Hikers on the hunt for a shorter hike, less than two hours from Bellingham, with 360-degree views of the North Cascades are in luck. Sauk Mountain, sitting just southeast of Mount Baker, checks all the boxes.
With a slow start to our day, we left Bellingham just after noon and arrived around 2 p.m. at the trailhead. Said trailhead begins at about 4,300 feet, meaning hikers must first drive more than 7 miles up a steep, dusty, pothole-filled road to reach the start of the hike. Drivers beware: High clearance is advantageous on the Sauk Mountain Road. My Hyundai crossover with front-wheel drive made it up just fine, and I did see a minivan barreling down the mountain at one point.
Before you start the 4.2-mile, out-and-back trail, be sure to slather on sunscreen if it's a sunny day. The bulk of the hike is in the direct sun as you climb the south-facing mountainside. The good news is the trail kicks off with an onslaught of 26 switchbacks, so at the very least, you'll get an even tan (or sunburn).
A portion of the 26 switchbacks zigzag up Sauk Mountain. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
The U.S. Forest Service describes the switchbacks for the first 1.5 miles as "gentle." While it's no Grand Canyon Devil's Corkscrew, I wouldn't call it "gentle," especially while climbing in the heat of the day in August. It definitely got my heart rate up.
On the climb, I thoroughly enjoyed the vast views of the Skagit River and its nexus with the Sauk River. Orange and purple butterflies — the Pacific Fritillary and Anna's Blue, according to iNaturalist citizen observations — flitted among the tall grasses and colorful wildflowers, slightly dried from the summer heat. We were lucky enough to spot chipmunks climbing among the rocks and even a fuzzy marmot bumbling across the salty rocks.
Wildflowers grow tall on the edge of a switchback. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News) Two Pacific Fritillary butterflies sit in a bush. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News) A hoary marmot sits on a rock, overlooking Sauk Lake. Marmots are a species commonly found in the North Cascades and can be heard whistling. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
Around one switchback (maybe the 15th, or 20th?), we were welcomed by vast views of the elusive Glacier Peak and other jagged mountain peaks to our southwest. It was a taste of the view to come.
Glacier Peak rises above the Sauk Mountain trail. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
As you finish the bulk of the climb, the trail wraps around the north side of the mountain, opening up to views of Sauk Lake below (for an extended trip, some backpack and camp at the lake's shore) and more mountains to the north. A last, slightly steep climb takes hikers up to the ridge of Sauk Mountain and 360-degree views of northwest Washington, including the ever-majestic Mount Baker.
We arrived two hours after we began at 4 p.m. Some haze hung in the sky, limiting our view out to the saltwater and Mount Rainier, which you can supposedly see on a completely clear day. We still enjoyed views of two towering volcanoes and endless other mountains while the gentle breeze swirled around us at 5,500 feet above sea level.
Mount Baker is clearly visible from the ridge of Sauk Mountain. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
The mountain is named for the Sauk people — now known as the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe — whose ancestral home covers the region from Darrington to Marblemount. They fished, hunted, canoed and lived along the Sauk, Suiattle and Skagit rivers.
Later, after colonization took hold of the Pacific Northwest, Sauk Mountain became a fire lookout for the U.S. Forest Service. The Forest Service removed the lookout in the 1980s and it has since become a popular hiking trail.
Jagged peaks of the North Cascades rise into the clouds. Sauk Mountain once featured a fire lookout for the U.S. Forest Service. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
If you go
Trail type: Out and back
Distance: 4.2 miles total
Elevation gain: 1,200 feet
Peak elevation: 5,500 feet
Best time: Summer and fall
Things to be aware of: No potable water, the outhouse is atrocious and you may run across snowfields if hiking in early summer.
Recreation type: Day hiking, backpacking
More information available online with the Washington Trails Association and the U.S. Forest Service.