James P. Johnson still remembers his first hike to the top of Abercrombie Peak in the northeastern corner of Washington.
It was the mid ’90s and from the 7,308-foot summit, the Spokane teacher said it seemed like he could see forever in every direction.
“I thought to myself, ‘Wow,’ ” Johnson said. “I’m standing on top of the second-highest mountain in Eastern Washington.”
That moment sparked a passion for Johnson. He would spend four summers hiking up the 50 highest peaks in Eastern Washington and in 2003 he published the definitive book on the subject: “50 Hikes for Eastern Washington’s Highest Mountains.”
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Now if you’ve climbed any mountains in Western Washington you might think the green, tree-covered mini-mountains east of the Cascades might not be worth your time.
Johnson disagrees, but he gets where you are coming from.
“The scenery is not as spectacular as it is in the Cascades,” Johnson said. “But there are a lot less people here, too.”
I recently hiked four of these peaks in Colville National Forest and didn’t see so much as another car on the dirt roads leading to the trailhead.
And, while most will agree with Johnson that the views aren’t as spectacular as those in the Cascades, really the views are just different – spectacular in their own right.
So which of the 50 mountains is the best hike?
Johnson won’t name a favorite, but here are some that left a lasting impression:
THE TALLEST: GYPSY PEAK (NO. 1 ON MAP)
Summit elevation: 7,309 feet Miles: 7
Elevation gain: 1,749 feetMap: USGS Gypsy Peak
“I like Gypsy Peak because you get out of the tree cover and have great views for the second half of the hike,” Johnson said. “And it’s the tallest.”
Gypsy Peak is the highest peak east of the Columbia and Okanogan rivers, the east-west dividing line Johnson used for his book. The trailhead for this hike is in Colville National Forest’s Bear Pasture, which should be your first hint that you better be prepared for bear encounters. They don’t happen often, said Dexter Defibaugh of Colville National Forest, but they do happen.
The trip starts on the Crowell Ridge Trail. Once you reach the ridge you’ll leave the trail and scramble the final five miles to the top of Gypsy Peak. While the route is unmarked, Johnson and Defibaugh say it is easy to find.
More info: Sullivan Lake Ranger District, 509-446-2681
THE HARDEST: SULLIVAN MOUNTAIN (NO. 9)
Summit elevation: 6,483
Miles: 16 Elevation gain: 924 feet
Map: USGS Gypsy Peak
Crowell Ridge Trail also provides access to Sullivan Mountain. While it’s only the 29th-highest peak in Eastern Washington and the trail will take you right to the top, the 16-mile hike is likely to take the better part of the day.
There is a lookout tower on top of the mountain and a sweeping view that includes the Pend Oreille River and the small towns of Metaline and Metaline Falls.
“This one and Linton Mountain are about 16 miles round trip,” Johnson said. “Those are the longest hikes in the book.”
More info: Sullivan Lake Ranger District, 509-446-2681
THE EASIEST: MOUNT MISERY (NO. 10)
Summit elevation: 6,366 feet
Miles: 2 Elevation gain: 436 feet
Map: USGS Diamond Peak
This mountain in Umatilla National Forest doesn’t live up to its name. Johnson says it’s a mere 20-minute hike to the top of the Eastern Washington’s 37th-highest peak. From the top you’ll be able to take in the Blue Mountains as the range stretches from Oregon in Washington.
While almost any hiker can handle this hike, if it’s too easy, Johnson suggests also hiking up nearby 6,379-foot Diamond Peak. Diamond Peak is less than a mile away from Mount Misery.
Johnson says most of the peaks in the Blue Mountains are easy to access. Oregon and West buttes can be bagged in a relatively easy six-mile hike.
More info: Pomeroy Ranger Station, 509-843-1891
THE BEST VIEWS: HOOKNOSE MOUNTAIN (NO. 2-3)
Summit elevation: 7,210 feet
Miles: 11 Elevation gain: 3,120 feet
Map: USGS Abercrombie Mountain
Getting to the top of the fourth-highest peak in Eastern Washington will require nearly two miles of off-trail travel once you reach the 7,308-foot summit of Abercrombie Mountain. However, Johnson says the view is worth the trip.
“I like Hooknose because its west side is very steep,” Johnson said. “It has a good view of the Pend Oreille River.”
From the summit you’ll also be able to see Eastern Washington’s tallest peaks – No. 1 Gypsy and No. 2 Abercrombie as well as the more rugged peaks to the north in British Columbia.
More info: Colville Ranger District, 509-684-7000.
THE PEAK BAGGER SPECIAL: THE KELLER RANGE
Peaks: Wapaloosie Mountain (7,018 feet), Scar Mountain (7,046), Copper Butte (7,140), Midnight Mountain (6,660) and Lambert Mountain (6,525) (No. 4-8)
Miles: More than 20.
“When I was doing the book this was the most I did in a day – five peaks,” Johnson said. “It was a long, long day.”
Traversing this section of the Keller Range in Colville National Forest can be done from the south on Wapaloosie Trail or to the north on Old Stage Road. Old Stage Road is closed to cars, but it is open to stage coaches.
Both trails access the Kettle Crest trail. The trail will put you right on top of Copper Butte, the highest peak in the range and the sixth-highest peak in Eastern Washington, and will get you within short off-piste hikes of the top of Wapaloosie, Scar and Midnight mountains.
Then there’s Lambert Mountain, the northernmost of the five.
Johnson says it used to be an easy hike from Midnight to Lambert, but when I visited recently it was clear that is no longer the case.
Hikers are now required to climb over a sea of fallen trees killed by a forest fire.
“I went up recently to place a summit register,” Johnson said. “It was so tough hurdling all those trees that I wondered if anybody would ever climb up there again.”
Craig Hill: 253-597-8497
To learn more
For more information on Eastern Washington’s mountains, read “50 Hikes for Eastern Washington’s Highest Mountains” by James P. Johnson, $14.95, Frank Amato Publications.