All in one long day hike! (8/16/17)
Chain Lakes Loop, Ptarmigan Ridge to Portals, Table Mountain
The plan for early last week had been to backpack into Yellow Astor Butte Wednesday and day hike Tomyhoi peak on Thursday. But plans change — my hiking partner Doug had a serious mouth infection from a root canal and wasn’t able to go, so we postponed our trip.
What’s a gal to do with a completely free day, mid-week, with the promise of sunshine tempting her from any and all responsibilities? GO ON A LONG DAY HIKE, OF COURSE!
I’ve done this entire three-hike adventure once before, plus variations on the theme a couple other times. All three hikes start at Artist Point, the end of the Mt. Baker Highway (542). No logging roads necessary for this adventure!
Stats on the Triumvirate
TOTAL MILES — Approximately 18. ELEVATION GAIN — 3775 feet. HIGHEST POINT — 6500. DIFFICULTY — Hard. Nothing is overly strenuous, but it’s long. And there was a fair amount of snow on Ptarmigan trail and some on Chain Lakes trail. PERMIT — Northwest Forest Pass Required
Here’s the breakdown on the individual hikes…
Chain Lakes Loop
DISTANCE — 7 mile loop trail. ELEVATION GAIN — 1700 feet. HIGH POINT — 5400 feet (Herman Saddle). DIFFICULTY — Alltrails rates it Hard; I’d call it Moderate.
Ptarmigan Ridge Trail
DISTANCE — 11.2 RT to Portals (very end of the trail); 9 RT if you stop at the campsites. ELEVATION GAIN — 1880 feet (Portals) or 1350 feet (campsites). HIGH POINT — 6500 feet (Portals) or 6100 feet (campsites). DIFFICULTY — Alltrails rates it Hard.
DISTANCE — 2.6 RT (if you continue along south rim of the table until trail’s obvious end). ELEVATION GAIN — 725 feet. HIGH POINT — 5700 feet. DIFFICULTY — Moderate; short but steep and quite exposed.
Getting to the Trailhead
I set off relatively early for this long day hike, leaving my Sudden Valley home at 7:20. I had to stop for fuel and a NW Forest Pass, as I still hadn’t purchased one for the year. After securing the pass at the Glacier Ranger Station, I noticed time was slipping away. I enthusiastically passed a few folks on a couple long straightaways headed east from Glacier. Happily, I momentarily had the highway to myself!
Until I hit road work, just after the turn-off to Hannegan Pass. It was pavement work requiring a pilot car. I was first in line to stop…and the cars I’d passed all came up behind me. I felt chagrinned in my haste, and sat with tempered impatience for the ten minutes required until it was our turn. Lesson learned — hurry up and wait.
It was 9:10 when I arrived at the Artist Point parking lot (elevation 5100 feet). I counted 13 other cars in the lot when I arrived — not bad for a sunny, mid-August morning. I organized as quickly as possible, taking mandatory photos of both Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan from the parking lot (you know you are in for great hiking views when the lot itself sports these views!) I was on the trail by 9:30.
Wild Goose trail to Bagley Lakes to Chain Lakes to junction with Ptarmigan Ridge (6 miles)
I started my hike counter-clockwise on the Wild Goose Trail, located at the corner of the parking lot by the restrooms. The signed trail heads steeply back down to the Austin Pass/Heather Meadows parking lot, about a mile of scenic but weirdly positioned “trail” loosely paralleling the road. Shuksan was out in all her splendor, even with a few clouds milling around. Beyond the Heather Meadows parking lot I followed signs to Bagley Lakes trail, and contoured down to and then crossed a cool stone bridge. A left turn after the bridge finally pointed me toward Herman Saddle, my first destination.
To reach the saddle, I had to regain all my lost elevation and then some. First the trail (now called Chain Lakes trail) traversed along Upper Bagley Lake, and then the switchbacks began. When I first hiked Chain Lakes Loop, over 20 years ago, those switchbacks seemed endless. Dozens of years and trips up here later, they really flew by. Plus, the views back to Table Mountain (where I planned to end this long day hike), Shuksan, and the lakes below, just kept getting better with each step. I reached the saddle at 10:50 — too early for lunch, but good for an energy bar. And pictures. I could see both Baker and Shuksan, and Baker too sported some clouds — in particular a lenticular cloud right on her top. I am glad I got Baker photos then, as that proved to be the most clearly I would see her until the very end of the day.
There was snow heading down from Herman Saddle, as expected. Since I’ve done the loop so many times, route finding was not an issue, even when the trail disappeared into snow. Plus, enough other people had done it that footprints clearly marked the path through snow, despite hourly melt-off. I hadn’t seen a person since the Austin Pass parking lot, something that surprised me. I relished the absence of other hikers, so unusual on this busy day hike. I also fully embraced the warm sun on my skin. I knew I might lose both, my solitude and sun, as the day continued. I wanted to fully embrace all that each had to offer in those moments as I descended to the Chain Lakes.
