A Week of Day Hikes on the North Side of Mount Baker

My family has spent a week hiking together every summer since I was a child, usually in the White Mountains. I love the White Mountains, but I’ve found it difficult to pull myself away from the local splendor of the Cascades since moving to Seattle. Last August, we compromised and spent a week day hiking the Cascades on the north side of Mount Baker.

Planning and Logistics

note: where possible, we use links that earn us a commission if you purchase using them. 

Where to stay. For our home base, we rented a house in Glacier, Washington. As a popular destination for summer and ski homes, there are a number of good offerings on VRBO. The house we selected had a great porch, a good central living room and kitchen, and space to eat inside too. It also had a hot tub.

Food. For when we wanted to cook, Glacier has a small (though predictably expensive) market. We brought the bulk of our ingredients from Seattle. For when we didn’t, there are a smattering of restaurants nearby.

Trail information. We used the Washington Trails Association (WTA) website. WTA is our goto resource for hiking in Washington. The trail descriptions are pretty reliable (though I find their distances can be quite off; double check with a map). The trip reports offer indispensable information about road conditions (cratered with potholes? recently graded? washed out?), trail conditions (blowdowns? stream crossing missing a bridge?), and berry, wildflower, and foliage conditions.

While hiking, we used a Trails Illustrated North Cascades map. I like a lot about this map series. The maps cover a large area, so you often only need the one for a given trip. I find them easy to read, and importantly, easy to fold and unfold. However, they often are a bit out of date or incomplete. Some trails are missing, while other trails or roads that have long been closed are still shown. So, I recommend the map, but I recommend cross-checking its information with the WTA and/or the service that administers the land you’ll be on.

Read on to learn more about our week of hiking, or check out my Flickr album for photos.

Monday: Skyline Divide

For our first hike, we chose Skyline Divide, which WTA describes as a 9-mile route with a moderate 2500′ of elevation gain. The ride to the trailhead was doable in our cars, though it required some maneuvering around deep pot holes and accepting there were some we could not maneuver around. From the parking lot, we covered the first 1500′ of elevation gain in two wooded miles, before emerging on the ridge line to great views.

Mount Shuksan and Wildflowers
Mount Shuksan and wildflowers

From here, the trail ambles along the ridge toward Mount Baker, alternating between climbing and descending. For the most part, the trail is exposed with great views the entire time. Shuksan dominates to the east and Mount Baker to the south. We climbed higher, and the Twin Sisters range emerged to the southwest.

After a while, we reached a particularly nice vantage, where we sat down to enjoy lunch. Over lunch, we picked out the various hikes we were considering for the rest of the week all around us. This made Skyline Divide a great introduction to the area and a good kickoff to the week.

Lunch spot on Skyline Divide
Lunch spot on Skyline Divide

From our lunch spot, all but Kyle and I turned back. The two of us continued higher, toward Chowder Ridge. Just below the area marked as Chowder Ridge on our map, we passed a small tarn and reached a narrow, rocky ridge. We followed this out to a view of Roosevelt and Coleman Glaciers. To their west, more than a dozen streams and waterfalls flowed from melting snow to the valley.

Our end point on Skyline Divide
Our end point on Skyline Divide
View of a green ridge, blue tarn, and jagged North Cascades Peaks from Skyline Divide
Looking down Skyline Divide

After taking in the views here, we backtracked to the tarn and then descended along a boot path below the ridge line into the valley between Skyline and Cougar Divides. This gave us some up-close views of streams and wildflowers, and it let us make a bit of a loop out of the end of our hike. Near Dead Horse Creek, we reached another boot path that descended from the ridge and the main trail. We followed it back to the ridgeline and caught up with the others shortly before the trail re-entered the woods. The last two miles back to the car passed quickly.

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Dead Horse Creek and wildflowers below Skyline Divide
Dead Horse Creek

Tuesday: Heliotrope Ridge

For our second hike, we chose one of the routes we could see from our high point on Skyline Divide: Heliotrope Ridge. This 5.5 mile hike, with 1400′ of elevation gain, would bring us to a glacial moraine and up close views of the Coleman Glacier.

