees of North Cascades bliss. Familiar peaks stuck out and Jack Mountain dominated the view to the south. Skies overhead were bright blue and we took our time eating lunch and stretching at the old fire lookout. My mind turned over some haikus that I didn’t write down as I took a moment to reflect on time, the energy of the beat poets, and all the alpine adventures I’d had thanks to Kerouac’s unique perspective. 

trail runners alongside Ross Lake in the North Cascades

We made one stop to fill water on the way down, and before we knew it we were cruising along the East Bank Trail south toward Highway 20. The trail rolls along the lake, providing stellar views and well-maintained single track for the 17 miles to the road. We crossed creeks flowing out of the Pasayten Wilderness over large suspension bridges. All to soon, we crossed the bridge over Ruby Arm and climbed up to the road. 

trail runners cross a suspension bridge

For the 40-mile route, runners had the option of continuing up the Panther Creek Trail, over 4th of July Pass, descending into the Thunder Creek drainage, and then running along the shores of Diablo Lake directly into camp. However, my day as the trail sweep ended with the marathoners. 

eating dinner in camp, north cascades national park

We were greeted at camp by the base crew cooking up burgers and everyone cracking beers and ciders. Tired legs gave way to the buzz of a great mountain day and good company, and everyone stayed up recalling stories and cracking jokes into the night. I believe everyone slept well and I enjoyed another night on the water with the stars. 

The Desolation Duo trip is a great opportunity to check out the Aspire experience and get in early season miles. Aspire provides easy access to some difficult to reach places and it pays off! See you next June! 

Trent Banks is a mountain rambler, a disc jockey, and father of two daughters, based out of Seattle, WA. He joined the Aspire Adventure Running crew in 2018. You can find him guiding trips, leading sponsored runs at running stores in the Seattle area, and working aid stations at races across the Pacific Northwest with the rest of the Aspire team.