Views of Iceberg Lake dominated the descent. Then Hayes Lake came into view, and here I spotted my first two hikers, milling around one of several campsites available at this lake. They were hunters, actually, in full camouflage wear and carrying rifles. Yikes! I am always alarmed when I encounter hunters in the wilderness. I don’t know what they were hunting and I didn’t ask. But as I moved past them, I checked my judgment. While I don’t hunt or even fish, I am aware that others do, and as long as in compliance with regulations, it’s up to each individual to decide how to enjoy the outdoors. But I was happy to leave them behind!
After final views of Iceberg Lake, the trail headed back up. Gradually at first, past Mazama Camps and Lakes off to my right, a place I’ve never explored in all my hikes around the loop. In fact I’ve never camped at any of the lakes, always preferring instead to hike or even run the loop. Although rocky in places, the loop lends itself to great trail running, and I’ve done so several times in my past.
But no running on this day, only swift hiking. As I looked up to the snowfields yet to come, I could see other hikers coming down, hiking the loop clockwise. The snow sections looked easily doable, and I eagerly pressed on. I made the “top” in no time, arriving at the junction of Chain Lakes and Ptarmigan Ridge trails at 11:50. To complete the loop it would be 1.2 miles of traverse back to Artist Point and my car; but for me, the fun was just beginning!
I enjoyed a break on a nice flat rock overlooking Baker, Shuksan, the lake basin I’d just come up from, and the trail beyond. Baker was definitely covered in clouds — in fact, if I didn’t know she was there, I’d swear she’d disappeared in the last hour! Shuksan was out in all her glory, though. I snacked, took photos, and anticipated the ridge to come…
Ptarmigan Ridge is one of my favorite places to visit. I go there with great frequency — often, just in my mind. The place holds a depth of significance for me I can’t explain. But, when I am at ease or in contemplative mode, especially while working delivering massage, I often find myself unexpectedly on the trail! Or at the Portals, sitting gazing at Mt. Baker. No kidding, this trail is magical, unfolding traverse after traverse (five total, if you go as far as you can), each building on the wonder of the previous.
Ptarmigan Ridge Trail to Portals and back to Artist Point (10 miles)
A short section of trail took me to where I could see Ptarmigan Ridge Trail. I had initially been hesitant about doing Ptarmigan, as the rumor mill and WTA reports had said it was still quite snow covered. But my friend Oliver, who takes measurements on the Sholes Glacier (coming off Mt. Baker, right near the Portals), said he’d been there three times, and that snow was diminishing quickly. That was good enough for me! But I did bring YakTrax for added traction. Snow lingers on some sections of this trail even in light snow years, and with this being a particularly heavy snow year, I knew it would be prevalent.
The First Traverse
There were initial switchbacks then two snow traverses right off the bat. Neither were too bad, and soon I was into rocks mostly, with snow mixed in. I crossed a small stream running directly across the trail, then meandered through rock and snow to the next, larger streams. Here a family sat and gazed at the splendor, which included a magnificent display of wildflowers! After this stream crossing, I headed into mixed snow, semi-loose sand, and rocks. It was easy to lose the trail here, but not too hard to spot it ahead. Or footprints, or some combination of both. I worked my way up the steep snow slope, sometimes following footsteps, sometimes forging my own path. I knew I had to top out at the top of the sizable snowfield, and again, having done it so many times before, I had no real concern about which way to go.
At the top, I was rewarded with the more views of Shuksan, who had gone into hiding when the trail down. As I continued along the last section of what I considered the first traverse (it’s not a straight shot, but generally heads in the same direction, southeast) the views opened up dramatically. I knew it would get better and better, and had to restrain myself from taking too many pictures. Eventually, I gained a hump, where a handful of good campsites were, and the trail turned slightly right, onto the second traverse.
Views exploded on this section! Shuksan was the superstar, but all along the skyline, it was peak after peak. Bacon Peak, Mt. Hagen, Mt. Blum, Anderson Butte, and so many more. The presence of clouds made the sky even more dramatic. My cell phone’s camera got heavy usage on this section! The first part of the traverse was on rock, but I could see steep snow slopes to come. I watched hikers going up, slowly, and chose to put YakTrax on just before these sections. I am glad I did, as those two snow fields right before the end of the second traverse were steep, and not one’s I would want to lose my footing on!
