McClellan’s Butte 5162′

Ol’Mac looms…

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!


Hanging out along the ridge
Hanging out along the ridge

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…


Spittin’ Image!

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.


Biggest trees on the '90!
Biggest trees on the ’90!


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.

Off trail scrambling
Off trail scrambling

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.

Lotsa big ol' trees
Lotsa big ol’ trees

The trail now begins to climb, and soon, at about the halfway point, the next and most dangerous landmarks will appear…


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!)

Post thaw avalanche chute
Post thaw avalanche chute

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.


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.

The forbidden lands
The forbidden lands

(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.

Ol' Harry up on the block
Ol’ Harry up on the block


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.

“The Closer” ascending the block

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.

Ascending the south slopes
Ascending the south slopes

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.

The ’90 snaking across the land


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

Happy Trails!

Jack "The Bulge" at the summit
Jack “The Bulge” at the summit


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










Vesper Peak 6221′

I dunno if it means anything to you reader, but I had intended to climb Sperry Peak this time around, a jagged looking scramble above icy lake Elan and across from the focus of this entry, Vesper Peak. As I crested Headlee Pass, and started across that long talus traverse though, like everytime before when I get that first glimpse at the wide open ivory granite slopes of Vesper Peak, it beckons.

First look at Vesper Peak after Headlee Pass

A lot of climbs can be arduous, some wild and challenging, but there are only a few I would actually call pleasurable without a shred of hesitation in my voice, from the foot of those long smooth slabs to the summit, Vesper Peak is mountaineering bliss.

That being said, this is not an easy hike. The gain is over 4000′ in 4 miles or so, and the trail can be rough and difficult to follow. As always, be prepared.

So our journey begins about two miles off the Mountain Loop Highway down the Sunrise Mine road. You’ll catch glimpses here and there of the stone giants surrounding you, Sperry, Del Campo, Morningstar, so many mountains, so little time.

At the roads end there isn’t much of a parking lot, but there is room to park on the roadside.

The trail begins winding through the forest, crossing mountain streams under tall stands of timber.

Sperry Peak

You’ll break out into the first real elevation gain, switchbacking up open slopes of low shrubbery as you make your way up to Wirtz Basin. It’s good to hit this area before the sun really starts beating down, especially on a real scorcher.

Soon Wirtz Basin will open up before you, low brush and trees give way to open talus while you amble up between steep spires making up the basin walls. Looking up toward the head of the basin you might wonder how exactly are we going to climb out of here.

Heading up into Wirtz Basin

The trail starts to vanish when you hit the upper portions of the fractured talus, watch for cairns to help guide you up.

After working your way up and up the trail will reappear and so will the previously hidden Headlee Pass. The switchbacks here become steep and tight, so much so that if someone is just ahead of you, your head will be at eye level with their boots.

There are a lot of loose rocks along this part of the trail so be mindful of this in both your steps, and the steps of others. A cantalope sized rock to the cranium would not be conducive to continued existence.

When you reach the top of Headlee Pass a sign will greet you with the elevation. (4600′) Strangely for some, this is the end of the line. I wonder if they realize what awaits just a comparatively short ways away.

Hikers on the talus traverse from Headlee Pass

Leaving Headlee Pass you’ll soon find yourself on a wide talus traverse and also get your first glimpse of Vesper Peak. Depending on your overall constitution this view may either make or break the rest of the trip. (first picture)

A: We’re going up that!? or B: We’re going up that! Hopefully you’ll take option B.

While crossing the talus you may notice a few adits blasted into the steep rock across the way. This is the Sunrise mine. I personally have never ventured over there, and frankly it looks rather perilous, but hey, I ain’t gonna tell you how to do your job. If any of you do head over there, feel free to share some words and pics about it with me

Lake Elan outlet, Vesper Peak on the left

Ahem, back to our trip. Shortly along you will get to the outlet of Lake Elan, a great place to fill your water bottles for the trip up Vesper. You’ll notice here that the trail splits, off to your left the trail heads up, this is the way to go up Vesper, the trail to your right will take you into the bowl to the shores of Lake Elan.

There is room to camp in this area, but like the Forest Service says, use established fire rings and no raging infernos. The intrepid press on, overnight kit in tow, for a nights stay at the beautiful meadows just west of the summit.

Whatever your nights plans are, you’ll now follow the trail up through heather and diminutive trees to the base of Vespers polished granite slopes.

Base of Vesper’s slabs

From here on out it’s kind of a free for all, you could make it into a scramble, or for the most part, simply walk to the summit. It is a great climb, totally open, yet for the hiking acrophobic, never feeling too airy.

There is something of a route marked by cairns, it heads toward the middle of the mountain, before veering off towards the north and following that ridge to the summit.


The views are indescribable, perhaps one of the best perches in the Cascades.

I set up camp not far west of the summit, hoping to catch a glimpse of the northern lights. Had a six pack of beer chilling in the snow and waited for nightfall.

♪♫When the lights, go down, in the sit-tay♪♫

I camped just behind a large rock that bore an aged, unintelligible message that you can view in the picture. Who wrote these mysterious words so long ago, and why? What do they say, and what do they mean? Tell you what, if you can decipher them I’ll take you out for burgers and beer, No shit, my treat.

My best guess is : YES KEEP CAMP GUN OMA KEH DOH…. cryptic to say the least. Perhaps one of the Cascades greatest mysteries.

Mysterious spraypaint-o-glyphs

Alas the northern lights never did show, but watching the sun cast it’s final rays on the ancient peaks to the east and the stars and moon taking their places in the sky was fantastic in it’s own right. Looking west I watched as little by little the lights of the Puget Sound “super city” came on until it was a sea of multicolored lights.

Sittin’ on top of the world

Sort of a surreal place to be, essentially isolated, 6000′ above and miles away from the sprawl of suburbia yet bombarded by it’s presence, while the lands to the east only bore the astral light that the universe gave them. I know, pretty deep, huh?

Whether or not you get lost in deep reflection sleeping on top of a mountain, or simply just wanna get outta Dodge for a few, a trip to Vesper Peak will stay with you for the rest of your life. If you’re anything like me, it may become one of those places that requires at least an annual pilgrimage.

Copper Lake
Vesper’s crazy north face
Backside of Big 4 mountain