If you are driving down the I-90 and spending more time looking out the window than on the road, McClellan’s Butte is hard to miss. It’s the big rocky spire, sorta looks like the Matterhorn from some angles.
Anyway, most rubbernecking hikers probably fall into one of two camps:
A: Man! I gotta climb that thing!
B: There is no F$%#ing way you’d catch me up there!
Well guess what? Ol’ Mac’s Butte is a win-win!
The prominent rocky spire doesn’t disappoint those looking for an airy scramble, and allows some decent bragging rights the next time you’re rubbernecking down the ’90.
Alternatively, if exposed scrambling isn’t your thing, the Butte provides a challenging enough hike and great views from a slightly less lofty perch just below the imposing monolith.
Distance: 9-12 miles RT
Elevation gain: 3700′ ft (1128m)
Difficulty: YDS-1 hike, YDS-3-4 scramble
Licks to get to it’s center: The world may never know…
McClellan’s Butte is named for General George B. McClellan, a civil war era general and moustache aficionado which history seems to hold in mixed regard.
In 1853, George was here in the Washington territory surveying possible routes for the coming railroad.
Ultimately, he came to the conclusion that Yakima Pass near Tinkham Peak would be the best option for the rails, however no one else of consequence shared his opinion and Yakima Pass was never used.
McClellan’s efforts were however recognized, and his name was bestowed upon the butte, perhaps, some speculate, due to their uncanny resemblance.
Later Ol’ George even made an unsuccessful presidential bid against the incumbent President Abraham Lincoln.
In the end McClellan died of a heart attack in Orange, New Jersey at the age of 58.
We start out just off the Tinkham Road exit on the ’90. The trailhead is just a little way south of the interstate up a dirt road.
(There does however exist cheaters parking area further along the FS 9020)
The trail briefly winds along through forest, then beneath power lines, meandering along old grades. Early along there is a split, either way you’ll end up at the John Wayne Trail (Old Milwaukee Road)
Heading west at the split along an old grade will take you along the “official” trail.
Reaching the Milwaukee Road, you’ll likely hear Alice Creek to your left and might see a bicyclist or two scoot on by, to continue up the butte trail, look to your right.
It’s within this next section that one can find the “old” trail which ambles past the Alice Claim , where one can view a handful of mining relics from an earlier era.
The next grade crossing is that of the FS 9020 (the cheaters parking area), not a lot to see here but a gravel road, and usually some parked cars. Press on!
You may have noticed by now that there are some pretty impressive trees along the trail. Somehow these giants were spared the lumberjacks unforgiving sawblade, while their less fortunate brethren are now only massive stumps.
These are some of, if not the largest trees along the ’90, so feel free to plop your butt down and view them with reverence and awe.
The trail now begins to climb, and soon, at about the halfway point, the next and most dangerous landmarks will appear…
THE AVALANCHE CHUTES
As is evident from the lack of trees (or most anything but rock and snow) avalanches regularly thunder down these gullies when conditions are right for it.
Avalanches don’t always happen when you might expect!
Even during a nice, sunny spring day, so long as there is snow in the upper reaches, a slab of white death can break off and before you can say “Kalamazoo!” you’re history.
Just food for thought…. be aware!
Always check the Northwest Avalanche Center website for current avalanche conditions. (…and donate!)
Avalanches aside, these gullies can also be dangerous to cross for the unprepared as when they are snow filled they can be extremely steep.
Furthermore they can be undermined by flowing water and a simple posthole could potentially put you in the drink, or worse.
Carry the right gear, and know how to use it.
AHEM, BACK TO THE HIKING…
So after the avalanche gullies, the trail continues up and up.
Eventually you’ll round the south end of the ridge and sparse views of the FORBIDDEN lands of the Cedar River watershed will appear.
The trail does a large sort of U-Turn and soon you’re traversing the west side of the ridge.
(Note: this is a good place to jump off trail if you wanna scramble the whole ridge)
Here is a nice pleasant respite from the singularly upward direction of the trail prior to this, and with westward views and mountain meadows to boot!
Soon you’ll find yourself passing below the large rock walls of the ridge before turning upwards, just below the summit block itself.
A steeper rocky section of trail is the last little bit to conquer before finding yourself at the landing beneath the imposing, monolithic block that is Ol’ Mac.
As you will certainly see, the block is pretty exposed.
Climbing out onto it, you might think that exposed is an understatement when you discover that the block essentially terminates into oblivion, and any resultant falls from here would likely result in death, or worse.
Stay within your comfort zone, this isn’t a place to screw around.
That being said, the block isn’t technically difficult, and affords many hand and footholds that have been tried and tested hundreds of times before. (Never hurts to double check)
I read somewhere that at one time there existed an aviation navigational light at the top of Ol’ Mac, part of a system of lights that guided aircraft to Seattle.
In those times there was also a handhold and more of a path to the top. (At the moment my book collection is in storage, so I’ll get back to you all about the specifics)
Along the scramble you can occasionally spy remnants of those days etched into the rock.
Once on the top you’ll be handsomely rewarded for your efforts (weather permitting) as you are standing upon one of the best viewpoints along the I90.
360º of unobstructed views!
In Cascade Alpine Guide vol. 1, Beckey describes a couple different routes;
One of them is ascending to the summit ridge via the upper south slopes by way of the second avalanche gully as a moderate winter or spring snow climb.
This one I can vouch for, as a couple friends and I took it one spring without knowing it was really a route. The slopes here are steep, but if you keep your wits about you, the ascent to the ridge is a piece of cake. Some light class 3 scrambling is the worst of it.
Keep in mind however, there are a lot of loose rocks, and you are climbing directly above a fairly popular trail.
Another is the East Spur, which I gather is essentially taking the first avalanche gully directly to the summit, I’ve looked at it and intend to give it a try someday, appears to be a long class 2-3 scramble.
The NORTH BASIN is more of a climbing route, popular when the basin is snow filled. I have read that the rock near the upper reaches is pretty loose and crumbly and may have been a factor in a 2005 fatality along this route.
McClellan’s Butte has a little something for everybody, and while a popular destination, thus far never seems too crowded.
Besides the summit block, the entire trail is YDS class 1, however, McClellan’s Butte, or any mountain should never be taken lightly; Steep Slopes, avalanche chutes, and George McClellan’s ghost are just a few hazards one may encounter while treading upon it’s flanks.
There is often water available along the route, so bring a filter etc and fill up along the way.
Anyway, be prepared, leave it better than you found it, see ya there
Take exit 42 West Tinkham Rd. and head south, you’ll pass a WSDOT facility and a gated road on your right before coming to another road veering up and right to the trailhead. Sometimes this is signed, other times not. Either way it is a very short drive from the freeway offramp, so if you can’t find it, you probably went too far.
Currently a NW Trailpass is required for parking.
Beckey, Fred, Cascade Alpine Guide vol.1 Columbia River to Stevens Pass. The Mountaineers Books, 1973