A side note about YakTrax: It’s possible, I’ve discovered, to wear these traction aids on snow and rocks, at least the basic model I have, which doesn’t have spikes. On early alpine hikes this year, I sometimes kept them on, even on non-snow sections, when I knew or suspected more snow was to come. That is what I did for this hike. I wore the Yaks for the remainder of the hike, all the way to the Portals and back down the very first snowfield of the hike (the one I had initially come up without them). This was both beneficial and a pain. Hiking on rocks with the wiry cage on the bottom of the boot can be dicey on rocks, and I did take one risky fall near the top of the Portals. Forgetting temporarily about the yaks, I stepped on a slab of rock that, not surprisingly, my Yaks couldn’t find traction on. No biggie, except the trail at the very top is narrow with steep drop-offs! I did not make that mistake again. I did much of Ptarmigan with the Yaks mostly out of caution, but I will admit, also laziness and a desire to keep moving. I didn’t want to stop to take them off and put them back on with each steep snow crossing, as there were just too many on this hike. So I simply left them on. It wasn’t an ideal solution. But that is what I chose to do, and the option worked well to give me extra confidence on snow.
Back to the hike. At the top of the second traverse, I came into view of Baker again. She had been hidden from view, but now was back. Sadly, she was still covered in clouds. Quite dramatically, though. The trail ahead went into clouds, and the path behind was in sun. That’s the mountains for you!
The trail turned due west for this .9 mile traverse. I encountered an abundance of wildflowers and quite a few people on this section. The wildflowers were mostly lupines and mountain heather — both out in their prime. The first group of folks I passed were taking photos (like me) of the wildflowers, with far superior camera gear, however. The second group was three hikers from Portland, all from the same hiking group. One of the group members was battling cancer, and the three came up to experience one more round of hiking in the North Cascades. That definitely made me appreciative of my health, and affirmed my commitment to making the most of each day. I also encountered two of Oliver’s co-workers, sent to do measurements of the Sholes Glacier in his absence. Compared to how few people I’d seen all day, that was a lot of people to see in one short stretch of trail.
The section tops out at a junction with Goat Lake, 500 feet below. I have never been to this lake, and today was not the day. The lake was all but snowed under — still. Just a few bare patches of icy blue were visible beneath abundant snow.
After Goat Lake junction, the trail turned sharply right, and gained a bit more serious elevation. This section passed Kaiser Camp, a handful of campsites located just a bit down and off the trail. With each step I moved closer to Mt. Baker, still clouded in. The air temperature was noticeably cooler, both with clouds and the proximity to the mountain. I had to put on another layer during this stretch. Even eternally optimistic me could sense the futility in remaining in just my tank top!
At the end of this traverse, there were a few trees to navigate through. Then, straight ahead, was the secret, hidden campsite that I have stayed at twice. I won’t give any details, or it won’t be secret anymore! But it’s a stellar one, and the only place I’ve camped on this trail.
I continued on with the last traverse, which would take me right to the base of the Portals. There was a combination of snow, dirt, rocks, and flowers all along this sometimes steep traverse. I got cocky at one point, entering a snowfield, and slipped convincingly. I barely caught myself — free hands clawed into the snow in an attempt at self-arrest before I slipped down the steep slope in earnest. After that, I paid closer attention. While YakTrax helped, the slopes were steep, and I did not want to fall.
Once across the snow, I was into rocks and sand. There were numerous great campsites here, all close to the trail, but with magnificent views of the entire range of mountains from Shuksan to Baker, and the Sholes Glacier off to the right. No water, though, so one would have to count on snow melt or carry extra water to camp here. As mentioned, this campsite area is what WTA calls the end of the trail, 4.5 miles from Artist Point. I encountered two trail runners here, and they reported that they’d been “all the way to the beyond”, and that no one else was there. Beyond lay the Portals, rock formations that serve as accesses to Mt. Baker climbing routes. The word “portal” always reminds me of the Harry Potter books…a place one goes to be magically transported to another place.
Ascending the East Portal rock formation to what I consider the end of the trail…
The very first time I went to all the way to what I consider the end of the Ptarmigan Ridge trail was with my daughter, Shannon. It took us three tries to make it all the way, and we felt extremely accomplished! Since then, I’ve been drawn back year after year. Ascending the East Peak, I remembered all the times I’d done this route, and in the variety of different types of weather. I’ve been to the Portals a handful of times in sunshine, and a few times in clouds and bitter, cold wind. Even though I know this place, so close to Mt. Baker that it really does seem like one is climbing right into her lap, is a stark mountain environment, I was still surprised at the continual drop in temperature. I WAS prepared, though, with multiple layers of clothes and gloves.
