The Cascade Range extends for 700 miles from Northern California to Southern British Columbia. It is a momentous mountain wonderland, with enough beauty spots to occupy many lifetimes of inspired wandering. But in my view, informed by decades of high-country rambling, the apex of all this high-mountain ecstasy can be found along the Mt. Baker Highway.
Here are five special trails that represent the best of the best in this northern mountain kingdom, chosen for their scenic delights and superior reward-to-effort ratios. So strap on your boots, throw some snacks in your pack and discover what locals already know: The trails around Mt. Baker are some of the finest mountain trails on Planet Earth.
The hike to Ptarmigan Ridge is perhaps the easiest hike on this list. Elevation gain is minimal and the views are extraordinary, starting right at the parking lot. But this route holds snow longer than any of the others mentioned here and is frequently inaccessible until late summer (or autumn). When snow covered, it can be dangerous without an ice axe and the facility to use it. But when the snow is (mostly) gone you can do this as a rapturous day hike—every step is out in the open with awe-inspiring views of the high peaks on all sides. From the busy Artist Point parking lot, you’ll be treated to remarkable mountain views immediately—no toiling up through the woods here!
Hike out beneath the precipitous cliffs of Table Mountain, staying left at the Chain Lakes junction. Mt. Baker is front and center. Drop down into a bowl of polished rock, hop across a few lovely little creeklets (monkey flowers in summer) and climb up scree or snow to Ptarmigan Ridge proper. The trail continues along the ridge with moderate ups and occasional downs. If you encounter snow in any of the steep sections turn back and hike the Chain Lakes Trail instead. If the way is clear you’ll pass a beautiful little tarn, only a few decades old, borne of the retreating ice, cradled in a glacially-scoured basin. Coleman Pinnacle, a black fang, looms overhead.
The official trail ends at a place called Camp Kiser, a saddle on the ridge with big views. The return hike features nearly non-stop views of Mt. Shuksan. Time your hike right and you might enjoy alpenglow on its dramatic ramparts.
Details: Drive the Mount Baker Highway to its end at Artist Point. The trail exits from the west side of the lot, traversing the slopes of Table Mountain. At the junction with the Chain Lakes trail, bear left. Round-trip to the end of the trail is about 14 miles, with an elevation gain of 1600 feet, but no need to hike it all if time or motivation are in short supply: this excursion is more about the journey than the destination.
There are a few days every year when Skyline Divide is quite likely the most beautiful place on Earth.
Fields of wildflowers—primarily deep purple lupines—carpet the slopes, and the ice of the surrounding high peaks gleams in the sun. But no matter what, the Skyline Divide Trail dishes up superlatives. The trail is short—some grunting, sure—but after only two miles in the trees, you’ll crest the wide-open ridge. From here you’ll enjoy miles and miles of gorgeous alpine meadows and astounding views. Mt. Baker (10,781 feet) and Mt. Shuksan dominate a horizon of lofty peaks.
Savor every moment on this undulating ridge. If you have the time and the inclination, follow it until the green slopes give way to shattered rock beneath the gothic wall of Chowder Ridge.
Details: Drive the Mount Baker Highway and turn right near milepost 35 onto Glacier Creek Road (FR 39). Make an immediate left on Dead Horse Road (FR 37) and follow it 12.8 miles to the trailhead. The hike is six to nine miles round-trip (depending how far along the ridge you wander), with an elevation gain of 2100-2400 feet.
Yellow Aster Butte
Yellow Aster Butte is a well-known and much-beloved hiking destination. The top of the Butte is magical, an alpine fantasy come to life. The magnificent Border Peaks are front and center, while Mt. Shuksan, Mt. Baker, the Pickets, and an infinity of ragged peaks are revealed in all their glory.
