All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.— T.E. Lawrence
Three Fingers by the stats (15 miles and 4200 ft of elevation gain) does not adequately represent the difficulty or technical nature of the overall experience. I’ll try to capture my experience and summarize how you can prepare and make the Lookout and back as safely as possible.
First, with the trailhead 8.8 miles up the old road (as logged by Strava from the trailhead to the washed out bridge), you must decide whether to add to the overall hike or bring a bike and ride ~1600 ft of elevation gain up the former gravel road. Conditions of this road vary from thin sections to mostly single car track with thick gravelly sections, downed branches, one steep drop and incline up a sandy bit (possible to ride it), and if you ride to the end, you’ve passed the trailhead by about .6 of a mile. This took us about 2 hours with some stops to deal with the cache, the bike seat, and to enjoy the berries and marvel at this bird that insisted on following us.
Next, the Mountain Meadow trailhead is easy to miss with the sign just inside on the trail. There are sign posts visible throughout the rest of the hike to Goat Flats, but from there at this time of the year, the trail is pretty visible and intuitive to navigate all the way to the Lookout. this took us 6 hours with a pit stop at Goat Flats and some photos, route finding, snow aversion, microspike transitions, course corrections, but steady going all-in-all.
The Lookout, itself, was unoccupied and a great pit stop (we dropped off our cache items: log book, paint, paint foam roller, and vinyl gloves) before turning around and hiking our way back to our bikes and riding out to the car. 4 hours return from the Lookout to the start of the Mountain Meadow trail with another pit stop/break at Goat Flats. Our transition from the bike trail to the main trail took some time (like 45 minutes each time to change and stash/retrieve bikes and prep from and for the ride). Biking out took about 1 hour because my bike was squirrely due to the imbalance of weight due to the bike seat fiasco, described later. Overall, 15 hours car to car: started at 10:05, finished at 1:01 am.
Gear overview – briefly
Bring Crampons or MicroSpikes and an ice axe because the snow patches and the final snow field can be quite dangerous if you were to slide off. Definitely want some bug spray and a head net if stopping. Bugs were annoying but manageable and smoke was an issue despite the forecast saying it would be clear. There was no reception but GPS was working. We had brought a compass and map just in case, but Gaia worked just fine in the end. Because of the choppy terrain, we referred to Gaia multiple times to be sure we were staying on track.
People on the trail
The bridge parking was crowded and there were kids and adults partying off on both sides of the bridge down by the water. There were probably at least 10 cars in the lot. Be mindful of what you leave behind because you are gone for so long, it is possible for vandalism or theft.
We pass one person at the start of our bike and another 3 people coming off the Mountain Meadow trail, which is how we found the trailhead. We passed only 1 other couple heading down as we arrived just under Goat Flats. Both parties warned this hike took longer and was more technical than expected. All of them camped at Goat Flats for at least 1 night. This feedback made us nervous but despite our delayed start and slow going (due to a change of mindset), we weren’t really sure if we would make it or not. Read why and the rest of my story, below. Enjoy!
Ps. If possible, leave a few oz to spare in your pack so you can help transport goods up to the Lookout. You may find one or more caches with things to transport along the way.
Day 1 – Van Camping
I chose this hike based on the recommendation from a friend and thought based on my research that it looked like an appropriately grueling hike in line with what I’ve been seeking out and building up to. It has a little bit of everything, bike approach, gnar trail, open meadows, mountain pass, technical snow, short rock scramble, exposed ladders with a rewarding hut at the summit. Preparing was a matter of finding someone interested in the undertaking and capable of the various challenges and hopefully has a bike!
Fortunately I was able to borrow a bike from a friend for my friend. Despite trying to get to the bridge before dark, we didn’t end up arriving until after 10 pm Saturday night. The road to the bridge has a lot of pot holes and narrow stretches so it was good to come later when there wasn’t potential traffic coming or going. Still, not knowing how far up the road the bridge was, it was unclear where I should stop to park and sleep. I had not been to the bridge or talked to anyone who had so I didn’t know if I could park there to sleep (ie. how large was the space there), let alone could I turn the van around if I needed to. Given the rest of the road it seemed like I should find the best pull off I could and sleep there and potentially just bike from the pull off. Fortunately, someone was leaving the bridge after I parked at a pull off and we were able to catch them to ask them how far we were, etc. Here’s what I can tell you.
