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Wild blueberries, breathtaking scenery at Yellow Aster Butte

Robert Mittendorf takes an arm's-length self-portrait overlooking the tarns, or glacial lakes, below Yellow Aster Butte recently.
Robert Mittendorf takes an arm's-length self-portrait overlooking the tarns, or glacial lakes, below Yellow Aster Butte recently. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

If you and your family are up to the challenge, a hike to a magical place called Yellow Aster Butte offers spectacular scenery this time of year, as wild blueberries ripen and the summer slopes begin to hint at fall colors.

As if that weren't enough, awesome boulder fields and luscious alpine meadows full of wildflowers create scenes so pastoral you wouldn't be surprised to see Julie Andrews come spiriting over the next rise.

Though fall may be starting to show itself, wild blueberries - usually a late-August treat - remain plentiful along the Yellow Aster trail.

"They're a little far behind," said U.S. Forest Service ranger Jessica Williams at the Glacier Public Service Center, which serves Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

"Some places are better than others," she said. "South-facing slopes seem to be the best."

Like Heliotrope Ridge to the southwest, Yellow Aster Butte is a moderate to difficult trek, but families whose children are adventurous will find the trail a welcome challenge.

"It's really popular," Williams said. "It's one of the more strenuous hikes, and it can be kind of a push for younger kids, but it's all about ability."

I made the hike at the suggestion of a friend, South Whatcom Fire Authority firefighter Evan Boyd, who says that on a clear day, there are spectacular views of Mount Shuksan, Mount Baker and other Cascades peaks.

My trip was on an alternately sunny and misty day, as patches of clouds danced across the mountaintops in a scene reminiscent of Ansel Adams' "Clearing Winter Storm."

The wispy skies offered a breathtaking backdrop for the scene from atop the butte, a bowl-shaped valley dotted with small, blue-green tarns (glacial lakes). I was glad I'd worn layered clothing and had packed light gloves and a hat. I forgot insect repellent, but I only had to discourage a few biting bugs.

Another friend suggested bringing a wide-mouthed Nalgene bottle for picking blueberries, which line the trail for the final quarter-mile or so. It took me almost an hour to pick half a bottle full - but it was worth it.

The trail is well maintained, with solid footing and only a few muddy spaces despite the recent rains. Creek crossings were easy. Elevation gain is about 1,500 feet in the first 1.5 miles, then another 1,000 feet in 2 miles. Elevation at the butte is 6,150 feet.

It's about 7 miles round-trip, so allow five to eight hours - depending on your pace and the length of time you spend atop the butte. Many people camp overnight.

Bears are sometimes seen on the slopes, said Williams, the Forest Service ranger. A couple recent bear sightings - including a sow with cubs - and some cougars have been reported, she said. Keep small children in sight and ask the rangers for advice on how to handle a bear or cougar confrontation.

Directions: To get to Yellow Aster Butte, take Mount Baker Highway east to Glacier. Stop for a $5 day pass at the Glacier Public Service Center just outside of town. The center has maps and other trail information, restrooms with soap and running water, a few activities for kids, a relief map of the national forest, and an impressive cross-section of an old-growth Douglas fir.

Continue east on the highway about 12 miles to the state Department of Transportation snow-removal yard on the left. Turn left at the far end of the DOT yard, onto Twin Lakes Road, which makes a quick right uphill.

Proceed about 5 miles up the narrow, potholed and rutted dirt road - a bone-jarring route even at slow speeds. Four-wheel drive is not required until past the trailhead, but use caution.

There's a unisex pit toilet at the trailhead, so bring some hand sanitizer. "Blue bags" (free at the Glacier Public Service Center) are required for human waste along the trail. Campfires are prohibited and overnight camping is restricted to the valley near the tarns.

Park along the road near the trailhead (shared with Tomyhoi Trail) and proceed up steep switchbacks through forest and clearings about 1.5 miles to a marked post. Take a left and continue another 2 miles along much easier terrain to the top overlooking the tarns. There's a steep 400-foot trail to the right offering a panoramic vista, and a similar steep 200-foot descent to the left that leads to the tarns.

For more information, check the Washington Trails Association at wta.org or nwhikers.net. Alternately, search "Yellow Aster Butte" and look for the link to Trail No. 686.1, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

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