The trail winds up through beautiful forest, breaking out of the trees at 1.5 miles (bear left at the junction with the Tomyhoi Lake Trail) and traverses gorgeous meadows and rocky slopes the rest of the way with constant views of mountain splendor. One gully holds snow late into the summer but generally presents no significant difficulty to cross. The trail rounds a shoulder of the butte and passes several tiny tarns, reflecting pools for the great peaks. Turn right for the final climb to the top of the Butte, as steep as it is awe-inspiring. Be sure to allocate some quality time here to take in the panorama of the surrounding icy summits.
Details: Drive the Mount Baker Highway to a left on Twin Lakes Road (FR 3065), near milepost 47. Go 4.5 miles to the trailhead on the left. At a trail junction (about 1.5 miles in), turn left. The hike to Yellow Aster Butte is seven miles round-trip with an elevation gain of about 2100 feet.
Winchester Mountain Lookout
How good is the hike to the Winchester Mountain Lookout? Backpacker Magazine proclaimed it the Best Day Hike in the America in 2017. Once you see the jaw-dropping views from the summit, it’s doubtful you’ll disagree.
The trail is spectacularly scenic from the first step, beginning on an isthmus between two gorgeous subalpine tarns (aptly named Twin Lakes) and immediately climbing tilted meadows toward the sky.
Switchbacks transport you to a rocky notch—if snow is present, turn around unless equipped with an ice axe. It’s a long way down. If the way is clear, round the notch and continue around the shoulder of the mountain where you’ll be greeted with staggering views of the mighty Border Peaks: Larrabee, American Border and Canadian Border, arguably as dramatic a sweep of mountains as you’ll find in the North Cascades.
A few tight switchbacks deliver you to the summit plateau and the lookout cabin, available for overnight use on a first-come, first-served basis. We can thank the Mt. Baker Club for maintaining this historic structure. The views here defy superlatives: The wild Picket Range, Mt. Redoubt, Goat Mountain, Tomyhoi Peak, Mt. Shuksan, the list goes on and on. Mt. Baker fills the sky to the southeast. Far below, Twin Lakes gleam a dazzling blue.
Details: Drive the Mount Baker Highway to a left on Twin Lakes Road (FR 3065), near milepost 47. The first 4.5 miles are easy (to the Yellow Aster Butte trailhead) but the final 2.5 miles often require a high-clearance 4WD vehicle to road end at Twin Lakes. Park between the lakes on an isthmus—the trailhead is straight ahead and obvious. The hike to the lookout is 3.6 miles roundtrip with an elevation gain of 1300 feet.
Mt. Shuksan is unquestionably the poster child of the North Cascades. It graces calendars, T-shirts and refrigerator magnets. The classic view is from Picture Lake in Heather Meadows but the view of Shuksan from Lake Ann is something else again. The Upper and Lower Curtis Glaciers hang like immense prayer flags on the north face of this great peak, reflected in the waters of the lake.
This hike is unusual in the North Cascades in that it begins with a descent into the Swift Creek Valley, a verdant sub-alpine vale of beguiling meadows, fragrant forest and mossy streams. After rock-hopping across Swift Creek, you’ll climb to a shoulder of Shuksan Arm. The views expand with every step. From a saddle, the trail drops into the Lake basin, where you’re sure to have lots of company.
Details: Drive the Mount Baker Highway) 23 miles east of Glacier, turning right at the upper ski area towards Artist Point. The trailhead at Austin Pass is obvious with a parking lot that is often full. The trail drops into the greenery and reaches Swift Creek and a junction in 2.3 miles. Turn left and ascend 1.8 miles to a saddle—the lake is straight ahead.
Note: Not so very long ago, these trails offered opportunities for solitude and loneliness. Not anymore. The popularity of hiking, of seeking communion with the natural world, has exploded. This is a good thing. Those who have found connection with nature tend to be advocates for wilderness—and better people generally. This is a demographic that should be enlarged. But the crowds put a lot of pressure on these fragile beauty spots and thus the importance of the ‘Leave No Trace’ ethic is magnified. Obviously, don’t litter. But don’t walk on vegetation either. And please, leave the Bluetooth speaker at home.