The road is about 8 miles from the Mountain Loop Highway. It is possible to drive to the bridge and camp there. There were quite a few vehicles parked there the next morning when I moved the van there and on our way out, someone had pulled in a camper and parked it in the middle of the road. There is enough room to turn around for a car and if you can get into some of the wider sections, you can maneuver a larger vehicle, like my van or that camper. Just know that the locals like to head up there to camp, too.
All night it seemed cars or trucks were heading up, with a rogue vehicle heading down. Sleeping can be a challenge if you find people partying all night or vehicles coming and going, disruptive. I was disappointed by the amount of trash left at the pull offs and at the bridge. In my prep, I had forgotten trash bags or any kind of bag for things like that. It was my intention to clean up the pull off I slept at on the way out, but was so tired and drove out in the dark that I drove past it before realizing I missed the chance. Don’t make that same mistake.
Speaking of taking things out, there is also the opportunity to help take things up to the Lookout. Just after the bridge on the way up you will find a cache with notes on items in ziplock bags. We had just set off when my bike seat slid annoyingly back from the weight of my pack on my back. I was not expecting a cache so I was focused on getting going when I rode past it. My seat tilted so I had to stop anyway and both my friend and I asked each other what we thought it was and whether we thought we should take something. We moved ahead a bit to fix my seat and consider the cache when someone on a bike came down the path towards us. He was the first person we would run into on the trail.
I asked him how it was up there and he simply replied “it was ok.” I’m not sure what I was hoping for but this was not enough information for me to determine whether we had any hope of making the Lookout that day, more on that in a minute. Then he followed that statement with “you’re not taking anything up to the Lookout?” I tried to reply but it wasn’t easy to explain why we passed the cache and the fact that we were going to try to fix my bike and then consider taking something up with us (we were not able to fix the seat). Because we set off on an exploratory mission and I wasn’t sure I could ride with the seat the way it was, we weren’t sure we were going all the way to the Lookout, let alone how far we’d actually make it if we tried. Still, as good Samaritans, we packed some items and figured at the very least we could leave them further up the trail. Note, there was another cache higher up so we weren’t the only ones with this idea.
Day 2 – Decision time
When the alarm went off at 5 am, the intent was to be on the bikes by 6:30/7 am. It was raining all night, hard at times and it was still raining at 5 am. We opted to sleep in and wait it out. I was not prepared to bike and hike in the rain. I had read about how overgrown the Mountain Meadow trail was and knew we’d be soaked. By 6/6:30, I acknowledged how unmotivated I was to go out in the rain and we thought we could pick an alternate trail if this one didn’t pan out. Back to sleep we went. My rest had been disruptive due to the vehicles and temperature at night and recalling how epic I crashed on my first attempt at Mt. Stuart years ago (see older blog post) due to lack of sleep, I felt I was making a good call to have some rest before tackling this one. Rain and lack of sleep were my main reasons for pushing out our start. In the end this turned out to be the best decision.
When we did get moving, we talked about how we should approach the day. I boldly suggested we explore the trail and see how far we go. Set a turn around time if we didn’t want to camp at Goat Flats or the Lookout. My friend agreed and off we went. The difference was, I packed as though we might be up on the mountain for a night (food, water, bivy, etc) and he took things out from his pack in expectation that we were just “exploring.” In the end, it didn’t really affect us. The biggest concern for him was water, but there were places we could fill along the way so except for the both of us forgetting our electrolytes, we had enough of everything.
I’ve already given a pretty fair overview of what to expect on the hike, but here are a few more bits of information along with a glance at how things went for us.
While we arrived at the trailhead around noon, it somehow took us an hour to get situated and head up on the Mountain Meadow trail. That was a lot later than we had hoped but we were “exploring” so we kept going. Immediately it becomes clear that this trail is a mess: downed trees, obstructed and eroding path, tree roots, slick rocks, a bit of bushwhacking from thick growth throughout, and some mud and water with progressively steeper terrain as you go.