Despite being short, we got an early start to avoid difficult stream crossings. The hike has three unbridged crossings, and as the day warms up, the water rises and the current becomes swifter. We covered the first mile and a half of the trail through the woods, and the first two stream crossings, in quickly. Around the second stream crossing, we found ourselves slowed by a huge patch of delicious, ripe huckleberries. With the hardest stream crossing ahead of us, though, we only grazed briefly before continuing.

The third stream — Heliotrope Creek — was already flowing pretty high and fast by the time we reached it. Four of us crossed (I found trekking poles helpful). My parents felt more comfortable following a boot path along the creek into the meadows above. Another alternative would have been to backtrack to the climbers’ trail and ascend that to the meadows.

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Heliotrope Creek and wildflowers
Heliotrope Creek
Coleman Glacier from Heliotrope Ridge
Coleman Glacier from Heliotrope Ridge

After the creek crossing, a short distance brought us to a view of Coleman Glacier from its moraine. We followed the moraine higher for closer views of the glacier, stopping when we reached some steep slabby rock. We paused to enjoy a snack before returning to the creek crossing.

Though it was no more than an hour later, the creek was noticeably higher when we returned. We again crossed and rejoined my parents. Their route had also brought them to good views of Baker, many wildflowers, and more streams and cascades. On the side of Heliotrope Creek, we enjoyed a leisurely lunch. We also saw more groups arrive to cross. It was a hot day, and each group encountered more difficulty than the last, with a good portion of the later arriving groups turning back.

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Heliotrope Creek and Mount Baker
Heliotrope Creek and Mount Baker

After lunch, we retraced our route to the car. With the difficulty of the Heliotrope Creek crossing behind us, we stopped at the huckleberry patch to pick for at least 30 minutes. We filled our bellies and our empty sandwich containers, leaving us with berries to add to our cereal for the rest of the week.

The combination of a shorter hike and an early start left us with some time and energy to go back out and explore after dinner. We headed east on 542 toward Artist Point, stopping at Picture Lake. From the accessible trail around the lake,  we snacked on more berries and watched the light fade over Shuksan, reflected on the water. Kyle and I attempted to drive higher for views from Heather Meadows, but the sun set too quickly. As we passed Picture Lake again on the way back to the house, we noticed the moon rising over Shuksan, and so we stopped again to enjoy the changed view.

Mount Shuksan and Picture Lake
Mount Shuksan and Picture Lake
Moonrise over Mount Shuksan and Picture Lake
Moonrise over Mount Shuksan and Picture Lake

Wednesday: Hannegan Pass and Peak

For Wednesday, we picked a hike to Hannegan Pass and Peak (10.4 miles, 3100′). The trail starts at the end of Forest Road 32 (Hannegan Pass Road), basically continuing the road’s route above Ruth Creek. This route was scouted in 1893 as a potential route for a road through the North Cascades. Luckily for hikers enjoying this stretch of trail, that never came to fruition.

Despite being in the valley, the trail is mostly open to views of the Nooksack Ridge and the valley the entire way. On most days this helps the the first miles pass quickly, though, from reading the trip reports, the lack of shade can be a downside on hot days. After about three miles, the trail begins to climb, passing Hannegan Pass Camp after some steeper switchbacks. Not far after, we reached Hannegan Pass. The pass offers limited views — about 160º — but beautiful. The landscape and rocks made me wonder if the area was formed by volcanic activity, and sure enough, from here we were looking at the inside of a four million year old caldera.

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Hannegan Caldera
Hannegan Caldera from Hannegan Pass

The best views, however, still waited ahead. We rested in the shade just long enough to regroup before beginning the last push toward Hannegan Peak. From here, the trail gains elevation even more rapidly, though all on switchbacks that wrap their way back and forth across Hannegan’s southeast slope. Once done with the switchback, there’s still a bit more to go. The trail continues climbing, first on a narrower ridge and then across Hannegan’s broad, rounded summit.

view of Ruth Mountain and Mount Shuksan, from Hannegan Peak
view of Ruth Mountain and Mount Shuksan, from Hannegan Peak

At the summit, we enjoyed 360º views — though you have to walk to see them. There’s a small island of trees right at the summit, but the views from all sides of it are breathtaking. To the south, Ruth and Shuksan rise, along with Mount Baker and the Nooksack Ridge. Various Canadian peaks dot the horizon to the north, with Copper Ridge to the east and Goat Mountain, Yellow Aster Butte, and a myriad of other summits to the west.

