Tupper's 2 Cents

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Tag: Chain Lakes Loop

ALL THE BEST FROM ARTIST POINT — Chain Lakes Loop, Ptarmigan Ridge Trail, and Table Mountain

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.

Table Mountain

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.

Mt. Baker from Artist Point

Shuksan from Artist Point

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.

Table Mountain from Chain Lakes Trail

Shuksan with cloud cover from Chain Lakes Trail

Looking up to Herman Saddle from Chain Lakes Trail

Baker wearing lenticular cloud, from Herman Saddle

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.


Shuksan and Upper Bagley Lake from Herman Saddle

Baker and Iceberg Lake from Herman Saddle

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!


Hayes Lake

Iceberg Lake and back up to Herman Saddle (left)

Wildflowers on Chain Lakes Loop

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.


Shuksan in all her glory!

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.

Beginning of Ptarmigan Ridge Trail

Snow on first section of Ptarmigan Ridge Trail

Wildflowers on Ptarmigan

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.

First views of Shuksan from Ptarmigan Ridge Trail

From second traverse, Mt. Blum (left), Mt. Hagen (right)

Bacon Peak (left), Anderson Butte (right) from second traverse

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!

Baker still in clouds, visible again at the top of second traverse.

View from top of second traverse.

Mt. Hagen and Goat Lake, end of third traverse.

Third Traverse

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.


Shuksan, Third traverse

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.

Baker still in clouds, fourth traverse

Fourth Traverse

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!

View from fourth traverse, Ptarmigan

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.

Fifth Traverse

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.

Lara Divide from approach to Portals

Looking back on fifth traverse…

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.

Baker swirled in clouds, portals

Perfect campsite!

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.

Shuksan from portals

Knife edge, looking down from East Portal

Glacial snow and ice on Mt. Baker

Portal Selfie — cold and windy!

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

Trail headed back down from portals

View headed down from portals — magnificent!

Tiny wildflowers in rocky, barren section on Ptarmigan

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.

Shuksan view, headed back down from Goat Lake

Baker Lake from Ptarmigan

Ptarmigan Ridge trail headed back up to Chain Lakes trail


Baker out again! End of Ptarmigan ridge trail


Last section of trail headed to Artist Point


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!

Looking down from Table Rock to Bagley Lakes and entire lower trail system

View down from Table Rock…

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.

Baker from Table Mountain

Top of Table Mountain, from my spot of solitude

Looking at Table Rock on Table Mountain

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.

Parting Shot…

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.

End of a long and great day…



The mountains keep calling, and I will go back! 

The Splendor of Skyline Divide!

Skyline Divide Trail

Skyline Divide Trail (August 7, 2017)

It’s quite possible that there are not enough superlatives to describe Skyline Divide Trail. With only two initial miles of forested switchbacks to hike before gaining the ridge, the path beyond cruises for mile after mile.  It’s about four more miles to Chowder Ridge, making for a possible 12-mile round trip hike. But any distance beyond the ridge is well worth it! The divide itself is a northward extension of Mt. Baker, such that each step moves you closer and closer to the mountain, and eventually it feels as if you are sitting (or standing) right in it’s lap!  Wildflowers and mountain views line the entire way.

Stats on Skyline Divide

LOCATION — Off the Mt. Baker Highway (SR-542), 34+ miles east of Bellingham.  Look for Glacier Creek Road,  just 0.8 miles past Glacier Ranger Station. Follow signs to Skyline Divide. It’s 12.9 miles of reasonable logging road to the trailhead.    DISTANCE — Variable. WTA calls it 9 miles RT, but you can make it 12 if you go all the way to Chowder Ridge.     ELEVATION GAIN — 2500 feet or more, depending on how far you go.     HIGH POINT — 6563 feet, give or take.   DIFFICULTY — Moderate

Why Skyline Divide?

This is one of my favorite day hikes off the Mt. Baker Highway, and somehow I had not been there since 2012! I HAD hiked into the area via Cougar Divide, twice, since 2012. Cougar Divide is an unmaintained trail that loosely parallels Skyline Divide, and the two divides come together at Chowder Ridge. Some folks swear by Cougar’s much less popular way in. The drawbacks of Cougar are that the road is awful and the unmaintained trail is somewhat sketchy. Both are doable, but not nearly as straightforward as Skyline. Here is a link to basic information on Cougar Divide, if you want to avoid the crowds at Skyline…

Doug and I had been talking about Skyline since we started our alpine hiking adventures back in late June. However, a tree had fallen last winter and lodged itself deeply into the road at an awkward angle, blocking access. Extraction of the tree required some serious innovation on the part of Forest Service employees, and that did not happen until a couple of weeks ago. With the logging road open and an open afternoon, Doug and I set out for Skyline last Monday.

