On a recent trip to Washington State, my group found ourselves in the middle of Colville National Forest, way too far from our intended hiking destination to drive there and then take the hike on the same day. Just as we came to this realization, we looked out the window of the van, and there was a trail sign. “Let’s see what this is,” we said. “It should be better than driving to where we’re supposed to hike, and then not being able to do it because it’s too late in the day.” A vague description at the trailhead signboard told us it would be worth the 7.1 miles (RT) hike up to the Columbia Mountain Lookout. So, we pulled in and headed off up the trail itself, not knowing exactly what was ahead of us. What we found was some very nice views, and a very nicely refurbished historic structure. It was definitely worth the hike and the time we took to do it!
To get to the parking area for the trailhead, take US 20 either west from Kettle Falls, WA or east from Republic, WA up to the top of Sherman Pass. Here there is a green sign that says “Sherman Pass, Elevation 5,575”. Right next to this sign is a small parking area with a kiosk with information about the lookout. This signboard is well worth reading; it’s the only real information you will find in this area about the lookout and the hike up Columbia Mountain. However, take your vehicle over near the big wooden sign that says, “Kettle Crest Trail”. Then drive down the Kettle Crest Road towards the campground, going left at the fork. This will lead you down to a large parking area, with a signboard and primitive restroom at one end. Although I get the impression that horses, hikers, cross-country skiers, snowshoers, and bikers all use this trail, we saw very few people there on a Sunday. There were two vehicles in the parking area and one person in the campground when we pulled in around 7:30am, but only one vehicle (a new one) when we came back down around 1:00pm.
To get to the trail itself, walk back up the Kettle Crest Road towards Sherman Pass. Before you get there, the trail will branch off on your right. A trail register is a short distance up the trail. The trail itself will begin to climb, then go down, then climb again. The trail isn’t as steep as it might be (probably for the sake of the cross-country skiers), but it continues to work its way upward for the next 2 miles or so. Keep on the lookout for wildflowers; they can be very nice in this area. Also, I’ve never seen sagebrush growing in the middle of a field of flowers, but it happens quite a bit along this trail. Cool! After about 2 miles, you will come to a trail junction. Instead of continuing straight down the Kettle Crest Trail (which you have been following north until this point), turn right up the switchbacks. A sign will point you in the right direction, and will say something like “Columbia Mountain Loop, 0.5 miles”. This trail is a bit steeper than the trail you have been climbing, and it switchbacks its way up for ½ mile up, up, up to the Columbia Mountain Loop Trail. A sign marks this junction.
Here, you can go right or left. If you want nice views (until now, it’s mostly been peek-a-boo through the trees) go right for a few feet, and then start up the trail-less mountainside heading towards the outcrop of rock above your head a little to the left. This is a fairly steep scramble, and I don’t recommend that you do this. However, if you want views, the best are from this outcrop of rock. Because we didn’t have any information, we made the mistake of coming this way, and were rewarded with some beautiful wildflowers and great views of the surrounding countryside. From here, you can scramble up through the pine trees and meadows to the top of the mountain and the “lookout”.
However, if you’re trying to get to the top of the mountain and the lookout, turn left and head up the trail for approximately ½ mile or a little less. Here a trail will turn in a switchback up the mountain, while the one you are on will continue straight. A signpost marks this junction; when we were there, the sign on the signpost was missing. Turn right onto the switchback as this is the trail up to the lookout. The other trail would take you around Columbia Mountain. This switchback is where the real steepness begins. I only hiked down it, but it is a very steep trail. Just before the top you will see a short trail leading off to the left towards the remains of a small cabin. There is a peek-a-boo view here, but it’s not great. Keep going up the trail, and you will come up on the back side of the “lookout”. There is no view from it at all; there are way too many trees around for that. However, it looked like it had been recently fixed up, so that was nice. The graffiti on the inside had dates back to 1941.
We had the peak to ourselves. There is a small firepit with a bench next to it and some nice logs to sit on. We ate lunch, then headed down (using the real trail). It’s not a difficult hike, except for the steepness of the trail. If you’re up there at the right time of year, the meadow below the lookout is filled with beautiful wildflowers, including lupines, indian paintbrushes, and many more I don’t know the name of. Anyway, they are well worth checking out.
Round Trip Trail Length: 7.1 miles (11.4 kilometers)
Facilities: Signs and a primitive restroom at parking lot, trail register part way up trail, fire pit at the top of Columbia Mountain
Fees: $5 Northwest Forest Pass daily fee. Interagency, Golden Age (Senior), and Golden Access (Access) Passes are also accepted.
Would I go 100 miles out of my way for this?
Sunday Sun Sep 24 10%
Partly cloudy. Lows overnight in the mid 40s.
Monday Mon Sep 25 10%
Cloudy skies. High 62F. Winds light and variable.
Tuesday Tue Sep 26 10%
Sunshine and clouds mixed. High 68F. Winds light and variable.
Wednesday Wed Sep 27 10%
Sunny skies. High 73F. Winds light and variable.
Thursday Thu Sep 28 10%
Mainly sunny. High around 75F. Winds light and variable.