Whatcom Magazine

Outings abound in Mt. Baker Wilderness, North Cascades Park

Jim Bryan, left, walks with his wife, Jenny Bryan, along the Artist Ridge Trail in August 2014. The trail is by Artist Point, a popular destination for people enjoying alpine country in Whatcom County.
Jim Bryan, left, walks with his wife, Jenny Bryan, along the Artist Ridge Trail in August 2014. The trail is by Artist Point, a popular destination for people enjoying alpine country in Whatcom County. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

Civilized Whatcom County sits at the edge of a vast and roadless mountain wonderland that includes the Mt. Baker Wilderness and North Cascades National Park.

You don’t have to be an avid, well-equipped, robust hiker to experience the splendor, but it helps. Ten-mile day hikes or overnight backpacking treks are well worth the effort.

If your time and stamina are limited, don’t let that stop you. Drive east on Mount Baker Highway about 60 miles to the Heather Meadows Visitor Center, a 90-minute drive.

Once there, you can meander around a small web of interconnecting trails that give you close-up views of wildflowers, small alpine lakes and mountain streams, all rimmed by rugged mountains. After you have stretched your legs, the adjacent picnic area is a fine place for dining al fresco, with huckleberries an added attraction at times.

Similar short walks are available from the Artist Point parking lot at the end of the road, but there is no picnic area. You do, however, enjoy sweeping views of Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan.

If a longer hike beckons, here are some popular options:

▪ Chain Lakes: You can begin this loop trail at either Artist Point or Heather Meadows. The full loop is about 7 miles. Many people park at Artist Point, make the relatively easy amble to the Chain Lakes, then backtrack to the car. Highlight: Icebergs in Iceberg Lake.

▪ Heliotrope Ridge: Turn right off of Mount Baker Highway about a mile east of Glacier onto Glacier Creek Road for eight rough, narrow miles to the trailhead. The trail includes about two pleasant miles of old-growth forest before you reach a fork. To the right is the climber’s route to Mount Baker’s summit. To the left, hikers reach a vantage point above awesome Coleman Glacier after less than a mile. Beware of creek crossings; they can be almost impossible if the water is high. Highlight: The glacier’s crevasse-torn vastness, just below you.

▪ Skyline Divide: Turn right onto Glacier Creek Road, as above, but then make an immediate left onto Deadhorse Road for 13 miles of rough road to the trailhead. The trail climbs steeply through forest and then to a grassy ridgetop that goes on for miles, tantalizing you with ever-more-spectacular rock formations and vistas. Be sure to carry water; there are no streams or lakes on this trip. Highlight: A sweeping view of Mount Baker’s icy flanks.

Tips for enjoying alpine country

▪ Go early in the day, when it’s cooler and parking spaces at trailheads won’t be an issue.

▪ Don’t drink from streams unless you carry a filtration system; carry drinking water even if you have a filter, because streams can be dry in late summer.

▪ Make sure you take a vehicle that can handle rough roads to trailheads.

▪ Stop at Glacier or Heather Meadows visitor centers to buy recreation passes required at trailheads.

▪ Check trail and road conditions at the centers and be prepared to change your plans.

▪ The Glacier visitor center has the last flush toilet; only pit toilets at trailheads.

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