It’s worth noting that we were taking a gamble with the ongoing prevalence of forest fire smoke. We didn’t know to what degree smoke would be an issue. Skyline is SUCH a view trail, and we knew there was a chance it would be all socked in (like my recent trip to Pugh). It’s a long drive up there (about 1 hour 45 minutes from Bellingham) to a view trail with no views. Doug had been there the previous week, after the smoke came in, and said that at least Mt. Baker made an appearance. We decided to chance it.

The Hike!

Skyline Divide is so popular that it boosts a parking lot to hold 30 cars. There is room for that many again by the side of the road. I have been there when I had to park far down the road as the lot was full to overflowing. On this Monday afternoon, however, the place was nearly deserted. There were only a few cars when we arrived just after 1:30 pm, in our typical late-start mode.  Maybe it was the late hour, or that it was a weekday, or maybe the smoke, or perhaps the threat of bugs — for whatever reason, we had the place nearly to ourselves.

Gaining the Ridge

We left the parking lot at 1:47, and began the switchbacks. The elevation up to the ridge was a moderate 1500 feet in two miles. Trailside views opened up early, with a plethora of wildflowers blanketing the switchbacks just over a mile in. It was great to have that distraction, as the black flies were out in force! I kept thinking back to the most recent WTA trip reports, written from hikers on the two days prior:

From Sunday, 8/6:  “Believe me, do not go here unless you have a head net and repellent! And even with such help, the pests will still be a problem for you. You literally cannot stop walking or they will eat you alive!”

From Saturday, 8/5:  “Bugs were as bad as everyone says they are. Maybe worse. I cannot overstate how bad the bugs were. It’s no joke! Wear long sleeves and keep moving until you reach the ridge. You’ll get some relief up there, but bugs were a constant nuisance.” 

Initially, these reports made me laugh. People can be so dramatic! Admittedly the bugs were bad, but not THAT bad. Doug wore long sleeves and pants like he always does, so he fared all right. I kept my hankie handy for waving them away. But our best strategy was to just keep moving. We did,  so much so that, sadly, I didn’t take any photos of the early fields of wildflowers. Thank goodness there were more were to come!

We gained the ridge in an hour. Then it was into the views!

First (smoky) views of Baker

Cruising the Divide

I had forgotten how magical this place was. Immediately after gaining the ridge, Mt. Baker was right there. There was a haze of smoke, but we could still see her majesty. The mountains were visible between Baker and Shuksan (called the Lasiocarpa Ridge), but Mt. Shuksan was much more shrouded in smoke and clouds. But at least we had views. We proceeded forward enthusiastically, glad for a slight reprieve from the bugs as well as the unfolding skyline.  We agreed we’d to stop for “lunch” at 5:15, and turn around by 6:00. With the days sadly getting shorter, and a logging road to get back down, we wanted to leave ample daylight for our return. That still left us with over two hours to wander.

Shuksan, barely visible far left through clouds and haze

The magic of Skyline Divide unfolded knoll after knoll. Six of them total creating a classic ridge walk, as each knoll brought on a new set of views.  Wandering here reminded both Doug and me of the trail beyond Welcome Pass, views expanding with every step.  It was the Sound of Music phenomenon again…only this time, the trail went on and on, and didn’t end far too soon, always a drawback above Welcome Pass.

Skyline trail and hazy Baker view

Doug coming up second knoll

The Skyline Divide trail provided options. At knolls two and three, we could choose to go up and over, by staying left, or skirt around, by staying right. Because of time and our desire to go as far as we could, we chose in each instance to go right and stay low. Going high would be a great option if time was no factor. We noticed that the trails up and over always come back down, and what struck me about that was that it’s one way to manage the numbers of people that travel here. Each party could go their own way, literally, for a lunch break or excursion, and commune with the mountains in their own way. On average, over 5000 pairs of boots travel this trail a year…it’s great that the sprawl is so extensive as to allow for the feeling of solitude even when it’s crowded.

At knoll four (3.5 miles from the trailhead and at 6000 feet elevation), there was a very obvious trail going left. We both knew from experience to go right, up a less-obvious and scrappy rock trail, but I have made the mistake of following the seemingly more beaten path to the left.  That trail heads down to campsites near Deadhorse Creek (I am not sure nor do I want to consider where the name comes from…). Deadhorse Creek is in between Skyline and Cougar Divides. It would be a great camping spot to set up and star-gaze if one was backpacking here.

Break among the flowers

Fields of Lupines

Happy hiker!

