We had been seeing Mount Baker for some time now . . . in the distance, a prominent peak on the horizon, its snowy flanks glinting in the sunlight. Towering above everything around it, it’s a dominant mountain in the North Cascade Range. It was easy to discern when we stood on Hurricane Hill that morning in the Olympic Mountains. We saw it again when looking across the water from San Juan Island. Its symmetrical peak is distinguishable as far away as Port Angeles and Seattle on clear days. Once I did my research I knew this was a mountain we couldn’t pass by.
And so, after departing Whidbey Island, we drove over to the mainland and made a left turn. From a high point along our drive we had a last look over the water. The day had turned gray and there was a light rain falling (the first wetness we’d experienced since leaving the rainforest). We had a view of those rounded humps of the San Juans, a freighter passing by them. We pulled away from where we had spent so many weeks, looking to the east and the Cascade Range. A new chapter was beginning.
Standing at 10,788 feet, Mt. Baker is considerably taller than all the other peaks in the North Cascades, which average between 7,000 and 8,000 feet. Unlike its neighbors, it’s one of only two volcanoes in the range, and the second most active behind Mount St. Helens. Several eruptions were recorded in the 19th century, and increased emissions of steam and new fumaroles in the 1970s have resulted in it being closely monitored today. Joseph Baker happened to point it out to his captain, George Vancouver, on their 1792 expedition, and so got it named after him.
Once leaving the interstate, only one road leads to the mountain and that one is a dead end. Highway 542, commonly known as the Mount Baker Scenic Highway, leads into the vast rugged mountains of which Mount Baker lies at the heart. The landscape along the drive is pristine, once leaving a couple of small communities behind, the forest of tall spruces and firs envelopes you, punctuating the fact that only wilderness lies ahead.
Our destination was a Forest Service Campground. Silver Fir was the closest we could camp to the mountain and we were lucky to reserve the last site.
We fit into it nicely and soon noticed it had other benefits.
Following the sound of rushing water, we discovered the Nooksack River’s course was a short distance away. What luck! Great fortune! There’s nothing that goes better with a wilderness campsite. Chris wasted no time checking it out . . .
. . . and then making himself at home!
There was something for Melinda in the neighborhood too. With the afternoon waning, it was the perfect time to go waterfall scouting. Just a few miles down the road, the Nooksack River plunged 170 feet off a rock cliff. To make it more unique, the river was separated into two channels, producing a double fall of water. How could she pass this one by?
With only one full day to spend here, we got an early start in the morning. Leaving the campground, the scenic highway begins climbing in earnest from here on, gaining 3,000 feet over the final 10.5 winding, snaking miles. The drop-offs are steep, no guardrails to give a sense of security, but the scenery is spectacular.
At the end of the road you’ll find Heather Meadows Visitor Center. Built in 1940 by the CCC, the stone and timber visitor center is perched on a rock ledge overlooking alpine lakes, windswept meadows, and sandwiched between the giant hulks of Mount Baker and its companion, 9,131-foot Mount Shuksan. Many of the prominent hikes in the area begin here, as did the one I had in mind.
The dramatic andesite plateau of Table Mountain is one of the first mountains you see when entering the Heather Meadows area. From the top of this high, barren, snow-blotched plateau that resembles a giant anvil wedged between “the Great White One” (Mt. Baker) and “the Rocky and Precipitous One” (Mt. Shuksan), “the hiker is presented with some of the finest horizon-spanning views this side of the Mississippi.” That description was too tempting to pass up. It was do-it-or-die (well, not literally, I hoped).
Starting at nearly a mile high, the trail leads straight up the near-vertical wall of the nearest thing to a mesa in this mountain range. Yes, hikers were warned it was a steep and exposed trail, with severe drop-offs as you climb rock steps and snake around ledges. Chris looked at me questionably . . . I was determined to conquer this trail! We forged on . . . and up!
The ranger had prepared us for snow. The way up was cleared, but on top was a different story. It was mostly snow-covered. Once up, the terrain would be level—more or less—and we could manage with just good hiking boots, but trekking sticks would help. We had them both; we were cleared to go.
What a barren and cold landscape we were presented with, once making it to the top. The snow cover only made the scene appear more foreboding. With only a few clumps of shrunken, gnarly firs dotting the area, it looked more like the surface of the moon.
Fortunately, on our way up we had connected with a solo hiker—a guy who really knew his mountain trails. Having made this climb several times in the past, Dave proceeded to show us the way. If we were game, he said he’d show us the best view of Mount Baker from up here. But we’d need to traverse the snow for another mile or so. We headed on.
But unfortunately, those fast-moving clouds became thicker. We arrived at the spot that gave in-your-face mountain views only to see tantalizing glimpses of the mountain’s snow-covered flanks. Nothing more, despite sitting and waiting, then waiting some more, and hoping it would show.
Dave was sorely disappointed for us missing the show as we did. We were good sports, saying sometimes it’s the journey and not the destination that counts. We made plans to give another trail a try later in the day. Crossing fingers that evening would bring clearing skies.
And conditions did improve. With the afternoon about to set Mount Shuksan in glowing warm light, we took a trail to the east, following along a ridgeline that led to a prominent viewpoint.
Along the way, other views of Cascade mountains compelled us to stop and enjoy the sights.
This time we were treated to a better mountain visage. Clouds hung around and floated by, but we could see more of this mountain. We could easily see why Mt. Shuksan was known as the rocky and precipitous one.
Our evening ended on a much better note.
But then, surprisingly . . . unexpectedly . . . perhaps miraculously . . . as we were loading up our gear—I looked up to see clear skies over Mount Baker! Edge-lit by the setting sun, her form showed clearly, definitively . . . I ran over and got my shot!
Covered in eternal snows, Mount Baker’s Nooksack name, Kulshan, means “white, steep mountain.” After Mount Rainier, Mount Baker is the most heavily glaciated of the Cascade Range volcanoes; the volume of snow and ice on Mount Baker is greater than that of all the other Cascades volcanoes (except Rainier) combined. It is also one of the snowiest places in the world. In 1999, Mount Baker Ski Area, just down the road, set the world record for recorded snowfall in a single season—1,140 inches.
We were returning to camp in a state of mountain high. It had been a pretty fulfilling day all-in-all. The mountain air and exertion certainly added to our euphoria. We were on our way down that mountain road, approaching a very popular lake. Known to have a classic view of Mt. Shuksan mirrored in its waters when conditions were just right, we pulled over jto take a quick look.
And there it was . . . the mountain, the water, the perfectly framing clouds revealing the peak. I made it out and set up in record time, I believe. The day had just improved another 100%!
We slept well and deeply that night. Mountain air and rugged, snow-covered trails can have that effect. We ate a hearty breakfast before leaving Silver Fir Campground and took time to check out the mountain view. Wouldn’t you know . . . the conditions were back . . . once again the mountains were crowned with cotton ball clouds. I understand it’s a common theme—you never know (and can’t predict) what these mountains will bring.
With more alpine days to come . . .
Chris and Melinda