A Fun Outing to Church Mountain
Early last week, my boyfriend Doug and I took a rather spontaneous trip to Church — the mountain that is. Doug had just returned from a three-week road trip and family reunion the previous day, and I was coming off an intense three-week emotional roller coaster following my mom’s death and memorial, daughter’s wedding shower, and my birthday weekend. Jointly we decided that what we most craved was an escape into the mountains for a day.
Still early in the hiking season, we perused possible trails in and around Mt. Baker that might be accessible. Church Mountain, at 6100 feet, is a south facing slope, promising early snow-melt off. It’s 3750 feet of elevation gain in 4.5 miles to the top — challenging enough, but manageable. Washington Trails Association trip reports showed folks making it to the meadow with ease, and some navigating snowfields to the top. We decided to take our traction devices and go for it.
We got a bit of a late start, leaving Bellingham at noon. Sunshine and blue skies graced our hour-plus drive to the trailhead. There was much anticipation as we approached our first hike into high country together. After doing dozens and dozens of low-land hikes all spring, we’d been talking about this day for nearly four months. Finally, we were headed up to play in the mountains!
The Trail up Church
There were only three cars in the parking lot when we arrived. One advantage of getting out early in the season is that popular trails like Church are still quiet. We were packed up and on the trail by 1:40.
The trail starts out with a bang. The first three miles switchback steeply through dense forest. This section can be tedious if you don’t know of the expansive views that reward you when you break out into the meadow. The miles passed quickly enough for Doug and me, though, as we continued to catch up on each other’s lives.
Soon we were at the meadow and had our first views of Mt. Baker sprawled out before us. We took a break to enjoy the display and put on traction devices — YakTrax for me, micro-spikes for Doug. The trail faded into non-existence as we wandered through the meadow. But with both of us having done Church multiple times before, we had no trouble navigating. We hopped the stream and made our way up, through an area of a previous snow slide. The snow was stable enough but steep as we headed straight up.
At the top we hit the trail again. The path ahead was clearly laid out, moving in an out of snow and meadow as far as we could see. We both wanted to keep going. The meadow sections held an abundance of yellow avalanche lilies, all poking their heads up to the welcome sunshine. We fell into an easy progression, up snowfield after snowfield. I led, kicking steps where it felt appropriate. I found the going easy after the birthday hike to Green Mountain with my son Kyle, an epic adventure but not one I wanted to repeat on this relaxing day. Doug admitted he felt a bit challenged in places, especially when the trail moved quickly from snow to brush on a steep slope. The footing at times required precision, but overall, was easy enough with traction devices and poles.
The very last section of Church was a bit of a scramble. There is a cable that some people use for hand over hand progression, but we opted to just work our way up the trail, a step at a time. We topped out at 4:50, just over three hours after we left the car.
From Church, the views were spectacular! We could see Mt. Baker and Shuksan, as well as other obvious peaks and landmarks. We chatted about more hikes to come in areas we could clearly see — Skyline Divide, Excelsior Pass, Goat Mountain. We had a great view of aptly named Kidney Lake(s)….there are more than one, but just one was melted out into a perfect shape. We sat there in awe, taking it all in, enjoying fully that we were the only ones who’d summited so far that day.
Soon, however, we heard voices. Two young bucks, shirtless and excited, emerged over the top. They reminded me of Kyle with their youthful enthusiasm! The four of us chatted about hikes in the area, both of them students at Western and off for a summer of hiking and exploring. They left before we did, intending to “score some serious food in Bellingham.”
Just before we left, a very patient Doug got a chipmunk to come right up and grab a nut from his hand. No picture unfortunately, as I didn’t actually believe he’d succeed in his mission. But it reminded me that I was on a peak with someone who takes life at a much more relaxed pace than me. I learned something in that moment. Slowing down allows for small pleasures that I have missed in my previous haste to move on to the next thing.
Down and Back
Doug had wanted to head down right off the ridge, as in later season that’s doable. But clearly that path was too tenuous, so we returned via our way up. The sun was off the slopes by that time, which made it just a bit more challenging as the snow had hardened. But snowfield by snowfield we made our way back down to the meadow.
On one traverse, we watched two marmots going at it. They were standing up on their hind feet, having what appeared to be a boxing match, then moving in and out of their holes, chasing each other across the rocks, posturing back and forth. Fighting, mating, playing? Who knows, but it brought us great joy to watch their antics. Again, no picture, but a great memory and reward for moving slower and hence noticing more.
The rest of the hike was uneventful and quick. We scurried down the switchbacks, arriving at the car at 7:40, just over two hours after we left the top.
A great day all around, and a great way to start the “real” hiking season together. I am so looking forward to more to come. Someone must have said “The couple that hikes together stays together!”