Between the fifth and sixth knoll, we encountered major flowers! Blankets of lupines turned one hillside blue, fireweed turned another one purple.  Mt. Baker peaked out just a tad further on, creating picture perfection.  It was spectacular! We could tell that the smoke was dissipating a bit as we went, as the Baker views kept getting better and better. To our left, Shuksan stayed in clouds and haze, and we had basically no views off to our right, just that smoky haze. But Baker herself kept beckoning us onward!

Baker blooming out of the flowers!

Doug coming up 6th knoll

The top of the sixth knoll (4.5 miles from TH, 6563 feet) is what WTA calls the end of the trail. However, the trail goes on, and we still had over 30 minutes left to go, so Doug and I went on for another half mile or more. It’s hard to say how far we went — probably five miles total. We stopped at 5:15 as planned, and where we stopped was perfect. We ate our late lunch with Baker as the best lunch date ever, and reveled in the fact that we had only seen three other people all day, and one of those in the parking lot. What magnificence, what rewards, and all gained so easily.

Baker, Chowder Ridge, Mt. Hadley far left

Doug at lunch break

Life is good!

Multiple thoughts came to mind as we sat. I remembered going up Chowder Ridge in 2012, with a significant cut on my hand incurred the previous day from a dishes/broken glass incident. I had to hike the long way to and up the ridge with my hand in the air. That was just after becoming a massage therapist, and I thought for sure my career as such was doomed even before it started! Now, five years later, I was happily ensconced in my career as a massage therapist, and so much water had passed under the proverbial bridge. It was one of those weird deja vu’s for me. I was totally present to 2012’s hike and 2017’s hike at the same time. Oh, to have several more hours in the day, so Doug and I could continue on. But that was not to be, and I was able to simultaneously long for more and be satisfied with what was as we sat and basked in sunshine and glory.

And another thing that came to mind is just how many hikes in the area end in a front row seat to Mt. Baker. Doug and I came up with six others besides Skyline Divide: Ptarmigan Ridge, Chain Lakes Loop, Table Mountain, Heliotrope Ridge, Park Butte, and Railroad Grade. Each offers a slightly different up close and personal view.  So many hikes have Baker views, but these put you squarely in front of Baker at trail’s end. I had a sudden inspiration to do each of these hikes before season’s end, and do a blog post on that. Stay tuned!

Favorite flower of the trip…looks like some type of white Indian Paintbrush.

Same flower and daisies of course!

At 5:47 we turned around, and made it back to the car in two hours, at 7:47. Plenty of daylight left for the road. Our hiking times for the estimated five miles each way were 3.5 hours up, with plenty of stops for pics and breaks, and 2 hours down. We never felt rushed, despite the late start, and were both supremely satisfied with the day.

Know if you go…

Every hiker within a 90 mile radius should do Skyline Divide! I know, saying that increases foot traffic to an already heavily trafficked area. But it’s that magical. This was my 6th time here, Doug’s 8th. It never gets old, and I still can’t believe it had been five years since I’d been there. New magic comes each time my feet hit the path.

But be aware that summer weekends are busy, and if you can swing a weekday, do so. Flowers right now are at their prime, as are the bugs. But both come and go quickly, and conditions change. It’s been six days since our hike, and rain thankfully has arrived to clear out the smoky air. And maybe the bugs. After the rain could be a great time to go explore Skyline Divide. Take a lunch, take your time, and go as far as you like. Few trails in our area offer so much spectacular scenery less than two miles from the trailhead.

Here’s the link to WTA’s info on Skyline Divide

Next up:  Backpack trip to Yellow Astor Butte and Day Hike of Tomyhoi Peak



Third and Final (mostly) Solo Backpack Trip before I go…

Ptarmigan Ridge and Chain Lakes Loop

For my third solo backpack trip, and final trip before heading out for the John Muir Trail, I wanted to get in some “serious backpack miles”. I was hoping to find a loop that would give me 14 – 17 miles on each of two days, with one overnight in between. I told myself that’s what I needed, to feel “completely ready”, and to give my legs, feet, and equipment one final test.  DSCF0187

But once again, some voice of reason inside me said, “No, Kathie, that’s not what you really need. Take it easy, don’t push so hard…just enjoy the heck out of this last experience before you embark on the big one…”  And so I did.

Trip Overview

I started at Artist Point, at the end of the Mt. Baker Highway. I did a straightforward trip to Ptarmigan Ridge with a friend on day one, then played on the Sholes Glacier below Mt. Baker for the remainder of the day. I spent the night at a private and hidden campsite on Ptarmigan by myself after my friend hiked out, with Mt. Baker as my guardian. For day two I did a longer route out, incorporating in Chain Lakes Loop. Back at my car, I did a final day hike of Lake Ann and went swimming.  The weather was absolutely perfect, and I had more views of  Baker, Shuksan, and multitudes of other peaks that I wish I knew the names of but can never recall. I don’t know if it’s possible to get enough of the magic of being so closely intertwined with all those peaks and in that environment, but I was darn close. I immersed myself from 8:30 am Wednesday until 6:30 pm Thursday into pure heaven.

