Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Heliotrope Ridge

Coleman Glacier and Mount Baker
5.5 miles round trip, 1500 feet elevation gain to Coleman Glacier overlook; 7 miles, 2500 feet to Hogsback Camp
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous due to difficult stream fording and steep trail to Hogsback Camp
Access: Bumpy gravel-and-paved road to trailhead okay for most cars, Northwest Forest Pass required

The only reason you could leave Heliotrope Ridge disappointed is if you were looking for heliotropes. Wildflowers? Check. Mount Baker? Check. The main reason to hike to Heliotrope Ridge, though, is for the massive view of the crevasses and seracs of the tumbling Coleman Glacier, one of the most close-up viewpoints of a major glacier reachable by trail in Washington State or anywhere, really.

The most difficult part of the hike is fording Heliotrope Creek. The trail makes a total of four unaided stream crossings, of which the hardest by far is the third crossing, over Heliotrope Creek. As the creek is the principal drainage for meltwater from the upper Coleman Glacier, the volume of the creek is quite large and thus crossing the stream is quite difficult. Rock hopping is somewhere between difficult and impossible, depending on the rate of flow; your best bet is to hike through the shin-deep stream itself. Bring hiking poles and appropriate shoes for the crossing and keep in mind that glacial meltwater is literally almost freezing. Also be aware that flow rates fluctuate during the day and are typically highest in the afternoon, meaning that the water may be substantially higher and faster and the crossing thus substantially more difficult on your return hike.

I hiked this trail on a hot, sunny Saturday. Setting out from Seattle in the early morning, I followed I-5 north to Bellingham and then followed Highway 542 (the Mount Baker Highway) east just past the hamlet of Glacier to Glacier Creek Road. I turned onto Glacier Creek Road and followed the sometimes paved, always narrow, usually winding road for 8 miles to the parking lot at the Heliotrope Ridge trailhead; even before 9 AM on a Saturday, the parking lot was entirely full so I had to park along the side of the road just up from the trailhead itself.

Heading out from the trailhead lot, the Heliotrope Ridge trail immediately crossed a creek via a well-built bridge and then entered the Mount Baker Wilderness. This bridge was the only assisted stream crossing of the hike; from there on, all other streams had to be forded. The trail started by delving into the forest, climbing at a moderate grade. Although the trail was at times rocky, it was generally a pleasant uphill and at times crossed through swampy and muddy areas via well-placed wood planks. There were no real views to speak of but the trail itself was nice if not very remarkable for the first mile and a half. Bugs were all over the place early in the hike and were quite aggressive whenever I stopped, which kept me going along the trail at a fairly constant pace to keep the biting insects at arm's length.

Forest along the trail
As the trail ascended further, it began to make a series of stream crossings. The initial stream crossings were easy; one of the crossings afforded a nice uphill view to a small but tall tumbling cascade.

Waterfall along the trail
Meanwhile, views of the green ramparts of Skyline Divide and Chowder Ridge to the north began to emerge as the trail made a second stream crossing, which could be easily rock-hopped. After the trail made an ascent up a few more switchbacks, at two miles it passed a junction for the Climbers' Route, which branched off to the right. The sign for the Climbers' Route was nailed to a tree on the left side of the trail and is easy to miss if you're not looking for it.

Past the junction, the  trail immediately entered a clearing with a reasonably good view of Chowder Ridge and more importantly of Mount Baker and the Coleman Glacier. For hikers who don't choose to cross Heliotrope Creek and forgo the Climbers' Route, this view is as good as it gets- so you should almost definitely plan for one of those two options!

First view of Mount Baker and the Coleman Glacier
After wrapping around some increasingly open mountainsides with flowers and views of the Pacific Range near Vancouver, the trail came to Heliotrope Creek. As the creek drains from the Coleman Glacier, the flow rate is quite heavy, making this crossing potentially dangerous. I switched to a pair of hiking sandals and used my poles for support to cross the stream at a wider but shallower and slower point, forgoing the riskier approach of rock-hopping across. I advise that you do the same.

Heliotrope Creek
After crossing Heliotrope Creek, the trail took just a few minutes to wind into the subalpine valley of the next creek. While following the main trail up the west side of the creek, I noticed a spur breaking off to the left; I decided to follow this spur, which crossed the creek and then led directly to the edge of the Coleman Glacier's lateral moraine.