Even with the heavy cloud cover, the views behind were just fantastic. The lighting was spectacular and the peaks behind me were still mostly clear, with mystical cloud formations creating a feast for the eyes. I am sure a real photographer would have had a hey day! Near the top of the peak, I noticed the coolest campsite ever. Again, it was right next to the trail, but with Shuksan in the backyard and Baker in front, it offered up quite the scenic spot for a night. Some day, I vowed I’d go there to camp.
A warning here: The “trail” up East Peak (or East Portal) is easy to lose, and it happens to me at some point most every time I am here. Familiarity has made me comfortable with this, knowing that the trail is vague, as I know how it all comes together on the top. But for a first timer, be aware that “social trails”, paths that go off in a multitude of directions and sometimes just end, make it hard to follow the trail. It’s doable, though, if you stay with what appears to be the most obvious trail, and if you can see something resembling trail ahead. And eventually, there is simply no more trail to be had, and one ends up at the very end of this fantastic overlook, right down to a knife-edge below. Sholes Glacier is to the right, Mt. Baker sprawled right in front, and that entire range of beauty all the way back to Shuksan. 360 degree views, broken only by Baker’s huge presence.
I arrived at the end at 2:30 pm. Carefully, I plopped down on the very last rock. With drop-offs on three of four sides, I made sure to keep all my belongings close. I ate my lunch amid the swirl of clouds and listened to the wind, the marmot calls, and streams running far below. Being that close to something as unrelenting as Mt. Baker, with glacial rock and snow staring me down, made me feel huge in accomplishment and small by comparison. I sat like that for thirty minutes, taking it all in, letting mother nature hold me firmly in her grasp.
Back to Artist Point
Semi-reluctantly, I headed down. I still had Table Mountain to climb to complete the triumvirate. The way down was like a whole new trail, in terms of views. Late afternoon lighting made everything even more striking, and the visual feast just wouldn’t end. Not a soul did I encounter, all the way back to the junction with Chain Lakes loop. Solitude, beauty, mystery, magic. Everything I came for just kept happening with abundance! And to top it off, when I crested out from Ptarmigan, Baker was back! In all her glory, clouds mostly gone.
I reached the parking lot at 5:00. There was a couple at the corner of the lot, and they immediately pummeled me with questions. It’s like they were waiting for a person who looked like they knew something about the trails. Turned out, they were a retired couple from San Francisco, hiking near Baker as part of a long road trip. At first, I felt impatient with their questions, as I wanted to embark on Table and finish off the day. But I LOVE talking trail, and couldn’t help but become completely engaged with them as they questioned me about the best hikes in the area — both for their car (a Prius, which has a lower clearance than my Subaru) and their desire not to get into too challenging of snow. We chatted for at least 15 minutes, and I suggested they climb Table at that point, as the day was getting short.
They went back to their car for poles and provisions, and I set off on my final hike of the day.
Table Mountain (2 miles)
I’ve only done this short hike perhaps five times. The first time was with my kids when they were quite young, maybe 6 and 8. In retrospect that was quite an adventure for them I’m sure! The trail has incredibly steep drop-off’s in its short ascent, and on the top too. If you look at Table Mountain, there are two parts. The first, what I call Table Rock, is a mere 3/4 of a mile from the parking lot. Many people only go this far, and call that Table Mountain. The drop-off’s here are extreme, but so are the views!
If you continue on, however, a nice meandering trail goes along the south rim of the “table” for another mile or so. I like to take this trail, as it moves one away from all the people on the Rock.
To end my long day, I took the longer trail for a ways into an open area — views all around, snow, and quiet and solitude. I needed and wanted to sit in silence as a culmination of this fantastic day before calling it done. I dropped by the Rock before I went down, and all the hikers I could see from my earlier high perch were now gone. I had my alone moments there, too, before I descended the steep but mercifully short switchbacks.
Just before the parking lot, also coming down, I ran into the SF couple again. They introduced themselves as Art and Nancy, and we picked up our conversation again. They had only gone as far as Table Rock, but commented that they saw me communing with nature up farther on the Table. We continued chatting, back at our cars. I asked them to take a parting picture, and did the same for them. They were such a sweet couple, and I loved engaging with them! I think we could have talked for hours. I felt at times like they wanted to adopt me! But they had a campsite to return to, and I had a 1.5 hour drive home. Eventually, we parted ways. And I was reminded again of the balance I am always seeking — solitude vs. the keen desire to engage with others. This day had a good amount of both.
I left the parking lot at 7:30, with just six other cars still remaining. As I drove the winding roads back down the Mt. Baker Highway, my heart was full to capacity. There is a part of me that longs to be in that environment, always. I know I can’t dwell there, my other life also calls. But to be immersed in the presence of giants for an entire day, and to traipse the miles and trails through flowers, snow, rocks, harshness and sunshine, brought joy and peace to my sometimes restless being.