Season Short and Sweet at Artist Point

Artist Point at Mount Baker is closes today, Tuesday, Oct. 16 for the winter season.    This popular scenic spot is located at the very end of Mount Baker Highway, State Route 542 and provides a 360-degree view of Mount Shuksan and Mount Baker, as well as access to a variety of trails.

At more than 5,000 feet above sea level,  the Point is usually buried under snow and closed October through June.  This year, Artist Point opened in late July, which is fairly typical.  With snow already in the forecast for the mountain, Mount Baker National Forest Park officials are closing the gate to the area.  Visitors will still be able to drive up to the Heather Meadows and Mount Baker ski lodge portion of the route but access to the uppermost parking area and the trails that start there will be off-limits.

The Chain Lakes trail at Mount Baker is well-maintained with stepping stones in some places and patches of snow in others. A walking stick is a good idea.

Everyone who lives in the surrounding area knows to scramble up to the top as soon and as often as possible after the state’s transportation team opens the road because the window of access to this spectacular place is short.  In 2011,  the last bit of road up to the top parking was never opened because of the snow depth and a late spring snow.  This year, with a record period of no rain, most of us assumed the top lot might remain longer than usual but the weather changed and so did the plans to keep it open.

I managed to squeak in a hike two weeks ago on Chain Lakes Trail starting out from the trail that leads from the Artist Point parking lot.  It was a stunning autumn day.  Brisk and a bit chilly at the top but once out on the trail, it didn’t take long to warm up, causing me to shed my outer jacket.  Several other hikers had also chosen that day to get out and enjoy the spectacular scenery and weather.  The low-growing huckleberry bushes had turned bright red igniting the mountainsides with color and making the blues of the glacier water and sky even more brilliant.

My hiking companion for the day, Nancy, and I ambled along the well-kept trail with me stopping often to frame out the views in my camera.  We made our way over  past Mazama Lake, crossing cold streams that flowed off from ice that had melted.  At Hayes lake, we spotted the orange tent pitched by two overnight hikers who we had met on the trail with their big, friendly yellow dog.

The view from Iceberg Lake is as breathtaking as the icy, glacial blue water of the lake itself.

The backside of Iceberg Lake, just before you begin the climb up to Hermann Saddle, was an ideal place for lunch.  The sandwiches, trail mix and yes–even an indulgence of chips and cookies–are so tasty after two hours of hiking.  We sat and chatted over lunch then listened to the silence.

When you’re enjoying yourself as much as we were on this day it’s easy to lose track of the time.  But we knew we needed to start the walk out.  The trail itself is only a four to five-mile hike with an elevation gain and loss of about 700 feet. While it’s a good workout, it’s not the most difficult hike in the area.

Instead of continuing down to the Bagley Lakes, we chose to reverse our steps since it was now nearly 3 p.m. and since we had left our car at the top parking lot.  Otherwise, at the end of the trail you must climb back up to the Artist Point parking lot or hitch a ride with someone on their way up.  Since it was already the backside of the afternoon, the likelihood of our catching a ride up was not great.  And, as I pointed out to Nancy, when going back in the opposite direction you don’t see the same things as you did when heading in.

As of October 16, the road to Artist Point at Mount Baker, and access to many of the trails that start there, are closed for the season.

It’s true.  Things looked different on the walk out.  We had turned around and now had an entirely different view than when we had gone it.  And the light had changed as well.  The mountainside was beginning to be bathed in that beautiful, late afternoon sun, with rich, deep color and  shadows.  Wonderful for photography.

We encountered fewer people on the way out.  Many had already hiked back wanting to be back in the parking lot before darkness set in.  By 5 p.m. we were again at the car.  After dumping our gear in the back, we paused to once again take in the fresh, clear mountain air and have one last, long look at the view which we knew would soon be covered over by snow.  Now that the road to Artist Point has been closed for the season, that day lingers in memory until another winter passes, the snow finally melts and reveals for a brief, almost magical, time the beauty that lies beneath.

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