Hit Mount Baker Trails Now for Hikes and Photos

Autumn is pretty spectacular around my section of the Pacific Northwest, as it is in many places across the United States. And it is prime time for hiking at nearby Mount Baker, located only a 90-minute drive from Bellingham in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The highest point to which you can drive is Artist’s Point, at 5,140 feet elevation. But due to the mountain’s long snow season, the road up is open for only for a short period usually from late July to early August, until mid to late October. On weekends, the parking lot there, and the trails which lead off from it, can be pretty busy as locals and visitors to the area run up to take advantage of the great weather, breath-taking scenery and the many accessible trails.

I try to go to the mountain for at least one or two big hikes during this transitional time from late summer to early fall.  So far this season I’ve been fortunate to get in four separate trips to hike and photograph in the area. I thought I’d share a couple with you in separate posts in case you’ve never traversed into this territory. Or, if you have, perhaps this will remind you to take a hike before our weather turns and closes the trails.

Do I look like I'm ready to lead an expedition into the wilderness?
Do I look like I’m ready to lead an expedition into the wilderness?

The first of my mountain outings was my ‘birthday hike,’ so named because it was on my birthday. Two of my sons and a girlfriend went along. It was the girlfriend’s first visit here and my son kept telling her that she was in for a treat. On the drive up, just outside of the town of Glacier, we stopped at the Park Service Ranger Station to check on trail conditions and pick up a day pass for the hike. Everyone who visits, whether you hike or not, is required to purchase a permit. A day pass is only $5, or, you can buy an annual pass for $30.The rangers on duty are generally very helpful with information too about trail and road conditions, things to do and hazards for which to be on alert, such as bears. And there are trails maps available should you need one.

We chose one of the less strenuous trails known as Ptarmigan Ridge.The Northern Cascades. Some of the area’s hikes can be difficult, lengthy and have quite a gain in elevation. The Ptarmigan Ridge hike is a great one for visitors who don’t hike much or who don’t have a lot of time to spend up at the mountain but still want to experience some stupendous views of the volcanic peak.

Mount Baker's majestic peak is fully in view from the Ptarmigan Trail.
Mount Baker’s majestic peak is fully in view from the Ptarmigan Trail.

The Ptarmigan Ridge hike leaves from the Artist’s Point parking lot along the Chain Lakes Trail. From the outset, the snow-covered peak of Mount Baker looms in the distance at 10,775 feet and unless the day is heavily overcast and cloudy, is visible for the entire route. As a safety precaution, be sure to sign in as you enter the trail.

The well-kept trail winds along the southern slopes of Table Mountain. Even in late summer, the wildflowers here were still in full bloom. Folklore says that once the magenta flowers on the tall stems of the Chamerion angustifolium, commonly known as ‘fireweed’, is done blooming summer ends and fall begins with winter not far behind. On this late summer day, the fireweed growing along the trail, was still largely in bloom.

The Fireweed's bright magenta blooms contrast beautifully with the blue and greens of the mountain landscape.
The Fireweed’s bright magenta blooms contrast beautifully with the blue and greens of the mountain landscape.

Looking south from the trail, you can see down and across the large, open expanse of Swift Creek and Rainbow Valley and perhaps catch a glimpse of Baker Lake in the far distance. If you look carefully, you may even see mountain goat grazing and playing in the meadows below. They looked not much more than white dots against the verdant green to us but as another hiker, a television cameraman from Seattle, pointed out to us, if you breathed in deeply, you could get a whiff of their wild smell. Unfortunately, the lens I was packing that day, a Nikon 28 mm – 200 mm, wasn’t hefty enough to get a great photo of them.

I don’t pack a lot of camera gear with me when I hike. If I’m hiking, as opposed to making a photo trek, I don’t want to be slowed down by the weight of a lot of big lenses and equipment. I don’t even take a tripod but I will use a unipod because it can double as a good hiking stick too if needed. I have a handy bag, made by Lowe Pro, that clips around my waist in which I can carry my SLR digital camera,  (it would also accommodate a Mamiya 645 when I was shooting film) an extra lens, lens cleaner, a filter or two, spare SD cards,extra battery, sun tan lotion (don’t forget that), chapstick, and a compact point and shoot camera if I want. That leaves my backpack open for snacks, an extra bottle water in addition to the one slung over my shoulder, a first-aid kit, bear bells (if I need them), a light jacket (preferably waterproof because up there you never know) or sweater. I was a Girl Scout. As such I learned to ‘Be Prepared’ so even if I think I’m only going out for a few hours, I never leave without these essentials.

Table Mountain as seen from across the tundra on Ptarmigan Ridge trail is just one of the many stunning scenes along the way.
Table Mountain as seen from across the tundra on Ptarmigan Ridge trail is just one of the many stunning scenes along the way.

From a photography standpoint, I know that I’m likely to miss something due to not having the right lens or maybe a tripod, but the way I figure it now, if I can’t get it with what I have, I can’t get it. I do the best with what I have, which usually turns out pretty well, and enjoy the experience without worrying about getting the perfect shot.

That’s not to say that I’m not looking for a great photo opportunity. Those are plentiful no matter when I hike at the mountain. Of course, the early morning or late day will yield the best images because that’s when the light there bring out the best colors. If it’s foggy or cloudy, that can add mood although you might not get a clear shot of the mountain’s summit.

Our day was sunny and clear when we set out about 4 p.m. We passed by the turn-off for Chain Lakes Trail (that will be another post) and continued on towards Mount Baker. From this point, the trail starts to head into the more tundra-like terrain. The little yellow flowers, Mimulus tilingii known as Alpine monkey-flowers, that grow along the mountain streams, created by the snow pack run-off are delicate and compact.

The brilliant, delicate yellow flowers of the Alpine monkey-flower grow on the tundra along the mountain run-offs.
The brilliant, delicate yellow flowers of the Alpine monkey-flower grow on the tundra along the mountain run-offs.

Occasionally you can spot the trail’s namesake, the ptarmigan, a chicken like bird, running around. We didn’t see any.

We hiked about 90 minutes which put us just short of the snowfield that leads further up the mountain. We decided to stop and take in the panoramic view surrounding us. After all, if you don’t stop to see where you’ve been then you miss half the reason for going at all. We crunched handfuls of trail mix and ate the freshly baked chocolate chip cookies that my son’s girlfriend had made earlier while stretching out on the rocks. Other hikers with backpacking gear for camping passed by on their way to the campsites ahead. The light was starting to deepen. We put away our food and water and headed back out the same way we had come.

It’s funny how the views change depending upon the direction you are going. Headed in you see one perspective, going out, quite another even though you remain on the same trail. Walking back you are presented with outstanding views of Mount Shuksan’s jagged peak. The trail back didn’t seem as long either, probably because we didn’t stop for as many photos or maybe we were moving at a slightly faster pace in order to get back to the parking lot before dusk set in.

You must be sure to take in the views on the way out as well as the way in because it will be different. Mount Shuksan's jagged pinnacle takes prominence here.
You must be sure to take in the views on the way out as well as the way in because it will be different. Mount Shuksan’s jagged pinnacle takes prominence here.

Round trip, the Ptarmigan Ridge trail is 10 miles. We covered about four or maybe five of it this day. It wasn’t a long outing, but very satisfying. It’s exhilarating to be so high, breathing the clear air and taking in the view that extends well into Canada to the north, towards the San Juans to the west, the wilderness of the National Forest to the south and the other mountains in the Northern Cascades range to the east. And it made for a very wonderful birthday.

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