Monday, August 15, 2016

Park Butte

Mount Baker from Park Butte Lookout
7.5 miles round trip, 2200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate; trail is quite rocky in places
Access: Decent gravel road to trailhead doable by most vehicles, Northwest Forest Pass necessary

You better hang on tight to your jaw when you climb the ladder up to Park Butte Lookout, otherwise you'll have to scramble a couple hundred feet down a cliff to look for it when your jaw drops off at the lookout's panorama of Mount Baker and the peaks of the North Cascades. This is one of Washington State's best known and best loved hiking destinations for good reason: the in-your-face views of Mount Baker and the views of the Twin Sisters, the Pickets, Glacier Peak, and just about every other North Cascades peak you can name. The hike starts from a valley bottom and ascends to this decommissioned fire lookout, passing through forest and subalpine meadows to end at a serrated rock ridge in the alpine. It's an excellent hike with unbeatable views and a reasonable effort, which also makes it an extremely crowded and popular hike.

I hiked this trail with three friends after having watched the Perseid Meteor Shower in North Cascades National Park the night before. The approach from Seattle is along I-5 north to Burlington, then east on Route 20 to Baker Lake Road, then north along Baker Lake Road to the left turnoff for National Forest Road 12, then finally 8 miles of gravel road driving along National Forest Road 12 at first and then a right up National Forest Road 13. NF-13 dead ends at the trailhead. We arrived at 10:30 on a Saturday and found a packed parking area at the trailhead.

After departing the parking lot, the trail immediately crossed Sulfur Creek via a well-built bridge. The following mile of trail was flat, easy hiking through the grassy Schreiber's Meadows. We occasionally caught views of Mount Baker through the trees.

Schreiber's Meadows
There were little to no wildflowers in the meadows; instead, we found plenty of ripe huckleberry bushes that provided a welcome trailside snack.

Trailside huckleberries
The first mile of trail had a generally comfortable dirt tread. At roughly the mile mark, the trail began to ascend slightly more aggressively and also became extremely rocky. Soon afterward, we came to the tumbling muddy waters of the creek fed by the Easton Glacier. We crossed the creek on a seasonal steel bridge (the bridge is only up during the summer months).

Meltwater stream from Easton Glacier
After crossing the bridge, we began the most substantial climb of the hike. For the next mile, the trail pushed uphill through a set of switchbacks in the forest. About two miles from the trailhead, we came to an intersection with the Scott Paul Trail. We took the left fork towards Park Butte. The next third of a mile was a continued uphill climb through the forest until the trail emerged into the greenery of Morovitz Meadows.

We caught our first clear views of Mount Baker at the meadows. At the junction with the trail to the Railroad Grade, we stayed to the left, continuing on towards Park Butte. When we reached the upper end of the meadow, we looked back and saw the rugged, snow-capped peaks of the Mountain Loop Highway and Glacier Peak Wilderness to the southeast.

Morovitz Meadows
A continued climb brought us to the wide, flat, grassy upper Morovitz Meadow. From this vantage point, we could see the summit of Koma Kulshan flanked by Sherman and Colfax Peaks. The Railroad Grade appeared as a gradual green incline leading towards the Black Buttes. Unfortunately, it appeared that there was no substantial wildflower bloom during the summer of our hike.

Koma Kulshan rises over grassy meadows
At the far end of the meadow, the trail ascended through some short switchbacks to a saddle. From here, we looked to the east and caught partial views of the North Cascades. We took the trail heading uphill to the left towards Park Butte from the saddle. As the trail climbed, our views of Mount Baker became progressively better. The trail then emerged onto a meadow-filled plateau dotted with two tarns. The view here was unbelievable: it seemed as if we could see every jagged spire of the North Cascades.

North Cascades and tarns in the high meadows
At the far end of the plateau meadows, the trail began bending to the right, ascending through even more meadows. Looking to the left of the trail, we saw beautiful Pocket Lake nestled below Survey Point with innumerable peaks rising in the distance.

Pocket Lake from trail
Wrapping around the next corner, we found even more meadow-filled mountain slopes with the first views of the Twin Sisters. Unbelievable as it was, the views became even broader as we ascended through this meadow and entered the Mount Baker Wilderness.

North Cascades vista on final ascent to Park Butte
After passing the sign marking our entrance into the Mount Baker Wilderness, we saw the lookout towering a few hundred feet above us atop a rocky spine. We took our time for the final push, stopping often to gawk at the massive Easton and Deming Glaciers pouring down the south face of Mount Baker.

Final approach to the lookout
The last stretch of trail to the lookout had the steepest grades of the hike. Reaching the lookout itself required scrambling up a small rock and ascending a short ladder.

The lookout was unlocked when we visited. In the summer, the lookout is often claimed for overnight stays on a first-come, first-serve basis. The deck surrounding the lookout was quite narrow, so the lookout provided little room for the many groups that congregated at the summit.

The undoubted highlight was the views- what views! The undoubted star of the show was Mount Baker's tumbling glaciers and the colorful Black Buttes that rose to the west above the Deming Glacier. From Mount Baker looking to the right, we could see Shuksan, the Pickets, Bacon, Triumph, Eldorado, Snowking, Glacier , White Chuck, Pugh, Sloan, and Whitehorse. Loomis Mountain, Dock Butte, and the Twin Sisters filled the closer-in view to the south and the west.

Meadows surrounding Park Butte and the North Cascades
Twin Sisters from Park Butte Lookout
The serrated pinnacles, sheer rock walls, and hanging glaciers of the Picket Range were one of the highlights of the view. I've wanted to explore the range closer and nowhere have I heard their siren song louder than at the lookout; yet as a hiker and not a climber, it's still not clear how to gain a close approach to peaks named Mount Challenger, Mount Fury, and Mount Terror.

The Picket Range from Park Butte
The initial mile and a half of the return trip were filled with a beautiful recap of the views we enjoyed on the way up. Making good time downhill, we enjoyed some of the huckleberries in Schreiber's Meadow to cap off an almost excessively idyllic Saturday.

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