My first view of the Coleman Glacier was stupendous. The blue ice of the glacier was torn open into numerous crevasses as it cascaded down Kulshan's slopes in spectacular icefalls. The glacier was enormous, dominating my entire field of view, and was complemented by an equivalently large field of ice beyond, the Roosevelt Glacier. Waterfalls thundered off the terminus of the Roosevelt Glacier, where meltwater from the ice momentarily underwent freefall at the edge of the ice-carved cliffs.

After briefly enjoying the view at this initial viewpoint, I followed a social trail along the rim of the moraine uphill to an enormous rock that marked the main viewpoint at Heliotrope Ridge. Here, the path along the rim rejoined with the principal trail to Heliotrope Ridge at a viewpoint with a magnificent view of the glacier's many folds and the many ice rivers emanating from the summit of Baker itself.

Coleman Glacier
The most impressive ice features noticeable were the jagged seracs of the Coleman Glacier just uphill from the viewpoint: here, the glacier passed over uneven bedrock, creating wild, soaring towers of ice and a rare hole in the ice in one particular serac. These towers are short-lived, collapsing soon after their birth as the glacier grinds its way downhill.

Seracs on the Coleman Glacier
The view to the back was substantially less impressive but still nice: from the slopes of Mount Baker, we could spot peaks such as Robie Reid and Golden Ears that lay across the border, forming the wall of the Pacific Range north of Vancouver. We could see as far as Mount Tantalus out by Howe Sound, but haze made faraway views less impressive than on a clear day.

View into Canada
The nearby views of the meadow-filled slopes of Heliotrope Ridge and the ice of the upper Coleman Glacier were equally impressive, made more beautiful by the numerous waterfalls formed by the mountain's steep slopes.

Subalpine basin at Heliotrope Ridge
After admiring the icefall, seracs, and crevasses, I opted to retrace my steps to the juntion with the Climbers' Route, crossing Heliotrope Creek again along the way. As this trail branches off the main trail prior to the least pleasant creek crossing, the Climbers' Route is a decent alternative for hikers who don't feel comfortable making the ford. However, it is by no means an easy route: the path briefly switchbacks in the woods before making a beeline for the Coleman Glacier along the steep spine of Hogsback Ridge. The trail climbs a thousand feet in three quarters of a mile, making it a fairly steep challenge.

As soon as the Climbers' Route exited the trees, views were excellent in all directions. Views of the Roosevelt Glacier and Bastile Ridge, the red colored arm hugging the Roosevelt Glacier, improved as I climbed up. I noticed many more waterfalls tumbling downwards throughout the meadow-filled slopes. The Coleman Glacier above the camp area became progressively more clear as well and it soon became possible to spot the tracks left by numerous climbers heading out from Hogsback Camp to summit Kulshan itself.

Mount Baker and the Coleman and Roosevelt Glaciers from Climbers' route
The latter portion of the uphill along the Climbers' Route featured a ridgetop walk along the Hogsback. At the end of the uphill, the trail seemed to dead-end at a small bowl; however, I soon realized that the trail was at this point just substantially less well marked and found a path that brought me uphill another hundred feet or so to a flatter area with sparkling streams, wide meadows, huge mountain views, and blooming lupine and arnica.

Wildflowers blooming along the Hogsback
This was the landscape around Hogsback Camp. I wandered around, first admiring the wildflowers and then taking a nap on a large flat rock with views of Baker and Colfax Peak.

Mount Baker, Colfax Peak, and the wildflowers at Hogsback Camp
After some rest, I wandered off-trail up to the edge of the Coleman Glacier. The upper portion of the Coleman Glacier rested on a bench just above Hogsback Camp. Although less impressive than the views at the Coleman Glacier overlook of the icefalls, my proximity to the crevasses of this upper portion of the glacier still made the experience quite unique. Climbers headed to the summit of Baker from Hogsback Camp follow this calmer portion of the Coleman Glacier up to a col between Mount Baker and Colfax Peak and then follow the upper reaches of the Deming Glacier to Baker's summit.

Coleman Glacier above Hogsback Camp
Having finally seen enough ice, I retraced my steps to the trailhead. This is an excellent hike due to the unique glacier views at both the overlook and at the end of the climbers' route; I recommend anyone in appropriate shape to visit both destinations. Be prepared for the difficult crossing of Heliotrope Creek and you might find this hike to be one of the more enjoyable in the Cascades.

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