The sun broke around 1 pm, which was expected, and with only the smoke screen as a filter, the moisture from the rain and the filtered sun created a bit of a humid rainforest despite the forecasted high to be relatively cool (like 68 F). It was grossly hot and humid but otherwise, navigating the terrain was pretty “easy” going with daylight. It just felt like forever to get to Saddle Lake and the fork to Goat Flats. You really don’t appreciate the gnar of this trail until you are coming down it — in the dark.
This same trail on the way down was slick and treacherous. We both fell and slipped, multiple times. Not only that, with the thick brush blocking the path, it was difficult to see good footing clearly. Tree roots, erosion, downed trees, the stumps of branches on the downed trees or surrounding brush would find us and trip us up. I slipped, banged myself into, onto, and off of random things the entire 2.5 miles back to the bike trail. It was brutal. Worse, I heard a branch snap off to the side of us at one point and became a bit scared a bear might be wandering nearby. I really did not want to deal with an animal on this trail. Bats, lizards, frogs, and some other bird was encountered with much less trepidation. It may have felt like forever getting up to Saddle Lake, but it felt even longer trying to get back to the bike path. I was hoping we could make it by 11 pm. We were off by 30 minutes. I blame the pit stop at Goat Flats but sometimes you have to stop. 🙂
Committing to make the Lookout
After starting on Goat Flats, I dropped the idea that maybe we could keep going…maybe we could make it to the Lookout early enough and potentially even camp there. We pondered the fact that we were already here and whether we wanted to come back and do this all over again. Apparently neither of us wanted to come back because when we hit Goat Flats and saw the terrain we had to cover to reach the Lookout, still 3 miles out, we both made an agreement to continue and see how it goes. My cut off time moved from 4 pm (it was already 3 pm when we made Goat flats) to 5:30 pm. I was still hopeful we could make that time and allow us to turn around and complete the hike in a day.
As warned by the party we met at the Mountain Meadow trailhead, Goat Flats to the Lookout takes longer than you think. 6 hours from the trailhead to the Lookout, but 4 hours from the Lookout back to the trailhead. We started off on the Mountain Meadow trail just before 1 pm. We arrived at the Lookout around 6:45 pm. We were at Saddle Lake around 2 pm and arrived at Goat Flats by roughly 3:15 pm. When we passed Tin Can Gap and were well on our way to the Lookout, we had to agree to blow past 5:30 and accept that we might have to sleep at the Lookout or Goat Flats. Personally, I kind of thought the Lookout would have been cool but if not there, then I wanted to be home in my own bed, neither Goat Flats nor the Van seemed suitable.
Making the commitment to the Lookout was awesome. We went from exploring to doing and in so doing, we now had some fire under us to make certain milestones, like make it back to Goat Flats before dark. After making the Lookout, scarfing down some food and admiring the handiwork and delivering our good Samaritan goods, we packed up and began our descent.
Day 2 – Descending from the Lookout
Snow conditions were variable. I was really surprised there wasn’t a decent boot pack given how many people just went up and back. The last party we spoke to mentioned there was no boot pack to follow and they went up in their hiking shoes, no crampons or micro spikes. I was baffled how they approached the snow field. It was icy in places, crystalized and slushy in others. Also, there was a steep stretch near the top before plateauing into the scrambly bit. I couldn’t see a path so we kick stepped our way up and forged a path of our own. I was really happy we took our time doing this on the way up through all of the snow patches we encountered and the snow field at the end. This really sped things up on our descent because we could easily follow our tracks out with already established, footing.
The ladders are interesting. The steps creek and bend a bit as you apply weight so I stepped as far to the left and right on the rungs as possible to hopefully be stepping on the strongest bits. We didn’t rope up for this and there wasn’t any real protection, like a via ferrata would have, so at the risk of taking us both out if something should happen, we simply allowed each other room to solo up. There is one squeeze to negotiate after the 2nd ladder between that and the final ladder. This section feels a little hairy because (at least for me) my pack got wedged and I had to wiggle my way through and up on to the boulder with only the side rock as protection. After the last ladder, you step up onto an angled slab and walk up to the Lookout which sits on a wide flat perch, with narrow room around the outside perimeter. I.e. don’t try to wander around out there looking for a toilet because there isn’t room to meander and go.
