Conquering the Skyline Divide with My Son

Whenever my son, who lives in New York, comes home for a visit, we take a hike together.  He misses the green of the Northwest and coming home gives him a chance to get a ‘nature’ fix.  In summers past, we have gone up to nearby Mount Baker and usually set out on one of the trails from Artist’s Point, the highest point to which you can drive and open for only a short period of time from late July to early October.  This year, however, my son requested that we find a different trail for our annual outing.

After conferring with a friend who hikes the area frequently with the local Mount Baker Club, we settled on the Skyline Divide Trail. The trail is, according to the National Forest website, one of the most popular hikes in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest although it’s recommended for more experienced hikers.

The road to the trailhead is rugged and follows Glacier Creek much of the way.
The road to the trailhead is rugged and follows Glacier Creek much of the way.

The two-mile trail up is quite steep (and harder on the knees going down than climbing up) but well-kept. I might add the mostly unpaved road to the trailhead parking lot, off the Glacier Creek Road turn-off, can be rough and, as we discovered, full of humps.  Next time I’m taking an SUV or a car that sits higher off the ground than my own.

But the rocky ride up is well worth it, as are the aching calf muscles on the hike up.  As my friend put it: “When you think you can’t keep going, just do because when you get to the top you feel like you should be wearing a drindl skirt.”  Of course, what she was referring to was that famous scene from the film, “The Sound of Music” in which actress Julie Andrews, as Maria von Trapp, swirls in an alpine flowered meadow against a spectacular mountain backdrop. I myself had experienced that feeling and scenery years ago on my first trip to Salzburg, Austria and was anxious to see how this one would compare.  The Skyline Divide trail was much more strenuous than the easy walk I made from my Austrian gasthaus. But the thought of a splendid alpine meadow view of the mountain without flying thousands of miles to Europe, was enough to keep me pushing.  Hiking sticks are a definite plus as well.

Nearly like a scene from the film, ‘The Sound of Music,’ the majestic Mount Shushan rises behind a hiker taking in the view from atop Skyline Divide.

It helped that a couple of hikers on their way down told us that we were “close”, even when we really weren’t.  Nevertheless,  when we reached the top, the view was breath-taking, in more way than one.  Upon rounding the last switch back, we came into an expansive alpine meadow still bursting in color from the summer wildflowers and a view, that while not the same as the rugged Swiss Alps, was equally as gorgeous.  Mount Baker’s glacier-covered peak rose in the near distance, and seemed not that far from reach. To the north, stretched a view of the Canadian Cascades.  It made for a perfect spot to eat the snacks that we had carried along.  Several other hikers joined us on the day we were there, taking in the powerful mountain panorama set against the late afternoon brilliant blue sky. One woman, a volunteer for the Cascades Butterfly Project,  gathered a few curious hikers around her as she explained her mission to count the Lucia’s Blue butterflies, Celestrina lucia, that flutter about there.  She showed the onlookers one of the delicate beauties that she had caught in her net before releasing it back into the air.

A volunteer with the Cascades Butterfly Project shows her 'catch' to hikers.
A volunteer with the Cascades Butterfly Project shows her ‘catch’ to hikers.

Just as blue as the butterfly were the subalpine lupines that covered the mountainsides.  By now, I’m sure they have all disappeared, along with all the other bright wildflowers, as the autumn color takes over.  The trail continues on from this meadow another 1.5 miles, which we did not do this time, and then another less maintained path up Chowder Ridge goes on from there.  A number of backpackers were making their way on up, planning to spend the night and catch a spectacular view of the night sky.

We lingered for about hour, breathing in the fresh mountain air, relaxing in the warm sun and chatting with other hikers.  It’s a time with my son that I treasure because it’s just us, the mountain and the meadow. There are no distractions at the top, no cell phone service, no Internet, nothing but nature.  We talk without interruption. Or just stay silent together. At 5 o’clock, we decided to start back down although I could have easily stayed another hour or two.

The snow-capped summit of Mount Baker is the prominent peak  on the Skyline Divide and makes a breath-taking  backdrop for my son's picture.
The snow-capped summit of Mount Baker is the prominent peak on the Skyline Divide and makes a breath-taking backdrop for my son’s picture.

I must say that the hike down didn’t seem as far but was fairly steep.  A couple of young 20-ish women flew by us, running down the trail. I surely would have tripped up if I had tried it. Even so, we were back at the parking lot before we knew it.

The Skyline Divide trail is open year round although the best time to go is in the summer and early fall.  I frankly can’t imagine making my way up that slippery slope during the rainy season.  And I would certainly be sure to check on the road condition during the winter and spring months before driving up.  The hike is a favorite among locals and visitors so expect company whenever you go.  Once you’ve taken it you’ll understand why it’s so popular.  It’s not likely that I’ll be going again this season, but it will be on my list for a repeat visit next summer.

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