Ranking: 3/5 Great North Cascades scenery all offered up at a relatively easy day hike. Monster in your face views of Mt. Baker, and Mt. Shuksan while hiking along a loop that visits several small lakes, makes this an easy pick for a day hike to see some of the North Cascades best views of its iconic peaks.
Difficulty: 4/10 The drive to the parking lot is straightforward,, and the trail is well maintained and easy to follow, when it’s not under snow…Which of late, it has been as we’ve continued to get late season snow fall the last few years. During mid August, this year, I would say that 25% of the trail was covered. Otherwise, this is a pretty easy hike, with big views.
Getting there: Follow I-5 north to Bellingham, and turn on exit 255 for WA 542 East, and follow it to the end of the road, about 57 miles, at Artist Point parking lot.
Maps:Green trails Mt. Shuksan #14, or USGS quad Shuksan Arm.
Permits: Will need a Northwest Forest Pass or equivalent to park at the trail head.
Dan and I head out to the North Cascades, with a favorable weather report! So many times in the past, it seems the weather has been cold, dreary, wet and just plain miserable whenever we venture north…In fact, to this date, I have yet to see Mt. Baker up close, as it’s usually obscured with clouds.
3 ½ hours later, we pull into Douglas Fir campground, and are pleasantly surprised to see how nice this place is! There are only 30 sites, and they are secluded amidst old growth fir and cedar, along the rushing Nooksack River. The tent sites are nicely manicured, and the platforms have been edged with wood and the sand raked, with tables and a fire pit with a steel swing out grate. The sound from the river is loud, but provides a pleasant background as we sit around the fire.
“Dan makes a startling discovery…His boots are still at home!”
As we unload the car, Dan makes a startling discovery…His boots are still at home! Looks as if the ol’ Nike’s are going to be pulling double duty this trip. Luckily, it’s a day hike, so we’re hoping that the snow we’re sure to encounter will not be too soft, or deep…
We set up camp, and go into the town of Glacier, and have a good burger at the 9th Chair, a pub/restaurant on the edge of town.
Back at camp, we enjoy the sounds of the river over a crackling fire, and as night blackens everything up to the edge of the fire, we fight sleep no more, and turn in for the evening. I’m happy to report, that absolutely no snoring whatsoever can be heard drifting out from our tent!!!
“…I pull on my boots, a step that Dan can skip as he’s sans boots…”
Day 2 6.2 miles, 1830ft gain/1850 loss. After driving the 22 miles from the campsite, to the end of highway 542 to Artist point, we are slightly amazed to see only about 4 other cars in the parking lot! Here it is, around 9:00am, a sunny and warm summer day on a Saturday, and not another soul around! If this had been Mt. Rainier, the parking lot would surely have been filled by now…I pull on my boots, a step that Dan can skip as he’s sans boots, get our packs adjusted, and head out for the trail. Before we leave, a volunteer park ranger is there with a pair of binocs, and points out a large herd of mountain goats on a snowfield across the valley.
The trail is easy to follow when it’s not buried under snow, and it’s carved into the slope of Table Mountain towering above us, keeping the trail fairly flat as it follows the contour lines, for the first mile until you reach the turn off at Ptarmigan Ridge. From this promontory viewpoint, Mt Baker towers above everything along the skyline, it’s glaciers in highlighted definition, the blue from deep ice glowing in the crevasses. Turning and heading downhill we reach the first of many small, ice and snow bound lakes, Mazama Lake, an unremarkable and shallow pit stop for the stream that runs down from Iceberg Lake above.
Turning uphill, we quickly reach the shores of Iceberg Lake, and it appears aptly named, for there is still deep ice and snow that cover the surface, even where the blue waters are visible, you can see fresh sheets of ice covering the waters, as if it had re-frozen during the night. The trail continues along a small spit of land that separates the two lakes here, before heading uphill into more snow to reach the top of Herman Saddle. From the saddle, you can look west to see Mt. Baker, and then SE towards haze shrouded Mt. Shuksan. The sun is still right overhead, making it nearly impossible to get a good picture of the mountain, the haze being intensified with the sun’s rays. I can only hope that as the day wears on, we will get a chance to get an unobstructed picture of impressive Shuksan, its ragged and jutting peaks looking as if it were a war torn fortress still standing defiantly.
Now, it’s all downhill to the visitor’s station, and the Bagley Lakes basin. It’s exposed hiking, and as the day turns to early afternoon, we’re starting to feel the heat. As the trail makes its way to the snow covered bottom, we have constant views across to the peaks on Shuksan, hoping for a clearing of the haze, that stubbornly hides the face of the mountain from full view. At the outlet of the first Bagley Lake, is an impressive stone bridge that crosses the stream before heading uphill to the visitor center. It was built in the early 1900’s by the CCC, and still stands as a testimony to their hard work.
We feared that from the visitor center, we would have to walk the road all the way back to the car, but at the last parking lot, we stumbled upon the trail again. It headed uphill alongside the road, and we were extremely grateful, as large snow banks crowd the road up, not leaving a safe place to walk. The final steep incline, at around 5.9 miles, is probably the steepest leg of the journey, a long set of stairs that headed straight up.
“… The once quiet and empty parking lot is now buzzing with the sounds of people and vehicles…”
The only way to keep the stairs in place and intact, was to join the logs together with a cable run through either end of the step, and then backfilling the tread path with gravel. Pretty ingenious, actually. At the top of the steps, were cairns that were meticulously crafted with the loose shale that seems to be prevalent, and cemented together, creating a rock pyramid that stood about 3 feet tall. The ground here was still covered in snow, obscuring the trail, so I assume this is a regular occurrence here with the monumental cairns to follow. Finally, we reach the parking lot, amidst a throng of sightseers and tourists. The once quiet and empty parking lot is now buzzing with the sounds of people and vehicles.
All in all, a great way to “officially” kick off the 2012 hiking season on an easy day hike to see the magnificent mountains of the North Cascades! We feel very fortunate to have finally gotten to see them in their full glory. Dan’s shoes held out well, but I’m thinking that he’s probably not eager to repeat the same error next hike, when we’ll be gone for more than a day…