Our Hiking Time: 3h 30m
Total Ascent: 1200ft
Highest Point: 5480ft
Total Distance: 5.5 miles
Location: N 47° 40.0080, W 121° 13.4700
Required Permit: Northwest Forest Pass
We recently had a chance check out Tonga Ridge, one of the most popular ridge hikes along Highway 2. With long views and a gentle grade, it’s easy to see why Tonga Ridge attracts so many hikers, and now that we near the end of summer, the trail is likely to see more traffic than usual as huckleberry pickers flock to the slopes of Mt. Sawyer to harvest this year’s crop.
Back around the turn of the last century, mining and timber interests were pulling trees and ore out of the valleys near Skykomish at breakneck speed. Forest fires were among the biggest threats to these industries, as fires would destroy resources, camps, and cut off access to the outside world. The Forest Service responded by building fire lookouts throughout the region in an attempt to find and contain fires before they spread out of control. In the Skykomish Ranger Distinct, there were numerous lookouts including a fire lookout camp on Tonga Ridge throughout the 1920s, likely in response to a fire that seared the trees off Mt. Sawyer in 1914. A ranger named George Sawyer spent his life in the forests of the Skykomish District helping keep watch for those fires, and after his death in 1930, Mt. Sawyer was named in honor of his service.
The Tonga Ridge Trail #1058 begins from the end of Forest Road 6830, gently rolling through a young forest of fir and hemlock. The trail is well-maintained and largely free of rocks and roots and after a short climb begins to open up and offer glimpses of the Foss River and Burn Creek valleys. As you enter the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, the trees thin and bracken fern and blue huckleberry begin to crowd the trail. During the spring, wildflowers brighten the trailside, and during the late summer and early fall, the huckleberries ripen and tempt both hikers and wildlife.
The trail continues to amble through meadows and stands of evergreen, gliding over the ups and downs of the ridge without much difficulty. After about two miles you’ll reach a relatively large meadow that older maps mark as Lake Sawyer. Today the small lake is gone, but it still serves as a useful landmark for finding the unmarked trail to the summit of Mt. Sawyer. As you enter the trees just past the onetime-lake, look for a small, steep track heading upwards. After a short scramble, you’ll find yourself on a narrow path switchbacking up the shoulders of the mountain. Although unmaintained and unofficial, the route sees more than enough traffic to keep the trail clear.
Before long the trail delivers you to the wooded summit with broad vistas stretching to the north and south. The bigger views are to the south, where Mt. Daniel and Mt. Hinman steal the show, and Mt. Rainier and the top of Mt. Thompson perch in the distance. To the west, pick out Beckler Peak, Mt. Baring and Mt. Index. Once you’ve had your fill, walk through the trees to see the mountaintops to the north, including Scorpion Mountain, Alpine Baldy, Mt. Fernow and Glacier Peak. Find a good rock and settle to soak up the views. For those looking for a longer day, you can continue past Mt. Sawyer up to Sawyer Pass and follow bootpaths down to Fisher Lake and Ptarmigan Lake beyond.
This is a great all-season trail that we recommend every hiker. Whether you’re looking for a snowshoe, springtime wildflowers, summer berry picking or autumn colors, Tonga Ridge delivers. The trail is also fairly easy and should be approachable for hikers of all ages and experience, which tends to draw in the crowds. You can expect to share the trail with a lot of other folks on this popular hike, and the limited parking at the trailhead can be challenge on a crowded day. If at all possible, try to hit Tonga Ridge on a weekday when traffic will be lighter.
To get there, take Highway 2 out past Skykomish just beyond milepost 50. Take a right onto FR 68, also known as the Foss River Road. Continue for about three-and-a-half miles to a junction, taking a left onto FR 6830 and following it for almost seven miles to the signed 310 spur. Head right onto the spur and drive a little over a mile to the end of the road and the trailhead. -Nathan
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