Hiking the PNW: Granite Mountain

Photo Credit: Adam Schalberg

Almost immediately off exit 47 of I-90 is the Granite Mountain trailhead. The Granite Mountain trail  winds upwards steadily for 4.3 miles, with almost 1000 feet of gain per mile. The hike is recommended for conditioned hikers, though a relatively fit newcomer should be able to manage the distance and gain. This mountain is somewhat harder than either the Old Si or New Si trails, with Mailbox’s Old Trail being the closest equivalent. Be advised, this trail is very prone to avalanches and is only recommended before significant snow accumulates at elevation.

The drive to the trailhead is smooth, and any vehicle able to drive on the highway will be just fine in getting to the parking lot, as there are no forest roads and no need for extra clearance vehicles. The hike begins at approximately 1800 feet of elevation, though my phone’s app wavered between 1600 and 1800 at the parking lot. Even with a free 1800 feet of elevation at the start, the trail will challenge most hikers, largely due to its length.

Starting from the parking lot, the trail begins by winding through the trees with a fairly gentle slope before eventually straightening out and beginning the ascent. The grade throughout the hike is remarkably consistent, with only a few rocky spots that require a step-and-a-half approach, or perhaps the use of hands for a smaller hiker. After about a mile, there is a fork in the path, with the left fork leading to Pratt Lake. Take the right fork to stay on the Granite Mountain trail. From here, the path continues to wind upwards, crossing a talus several times. For those new to hiking, a talus is a rockslide area and can become a serious hazard when avalanche conditions exist.

At approximately the three-mile marker, the trail climbs out above the treeline, into an alpine meadow. In the late spring and early summer, this meadow is popping with the colors of beautiful wildflowers all around, while a glance over your shoulder provides already majestic views that continue to improve with every step. The meadow is crisscrossed with multiple routes, with most leading to the same place. On a clear day, the summit is easy to spot, as the watchtower at the top allows the hiker to choose paths that head in that direction. On days when the mountain is socked in, a GPS app on the phone such as AllTrails or Gaia are recommended for navigation.

The watchtower rests atop an enormous pile of boulders, giving the impression that the summit requires a serious scramble both up and down. While that is a somewhat popular path, the scramble does encompass approximately half a mile of travel, with significant exposure on one side. As the path approaches the boulders, however, a sign post marking the main trail (which at this point can be difficult to see) directs the hiker around the right side, approaching the tower from the rear. This final approach does see an increase in the rate of elevation, with a narrower path and larger steps up, though there is essentially no exposure and no real concern about safety. For early season and late season hikes, winter traction devices that affix to your boot such as YakTrax or microspikes are recommended; I personally prefer the YakTrax in this area as microspikes offer compromised traction on smooth rock surfaces. A hiker would be well-advised to have both options in their packs for this section, as well as poles for the way down.

Once the final stretch is complete, the trail almost abruptly delivers the hiker to the top of the summit, providing astounding 360 degree views of the I-90 corridor and the Cascade Range, with views of Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens, and Mount Stuart sprawled out before you. Even on a pleasant day, the 5600 plus feet of altitude and prominence can provide for a chilly stay, so a jacket and additional warm weather gear is recommended if you plan a lengthy stay at the top. The photo opportunities are fantastic, and though the tower is typically closed to the public, the space beneath it provides a great safe haven for those soaking in the sights.

The trip downward is nearly as spectacular, however, as alpine lakes and meadows remain in view for the next mile back to the tree line. As mentioned previously, there is typically significant ice even in warm weather at the top, so both traction and poles are recommended.

Before heading to the mountain, it is recommended to check the weather at a site like mountainweather.com as the conditions at the top will be significantly different than the weather at the base, where most forecasts focus. Additionally, the ten essentials are critical for a mountain this large, with special focus on water and emergency gear. Finally, sites like WTA or AllTrails allow hikers to post trip reports, which are date stamped to let hikers read about actual current conditions and should be something that a hiker reviews before any excursion.

Granite Mountain is one of the tallest peaks in the 90 corridor. The hike is considered “hard” or “difficult” on most rating sites, and is not recommended for a novice hiker to attempt solo. With proper gear, an above average level of fitness, and an experienced companion, however, the trail will provide one of the greatest payoffs in the region, with sweeping 360 degree views and brilliant colors. I would most highly recommend attempting this trail in late June or early July on a clear day to take in the spectacular wildflowers as well.

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