Artist Point to Ptarmigan Ridge and Sholes Glacier

If you have never been to Artist Point, drop everything and go there! You can drive your car to the front row views of Mt. Baker and Shuksan, without having to hike at all. Or you can knock off an easy 1.2 miles on Huntoon Point loop, climb Table Mountain (3 miles steep but worth it), embark on Chain Lakes loop (6 – 8 miles, depending on how you do it), or take off for Ptarmigan Ridge (9 – 12 miles). On a sunny day in summer, anything is possible!

Beginning Ptarmigan Ridge Trail

Beginning Ptarmigan Ridge Trail

My friend and I hit the trail for Ptarmigan Ridge at 8:30 Wednesday morning. I carried both my backpack and some of his gear, as he does measurements on the Sholes Glacier and was hauling in drills and solar panels and other assorted heavy items. Point being, my pack was good and heavy, so I got to test that out. The vistas on this hike simply never disappoint. Neither words nor photos can do justice to the magnificence, but I will give it my best shot.

The trail DID have some steep snow traverses. Early on, I was tentative and felt uncertain. I had poles, but no crampons. Normally, I don’t feel anxious about snow, but with the weight of the pack, I noticed a tendency to feel off balance. I also noticed that the more we hiked on snow, the

One snow traverse at a time...

One snow traverse at a time…

more comfortable I became. Hiking on snow always brings fond memories of being in the mountains, of spring skiing, and multiple positive associations. In no time I was into a rhythm, and stopped worrying about slipping or falling. One step at a time, one snow field at a time.

The 4.5 miles to my designated camp site went quickly. We arrived before noon, and I dumped my backpack and went down to fanny pack for our glacier travel.

The time on the Sholes glacier was fun and informative. My friend measures snow loss and glacier melt by various means. He had been up there merely six days prior, and in that time frame, up to 20 inches of snow had melted off. It was great fun cavorting on the glacier, but sad to think of it’s decline. I enjoyed being there and learning about glacial melt-off, and what it means for the bigger picture. A humbling and awe-inspiring experience.

Sholes Glacier

Sholes Glacier

Glacier time!

Glacier time!

As we returned from the glacier, we were in for a real treat. A herd of 26 mountain goats were munching their way along the route back to my campsite. I have to say, I have seen many mountain goats in my time…but never a herd of 26, and never so fearless and close. What a great way to cap off a great day!

I kept thinking, it just couldn’t get any better. Back at camp, I set up my tent and made food. Each action witnessed by Mt. Baker, standing guard over me. I stayed up until sunset, as I knew the alpenglow on Mt. Baker and Shuksan would be fantastic. It did not disappoint…

Mt. Baker from my campsite

Mt. Baker from my campsite

Last light on Mt. Baker...

Last light on Mt. Baker…

And on Shuksan...

And on Shuksan…







Out Ptarmigan and around Chain Lakes loop

I awoke Thursday morning, well rested and beyond content. I took my time packing up, and was on the trail by 8:30. I planned to incorporate Chain Lakes loop into my return hike, both because I wanted the extra backpack miles and because it’s simply a lovely trail. I have run this trail multiple times in my past when I could still run, and I have also snowshoed it one early June with my son. Positive associations and memories abound, and there was no way to go wrong on this beautiful day. I felt strong and capable, and again totally immersed myself in the experience. Here are some views along the way…

Iceberg Lake

Iceberg Lake

Mt. Shuksan from Herman Saddle

Mt. Shuksan from Herman Saddle

Mt. Baker from top of Herman Saddle

Mt. Baker from top of Herman Saddle

From the trail...

From the trail









As I hiked the loop, I thought about how I have come to readiness for the upcoming John Muir Trail. I transported myself in my mind to the trail as I went up and over Herman Saddle, and ascended the top. I fluctuated back and forth between full presence in the moment, and visualizing myself on the upcoming trip. I ran into multiple hikers on Chain Lakes loop, some of whom I chatted with and shared my upcoming adventure. All of this helped the trip to take on a new reality.

It hit me that I am ready, and I am there!  I have done the preparations and tested the waters along the way. I have put in the miles, revised and refined the gear, and come to a place of acceptance with my physical self, limitations and all. The only way to describe how I felt as I completed this loop, back up to Artist Point, is to say that I felt at great peace. When I first set out on these solo hikes, I was worried and anxious. Now, completing my third and final, I felt confident and certain that I will be OK on the JMT.  I am ready.


For more information on these hikes:

Ptarmigan ridge trail

Chain Lakes loop

Table Mountain

Huntoon Point trail

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