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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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