Perfect Monday Hike — Welcome Pass
Sometimes things work out just as they should.
A week ago Thursday, Doug and I intended to hike Welcome Pass to High Divide Trail off the Mt. Baker Highway. Our plan was to go as far as we could, taking the snow into account. Then stuff happened:
1. My Subaru Forester was in the shop, so we drove Doug’s Honda Civic. The Welcome Pass trailhead is only 1.5 miles off the Mt. Baker Highway, but the gravel road is narrow, and when we met a Forest Service pickup coming out, we had to back down to a “wide” place. The ranger motioned we should roll the window down, and she told us there were a couple of large “divots” in the road which Doug’s car might not be able to negotiate. We parked on the highway.
2. When I went to choose which of two pairs of shoes I would wear for the hike, to my dismay I realized I had NO insoles of any sort in either pair. It’s one of the hazards of having too many shoes and not enough insoles–and riding in a car that isn’t mine. The error was fatal: I can’t hike in naked shoes.
3. We’d been hesitant about the cloudy weather. Neither of us wanted to make the intense effort of climbing Welcome Pass without promise of the spectacular panorama at the top.
Disappointed but realistic, we opted to go back to Bellingham and hike Pine and Cedar Lakes for a steep workout close to home. There was some sadness involved, as we’d been so looking forward to another hike into high country, but there’d be another day.
HIKE TO WELCOME PASS
Our next opportunity arrived! Monday was blue clear through, I had shoes with insoles, and my car was in commission. All systems were go!
Here are the stats on Welcome Pass:
Distance to Pass — 2.5 miles
Elevation gain — 3000 feet
Options at the top — GO WEST (left) on the High Divide trail, an absolutely spectacular ridge that joins up with Excelsior Trail. Or GO EAST (right) towards Yellow Astor Butte, climbing straight up a truly spectacular ridge and wandering a mile or so on a less-used trail through wildflower meadows.
Both Doug and I had done Welcome Pass several times before in each direction. It’s a quick way to some of the most spectacular views in the North Cascades–Baker, Shuksan, and dozens of other peaks (Doug could name 12) up into Canada. So many prominences in one big 360° spiral. The only thing I don’t like about the trail is the section of steep switchbacks — 66 total and 2500 feet of elevation gain in just 1.5 miles. No, I haven’t been so masochistic as to count the switchbacks, but some do. Going up is a great cardio challenge. Going down is a killer on the knees.
We were prepared for all that. Our plan was to gain the pass and go east, as we had heard that High Divide still held snow. After many hikes in the white stuff, we were ready for one in the green.
Hitting the trail…
Navigating the logging road in my Subaru was easy enough, although it would have been tough in Doug’s car. We arrived at the trailhead just after noon, and saw just two other cars in the parking lot.
The first mile was an easy warm up, half-lulling us into complacency for what was to come. But we knew exactly where the trail took a turn for the steep, and I told Doug I would hike ahead to get a good cardio workout. The first several times I did this trail, I did it alone, partly for the workout. This time I wanted both the workout and companionship, so we agreed that I would hike for a half hour then turn around and rejoin Doug.
It was a great 30 minutes! I worked as hard as I could, not breaking for the entire time. My lungs and legs worked in perfect harmony, my body finding a rhythm that took me up switchback after switchback. I was sweating and breathing hard, and I loved it. I wasn’t quite to the top of the 1.5 miles at thirty minutes, but close. Feeling great, I dumped my day pack and went down to find Doug. He was coming up steadily, also sweating and working hard. We hiked back to my pack and then I continued up alone at my rapid fire pace. I encountered one gal on the way down, and that would be it for the day. Otherwise we had the place to ourselves. Very soon, I reached the pass, applied sunscreen, and swatted an abundance of mosquitos and flies while waiting for Doug. It was less than relaxing, although the views (and knowing what was to come) helped.
INTO THE SOUND OF MUSIC!
There is no other way to describe how going upward from the pass felt. Immediately, we had a very steep hillside to climb—up another 500 feet–but its blanket of flowers and the views Baker and Shuksan were intoxicating. Once up, the steepness lessened and views just kept expanding. I have never been up there when I did not feel like Julie Andrews. Both Doug and I have a particular love for this ridgetop, which disappoints rarely and never in weather as glorious as this. But to share such a place for the first time was unbelievably special.
We strolled up the boot-beaten trail as far as it went — a mile or so—and stopped for lunch on a rocky crest, magnificence in every direction. To the west, the High Divide trail still had snowfields on its northern slopes, confirming our choice. We stayed at our perch for hours, taking in our surroundings, basking in the sun, outside of time.
All too often I hike on a tight schedule that drives me to move quickly from one thing to the next, but on this one there was nowhere else to go and no reason to hurry. We were already there. I relaxed in the luxury of complete contentment.
Soon enough, though, the reality of lengthening shadows, those 66 switchbacks, congregating clouds, and smoke rising up a valley from the fires in Canada, finally brought us down to earth. Just before heading back, we reconnoitered a route toward Yellow Astor Butte that Doug had heard of and encountered no significant obstacles—an adventure for another day!
BACK TO THE CAR AND BACK TO TOWN
We descended briskly but carefully. Having done the similar but much longer steepness of Sourdough Mountain earlier in the month, we knew speed was not of the essence. My strategy is never to think of the end of a hike, but to concentrate on one step at a time. My knees cried out, Doug’s legs got shaky, and we both slipped a few times, but not much more than an hour passed before we were down to the last easy mile.
On the way up the Forest Service road, we’d seen a gray Toyota van parked about a mile in and didn’t think too much about it. Now we were surprised to see a young guy hovering around, and so we stopped to ask if he needed help. He was nice enough, somewhat confused but grateful. He’d been there for two days, hitched out the day before to buy a universal lug wrench that didn’t really fit, which he’d then bent trying to budge the machine-tightened lug nuts. Doug gave it a try, and it was as the man said. We offered him a ride into town to call a tow truck—my cell phone had no coverage—but he declined, saying it was already 5:30 and by the time the truck could get to his van, it would be 7:00, and rates would be higher. No, he’d deal with it in the morning. Besides he had provisions and had rigged a cover for the window that wouldn’t shut, so the mosquitos wouldn’t be as bad as they were the night before. There was nothing to do but offer him food and water, which he was glad to have.
As we left, we wondered what was up. The fellow wasn’t a hiker; he called the trail “a path.” Something was off. Doug left a message at the ranger station the next morning, figuring they might be able to help, if only to supply a metric lug wrench. All I can say is I would not have stopped if I were alone, which is yet another reason to be thankful for such a great hiking partner!
IF YOU GO…
Overall, this hike was a ten out of ten! It has so much going for it. It’s close to town for Bellinghamsters, and the trailhead is accessible via a short gravel road to all but low clearance sedans. The trail is short and steep, and makes for a great workout. The views are as good as they get in all directions.
Suggestion: If you have time and plan ahead, you can hike up Welcome Pass, cross all the way west over High Divide, and come down the Excelsior Pass trail. In the past, I have left my road bike at the Excelsior trailhead (on the Mt. Baker Highway), parked my car at the highway pullout across from the Welcome Pass turnoff, done the hike, and ridden my bike back to the car. THAT was a fantastic way to see it all! The distance is about 12 miles or so, plus the 1.5 miles on the Welcome Pass road from the trailhead to the highway.