We enjoyed a long lunch and some time to just relax on the summit. This would have been a lovely spot to spend the afternoon with a camp chair and a book, but eventually it was time to head back down. We returned to the trailhead via the same route. The exposed trail along Ruth Creek was certainly warmer than on the way in. I happily dipped my feet in the cool water at the trailhead before we drove out.

Thursday: Artist Point Sunrise and Lake Ann

On Thursday, we all went our separate ways. My brother and his fiancée made the drive to Seattle to visit friends, while my parents relaxed and explored rivers around Glacier.

That left Kyle and I free to plan our own trip. We had been wanting to get up to Artist Point for sunrise views of Mount Baker. With only our schedules to contend with, we decided to do that, followed by a hike to Lake Ann.

This required an early wakeup for the 45 minute trip to Artist Point. The drive ended up taking slightly longer, since we got stuck behind a truck pulling a camper part of the way and we did not want to run across any deer in the dark. We arrived at the Artist Point parking lot just in time to watch the moon slip behind Mount Baker.

Shortly after, Baker’s snow started to glow pink in the early morning light. We wandered east from the parking lot, enjoying watching the shades of peaches and oranges and pinks slowly shift with the approaching dawn. As the sun rose, Shuksan cast long shadows across Baker. These shadows gradually got shorter. Just as we reached some tarns, the sun burst forth near Shuksan. We continued to wander along the ridge, enjoying multiple sunrises as we changed the location of the horizon.

Eventually, dawn turned to morning and we returned to the car. We drove the short distance to the Lake Ann trailhead. We crossed the street, took a quick look at the Bagley Lakes and other Heather Meadows tarns in the morning light, and then crossed back to start our hike.

From the parking area, the trail descends on switchbacks and enters the Mount Baker Wilderness. As the trail leveled out, we reached a basin. From here, the trail  wanders around through boulder fields, bits, and some glimpses of views.  Eventually, it opens up in a wider basin, with Shuskan Arm, Mount Baker, and Artist Point all visible. The trail then gradually climbs toward a saddle. The saddle delivers the first views of Lake Ann, backed by Shuksan in all of its grandeur.

From the saddle, we descended slightly and took a right at a junction that led us to Lake Ann. We had a snack with views of the still-shaded Lake Ann and of Shuksan. Rather than linger, we decided to push on toward Curtis Glacier. We returned to the the t-junction and followed the trail through a boulder-strewn meadow. Shortly after crossing Shuksan Creek, the trail began to climb again on switchbacks. While hard work, we were rewarded with trailside huckleberries. Frequent gaps in the trees continued to offer great views, and we could see down to Baker Lake in the distance.

Eventually, the switchbacks ended and the trail — really a boot path at this point — crossed the dry creek and entered North Cascades National Park. We crossed an open slope and reached a fork just before an area where it looks like snowfields linger late and the slow is washed out. We first chose the high route, to the left. This brought us to good views looking down on Curtis Glacier, back to Lake Ann, and down to Baker Lake. It also appeared that the booth path continued up steeper terrain to a climbers’ route. This was confirmed shortly later by the sound of rockfall from descending climbers.

We paused here to enjoy views of Shuksan and Curtis Glacier. Marmots and pika whistled and chattered around us, but none close enough that we got a great look. We also noticed a lower boot trail that continued across the washout, down toward the moraine of Lower Curtis Glacier. We decided to give it a try.

To get there, backtracked to the fork and gingerly made our way across the washout. The rock and dirt were looser than I like, but we found it passable. Continuing on, we soon reached a bit of a descent and then the boulders of the glacial moraine.

