McClellan Butte Hike: Super hard and rewarding

The summit block on the McClellan Butte hike. It is an angled gray rock sticking into the fog, surrounded with a few evergreen trees
The summit block on McClellan Butte

By now you likely know that I don’t normally write about hard hikes, since I like to keep things low key. I do enjoy a super hard hike now and then, (check out my Mt St Helens summit climb guide here) I like to include them in case you’d like to challenge yourself too! The key to doing a hard one like the McClellan Butte hike is to work up to it so your legs are ready for the elevation gain. McClellan Butte is a bit over 9 miles and has nearly 4000 feet of elevation gain. What I think makes it even harder is that the first couple of miles don’t climb that much, making it REALLY steep in the second half, especially the last third. I loved doing this hike with it’s challenges and you can do it too!

Is the McClellan Butte hike right for me?

This is definitely a hard hike! If you’re looking for a challenging hike but want to avoid the crowds that are at some of the other challenging trails in the same area (Mt Si, Granite Mountain) then this would be the perfect hike for you! It’s hard, but it’s still something that a normal hiker can do. It has great views, which I missed because the summit was foggy when I did it! I still enjoyed the views of surrounding mountains and hills and the berries, so I didn’t mind too much. A big benefit of this trail is the lack of crowds, there were only a few cars in the parking lot on an August Saturday!

A smiling person on a mountain surrounded by trees in the fog. She is wearing white earbuds, a head wrap, tank top and a backpack.
Me getting close to the top hoping I am almost there! (I was)

When is a good time for McClellan Butte?

This trail wasn’t crowded on a Saturday so I think any summer day would be great. I would recommend a clear day when you can see the view (although it was not clear when I did it and it was much less hot and I was happy for that trade off). There are dangerous snowfields that stretch into July so I would probably not attempt this until late July. This hike takes a long time, especially if you’re slow like me, so make sure that you have plenty of time for this adventure.

Where is McClellan Butte?

The McClellan Butte hike is near Snoqualmie Pass, just west of it. If you take Exit 42 from I-90 East and follow Tinkham road for half a mile you’ll be there (google maps will get you there). It’s a bit less than an hour from Seattle, without traffic. The outhouse at the trailhead is closed as of this writing in 2019.

Trail Description

At first, this hike isn’t too steep. It starts with a mellow forest walk, through an open area under powerlines and then there’s a junction where you follow what looks like an old road to the right (this is signed). This section is completely flat. About a mile from the trailhead, you’ll cross the Palouse to Cascades trail, and continue on the other side (there are signs).

A gravel road through the forest. A wooden sign beside the road reads McClellan Butte trail with an arrow
The intersection at the Palouse to Cascades Trail is well signed

A little bit further on, you’ll cross a forest service road. After this point, the trail starts to get steeper and you’ll steeply climb a series of switchbacks. In the last couple miles, there are long traverses between the switchbacks. During this section you’ll start to see out in more open areas occasionally, which offers a nice change of scenery. In this area there are lots of huckleberry bushes, and if you’re there in August or early September, you’ll be able to snack on tons of berries! This is a good distraction from the increasingly tough climb.

A bright green berry bush with dark blue berries on it. The leaves of the berry bush are tinted with red and the leaves are wet and shiny
Huckleberries (and other berries!) line the steep upper half of the McClellan Butte hike

As you approach the top, the trail winds around the back of McClellan Butte, opening up views down to the Cedar River Watershed, the source of Seattle’s drinking water (signs warn you not to enter the area).

Tall trees in a foggy forest. Between the trees forested hillsides are visible and a distant lake
Near the top of McClellan Butte, you pass along the edge of the Cedar River Watershed, Seattle’s drinking water source

At this point, you really are close to the top (less than a mile) but it’s really steep and it does feel like forever! But you’re almost there, promise!! At the top, you’ll see the summit block pictured at the top of the post. You can scramble out to the true summit, which I decided not to do since it was foggy and I was by myself. Others were going up there and getting to it just fine. Once you’ve given your legs a break, gotten a good amount of food in you and soaked up the view, it’s time to begin the long trip back to the bottom. The berries were a welcome distraction for me on the way down!

A blue and black backpack with patches on it. A plastic bag full of ripe huckleberries is tied to the outside
I picked enough huckleberries to make a cake the next day…YUM!
The summit block on the McClellan Butte hike. It is an angled gray rock sticking into the fog, surrounded with a few evergreen trees. Text reads: hiking McClellan Butte challenging uncrowded hike near seattle
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Jennie Flaming
Jennie Thwing Flaming, Chief Adventure Officer: Jennie's life has been a continual quest for adventure (of the non-adrenalin inducing kind) from birth till now. Professionally, she pursues adventures in teaching, counseling and working to obliterate institutional racism for students in our region's public schools and also works as a tour and hiking guide. Previous professional adventures include working in schools in Seattle and Alaska, leading tours and managing tour guides and presenting traveling science shows and lessons with Pacific Science Center. She believes in sharing her beloved Pacific Northwest home with visitors. She likes to be outdoors and spend time with the people she loves. Jennie is born and raised in Seattle and has also lived in Alaska and the Netherlands.