Climbing up always seems easier than climbing down. I was happy the rock wasn’t wet and that we were descending immediately while all of the conditions were known to us. The goal was get off the ladders, down the scramble, across the snow field and back to Goat Flats before dark. It was just after 7 pm when we started preparing to go down. The sun set some time after Tin Can Gap, but we still had twilight at Goat Flats. From there to the bike trail, it was headlamps. With the thick brush and tall trees, any natural light from the sliver of moon that was out was completely blocked. Without our headlamps, everything seemed pitch black.
At this point, knowing we made the choice to summit and return so late, it became a bit of an objective to get down to Mountain Meadow as quickly as we could. The trail from Goat Flats to Saddle Lake was in much better shape than the Mountain Meadow trail so if we could gain any time, it would be on that trail. Unfortunately, our stop at Goat Flats cost us about 30 minutes, but when nature calls…
Mountain Meadow trail by headlamp
Slipping and tripping at times on the Goat Flats trail to Saddle Lake, we managed to make the Mountain Meadow trail in the time predicted. It was a fun way to keep our minds off the treacherous trail and the many bumps, slips, crashes, and such we were experiencing. All we focused on was being safe, but swift. This is not an easy thing to do on the Mountain Meadow trail in the dark. The brush is so thick that it blocks the light at times enough that the shadows and lack of light deceive your depth perception. There were times I simply turned to take a step from a stop and rammed my leg into a partial tree stump jutting out at shin height that I couldn’t see. I was worried one of us would sprain or break an ankle (or lacerate themselves as I did in Patagonia some years before, see an older blog post about that) but thankfully, we only scratched, bruised and minorly tweaked various portions of our body before breaking out back onto the bike trail.
I do not recommend this trail in the dark, at all. It is dangerous, not only for the ruggedness of the terrain, but also for the trail erosion and cliffed out edges that you could accidentally slip off into. Tread carefully through here.
Day 3 – Midnight ride back to the car
If only my bike saddle could have been corrected. With everyone we passed on the trail, I had hoped someone had a bike tool I could use to fix my bike saddle. No one had a tool. Make a note, bring a mini set of bike tools! You can leave a stash of bike items with the bikes but bring them just in case something like this happens to you. Biking downhill for an hour sitting precariously perched on a seat that is nearly vertical is taxing and prohibits your ability to counter the bikes response to the terrain. Weight shifting is nearly impossible and keeping weight so far back on the bike made the bike unstable and squirrely. The back end would fish tail and the front end would wander in response. My control was compromised though I did my best. So, not only was I a bit tattered from the rugged return hike, I was getting spit off the bike at times, even humorously collapsing trying to get on the bike by the pull of my backpack and shaky legs trying to get over the bar and around the seat only to have the weight of my pack and the bike tilting just off that I find myself on the ground. So, the bike portion didn’t go as smoothly as I thought it would go but it went and I was determined to keep going and take the few falls in the hopes that I would net faster progress to get off the trail sooner. I’d like to think that this worked. Making it back to the van was a huge relief and feeling like I still had energy to give, I was excited to make the drive out and get home to a nice shower and a comfy bed.
The ride out was slow due to the pothole navigation and such, but I was awake and alert for it. There was hardly any traffic as we started back towards Granite Falls around 2 am. Back home by 3:30 am and unpacked and showered by 4:30 am. I’d missed quite a few text messages about certain things I was tracking so now that I had reception again I took some time to respond before crashing at 5:30 am. It was a big day but I was thankful we took those few extra hours to rest. It gave me the extra energy to deal with such a big day that my overall experience was positive, despite the bumps and bruises. It was not the most beautiful hike due to the smoke, but it was an enjoyable experience being out there for so long and having the terrain mostly to ourselves for hours on end.
If you are looking for a bit of an adventure, even if you choose to sleep a night at Goat Flats or the Lookout, this is the hike for you. It has a little of everything and I can imagine as the season shifts and conditions change, you can get more or less snow as you want up there. Just remember, the stats of this climb don’t tell the whole story. Be prepared, and expect this to take longer than you think. And, if you try to come back in the dark, take your time through the Mountain Meadow trail, tread carefully, step cautiously (as cautiously as you can), and use your judgement about your skills before tackling anything so technical. One slip on the snow field or on the Mountain Meadow trail, could land you off the mountain and in pretty bad shape. Treat this hike with respect and you will be rewarded!
Thank you for reading! I hope this blog helps you prepare for your future Three Finger adventure.