Lower Curtis Glacier, Mount Shuksan
Lower Curtis Glacier, Mount Shuksan

One thing I love about glacial moraines is how they can unearth and bring together all manner of interesting rock. This one was no exception. We spent about an hour here, alternating between looking at the rocks at our fingertips and up at the hanging glaciers on Shuksan. In several places, the boulders had been broken up, exposing small crystals of various colors and shapes.

After our fill of staring at rocks and glaciers, we returned via the same path to Lake Ann. Here, we again turned off to circumnavigate the lake. Crowds had caught up with us by this point, but there was still plenty of room to spread out. We most enjoyed the view on the west side of the lake, with the other shore and Shuksan making for a dramatic, multi-layered backdrop. We stopped here for our lunch, or third snack, before returning to the car. On the way out, we passed a steady stream of other hikers. At just 8.2 miles round trip to the lake and 1900′ elevation gain, it offers a high payoff for the effort and is deservedly popular. Our route, which included the trip to the moraine, came in at more like 10.2 miles and 2400′ elevation gain and I also count it among my high-reward-for-the-effort hikes.

Lake Ann and Mount Shuksan
Lake Ann and Mount Shuksan

Friday: Chain Lakes Loop

For Friday, we selected another hike in the Artist Point area: the Chain Lakes Loop. This is a modest eight mile hike with 1700′ of elevation gain.

We started by driving back to the Heather Meadows visitor center, not far from the Lake Ann trailhead we had used the previous day. From the parking area, the trail descends to the Bagley Lakes, with Table Mountain above. After crossing a stone bridge, the trail proceeds along the lakeside and begins climbing to a pass. The pass looked deceptively close from the lake, but it’s a steady climb. The entire climb offers views back to Shuksan and over the lakes, though, so breaks were a pleasure.

At the pass, views of Baker greeted us. After descending slightly, we were rewarded with postcard views of Mount Baker reflected in Iceberg Lake below. The trail descended on a spur of a ridge, using switchbacks at time. Down in the lake basin, it passed between Hayes Lake and Iceberg Lake. We continued to the southwestern end of Iceberg Lake, where some grass patches and a view made for what looked like a good early lunch spot.

Bugs, however, made it a fast lunch spot. My parents, Kent, and Adri snacked quickly and moved along. Kyle and I stayed a little longer to explore the lakeshore, but only after liberally applying two kinds of bug repellant. Just past Iceberg Lake, the trail descends to Mazama Lake and an accompanying tarn. The bugs here were also less ferocious, so we took a second snack break here.

From Mazama Lake, the trail climbs again and rounds the southwest side of Table Mountain. Huge basalt columns rise to the left of the trail, with the Swift Creek drainage and Mount Baker to the right. A gradual grade brought us to a junction with the  the Ptarmigan Ridge Trail. We continued a short ways on this trail to a shaded spot with a view — and few bugs — where we ate our lunch. From our lunch spot, a mostly level trail leads back to the parking lot at Artist Point. This last stretch follows the southeast side of Table Mountain, with views of Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan the whole way.

At the parking lot, we stopped briefly for the restrooms before finding the trail back down to Heather Meadows and Austin Pass. This trail descends steeply and offers views to the north over the Bagley Lakes and beyond, so we took some pauses to rest our knees and take in some last views for the day.

Kyle and I still had a little bit of energy left when we got to the car, and the bugs had kept us moving ahead of schedule for the whole hike. We decided to use this time and energy to make a detour to Nooksack Falls on the way back to the house. The 88′ falls are accessible via a five minute drive from forest road 33, off of 542. I thought the falls were pretty and was glad for the stop, but chain link fencing put in for safety makes it hard to get a good view. The wayside also has some historical signage that offer sup bits of area history that I had not seen in our other stops.

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Nooksack Falls
Nooksack Falls

Saturday: Yellow Aster Butte

If you ask my dad his list of top 10 hikes, he will pretty much always start by naming Yellow Aster Butte (7.5 miles, 2550′). This was the only hike of the week that was not new to all of us. My parents had done it multiple times, and I had done visited once before, and we all agreed it would be well-the repeat.

