Monday, August 15, 2016

Lake Ann and Curtis Glacier

Lower Curtis Glacier
8 miles round trip, 1900 feet elevation gain to Lake Ann; 10 miles, 2400 feet to Curtis Glacier
Difficulty: Moderate to Lake Ann; Moderate-Strenuous to Curtis Glacier
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required for trailhead parking

This hike visits a pair of stunning destinations in Washington state's North Cascades: gem-like Lake Ann and the glistening ice of the Lower Curtis Glacier. While Lake Ann usually gets top billing and is the main destination for most hikers, hikers shouldn't pass up the opportunity to continue along the trail for a closer look at the icy seracs of the Curtis Glacier at the foot of imposing Mount Shuksan. This hike is one of many excellent hikes along the Mount Baker Highway; the easy access to its high elevation trailhead and the excellent scenery en route make this a popular and oft-crowded hike. The hike spends much of its initial three miles in the forest, descending from the Mount Baker Highway into the meadow-filled basin of Swift Creek and then cutting through forest along the slopes of an arm of Mount Shuksan before climbing through alpine meadows and talus to a saddle and access to Lake Ann. If you haven't hiked much before, it's important to know that you can handle the return uphill before attempting this downhill-first-then-uphill-last hike.

I hiked to the Curtis Glacier with a friend on a hot but beautifully clear August day. Setting out from Seattle in the morning, we took I-5 north to Burlington, then Highway 20 east to Sedro Wooley, then Highway 9 north to the junction with the Mount Baker Highway (Route 542). We followed the Mount Baker Highway east until reaching the Lake Ann Trailhead, which is just short of the road's dead end at Artist Point. The parking lot had a reasonable number of spaces but by the time we arrived cars were parked all along the side of the extremely narrow road to Artist Point as well. The views were already excellent from the trailhead: looking north, we could see Mount Larrabee and the assorted rocky peaks by the Canadian border.

The trail departed from the parking lot and remained flat for the first few hundred meters, roughly paralleling the road; at one point, the trail has a view of the peaks visible from the trailhead that is within a stone's throw of the road.

Trailhead view
The trail continued to wrap around a forested bowl, with peekaboo views of distant arms of Mount Shuksan. After a quarter mile of hiking, the trail descended down a set of switchbacks to a pretty meadow in a basin, passing a sign informing us that we had entered the Mount Baker Wilderness. We found a wide assortment of wildflowers still blooming, including daisies, paintbrush, columbine, and Sitka valerian.

Swift Creek basin
Paintbrush in bloom
We crossed Swift Creek twice as we passed through the basin. Mount Shuksan provided good company as we made our way to the end of the valley. After the second crossing, the trail delved into the forest and began a gentle climb followed by a gentle descent, following the lower slopes of one of the arms of Mount Shuksan.

Shuksan from Swift Creek basin
The trail reemerged from the forest at another set of meadows. At a stream crossing here, we caught our first view of glacier-coated Mount Baker.

First view of Mount Baker
Past the stream crossing, the trail began the hike's longest sustained uphill, climbing a little over 900 feet in the next mile. As the trail headed uphill, there were excellent views of the rust-stained mountainsides to the north and of the rocky, barren alpine cliffs towards which we were climbing. The trail passed by a small meadow with a view of Mount Baker, switchbacked through a talus slope, and then emerged onto the higher meadows in an alpine basin. The many sharp protrusions of Mount Shuksan- including the mountain's summit pyramid- looked remarkable from the angle of the trail.

Shuksan spires
As we climbed further up the side of the basin via a set of switchbacks through the heather-strewn rocky slopes, we found even better views of Mount Baker and of Artist Point and Table Mountain.

Mount Baker
We crossed an extremely small snow patch right before reaching the top of the ridge; the patch was on flat ground and was thus entirely no problem to cross. After passing the last remaining snow on the trail, we came to a saddle in the ridge and our first view of the lake.

Lake Ann was a pretty lake nestled in a high basin. From the saddle, we could see a nice backdrop of various North Cascades peaks rising behind the lake.

Lake Ann from trail saddle
We ate lunch by the lake's shimmering waters and took a quick dip in the lake's cold but not frigid water, which provided a welcome respite from the heat of the midday sun. After lunch, we made our way to the far side of the lake for views of the lake with Mount Shuksan's soaring spires of metamorphic rock as backdrop.

Lakeside views
Lake Ann, Mount Shuksan, Curtis Glaciers
Since the trail continued onward from the lake, we decided to follow it towards Curtis Glacier. When viewed from the perspective of Lake Ann, Mount Shuksan displays two major glaciers: the Upper Curtis, a tongue of which descends from Shuksan's summit plateau, and the Lower Curtis, a collection of towering seracs at the base of Shuksan's mighty southwest face. The trail towards the Curtis Glacier rounded a hillock above the lake and then cut through a stream-strewn, rocky meadow.

Upper and Lower Curtis Glaciers, Summit Pyramid of Mt. Shuksan
From the meadow, we had an extraordinary view to the south of wispy waterfalls tumbling down the slopes of Shuksan itself, Whitehorse Mountain far off to the south, and the turquoise waters of Baker Lake below.

Waterfalls tumbling off the slopes of Shuksan towards Baker Lake
We continued from the meadow towards the glacier. From the trailhead to the four-mile mark at Lake Ann, the trail had been fairly wide with a good tread. Here, the trail narrowed substantially. The trail passed through sparse forest and a huge huckleberry patch via a set of sharp switchbacks and entered North Cascades National Park from the Mount Baker Wilderness. Past the sign marking the entrance into the national park, the condition of the trail deteriorated substantially. The trail came out into open slopes of meadows and talus but was heavily eroded in more than a single place. Hiking here required scrambling and careful footwork while traversing fairly rugged terrain. We were compensated for the poor trail condition with views behind us to Mount Baker, Lake Ann, and the faraway emerald ridge of Skyline Divide.

Lake Ann and Mount Baker
After crossing a crumbling scree slope and a meadow full of thistles, the trail appeared to dead-end a couple hundred yards away from the terminus of the Curtis Glacier. While it seemed possible to hike cross-country to reach the glacier itself, the terrain was extremely steep, the scree was loose in many places, and a number of unstable snowfields still separated where we stood from the glacier. We decided to call it a day at this viewpoint and enjoyed the sunlight reflecting off the Curtis Glacier's remarkable blue ice. The glacier's toe was particularly beautiful: we could see the many bands on the glacier separating each year of the accumulated centuries of ice. Although the glacier wasn't particularly large, it was one of the more up-close glacier experiences that I've had in Washington state.

Terminus of Lower Curtis Glacier
We turned back and retraced our steps from the glacier, making it back to the trailhead in 2 hours and 15 minutes with stops to munch on huckleberries in the switchbacks above the lake.

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