As my dad’s favorite, we saved it for the last day so that we would be sure to end the week on a high note, and so some family friends would drive up from Seattle to hike it with us. The day was forecast to be hot, so our friends got an early start from Seattle, meeting us in Glacier while we were still groggy. NF-3065, leading to the trailhead, was one of the rougher forest roads of the week.  Fortunately it was not very long.

Parking at the trailhead is alongside a switchback in the road. From the trailhead, the trail dips into the forest, before climbing across meadows on two switchbacks. After these nice, early views, the trail renters the forest. It emerges again in a bowl and soon reaches a junction. The trail to the right leads over Gold Run Pass to Tomyhoi Lake. Our route, to the left, continued climbing as it followed the inside of the bowl. Once near the “center” of the bowl, Baker again became visible to the southwest. The trail climbs through a few more patches of trees and then reaches  boulder-filled area. From this point on, the trail is entirely open and the views keep improving.

We crossed a creek and turned a bend to slopes filled with late-season wildflowers. After winding around a bit more, we reached a junction. A trail to the right led to the summit of Yellow Aster Butte, while a trail to the left descended into an area between Yellow Aster Butte and Tomyhoi Peak. I call this area “Tarntown” for the dozen or so tarns that dot it. The available water and excellent views make it popular with backpackers.

Our group, though, headed up to Yellow Aster Butte. We all stopped at the first high point, offering 360º views down to the tarns and to summits all around, for lunch. After lunch, most of the group stayed to relax and just immerse themselves with views. Kyle and I followed the thinner bootpath toward the true summit. This was a short, mostly pleasant ridge walk, apart from some loose dirt near the true summit. Once we arrived at the true summit, however, we discovered that it was teeming with tens of thousands of termites. We took a quick look around, mostly at the view down to Tomyhoi lake, and got out of there.

Back at the junction to Tarntown, Kyle and I decided to explore a bit more. The trail descends steeply before reaching the tarns, where social trails radiate in all directions. We explored for 30 minutes or so, trying to stick to the most worn paths. Each tarn here invited to frame our views of the mountains — especially the Border Peaks — in a different way and to extend our explorations. The rest of the group had started down, though, and so we could not stay longer. We hiked back to the junction and headed down, catching up with the group about a mile before the trailhead.


The Hikes We Didn’t Do (Yet)

The Glacier area has more than a week of great day hiking, so we identified more potential hikes than we could do. Below, I describe a few that we considered, in case they are helpful for your trip.

Winchester Mountain (WTA)Winchester Mountain comes up in several lists of top views in the North Cascades, but the last stretch of road requires a high clearance vehicle (and even then it can be dicey). If walking along the road instead, it’s an 8.4 mile hike with around 1300′ of elevation gain. Winchester is near Yellow Aster Butte and the drive is similar. From Glacier, it’s about a 45 minute drive.

Church Mountain (WTA). Another hike described as having great views, Church Mountain is on the ridge to the north of Glacier (but still about a 30-45 minute drive). Gloves are recommended for the chain on the last ascent to the summit, and the Fossil Creek crossing (about a mile before the trailhead) is described as requiring care for low clearance vehicles. 8.5 mi, 3750’ elevation gain.

Goat Mountain (WTA). 4100′ elevation gain and 11 miles roundtrip payoff with spectacular views of Baker, Sefrit, Shuksan, Price Lake, Redoubt, Jack, Ruth, Blum, Triumph,  Whitehorse, Slesse, Rexford and Silver Tip. WTA recommends leaving the true summit unclimbed because of dangerous snow and rock. We elected for Hannegan instead as offering similar views but perhaps a bit more variety and a 1000′ less of elevation gain and a mile less distance. Still, Goat Mountain is high on my list for the next block of time I’m able to spend in the area.

Table Mountain (WTA). A shorter hike, at just 2.6 miles and 725′ elevation gain, we had this hike on our list in case of a day with only a limited good weather window or if we wanted a restful day. This hike leaves from Artist Point and offers up-close views of rock and great views of Baker and Shuksan. While a smaller hike, WTA recommends that you don’t underestimate it and exercise caution with children.

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