Monday, August 22, 2016

Ptarmigan Ridge

Mount Baker, Park and Rainbow Glaciers, the Portal, and Sholes Glacier
11 miles round trip, 1900 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

There are many good hikes in the Pacific Northwest; Ptarmigan Ridge is an exceptional hike. The views start from the parking lot at Artist Point and never stop, improbably becoming ever more expansive at every turn of the trail. This entirely alpine hike explores the rocky slopes of Ptarmigan Ridge, the meadows around Coleman Pinnacle, the snowfields above Goat Lake, and the stark, harsh glaciated terrain of Mount Baker's East Portal. The full hike starts at Artist Point and ends atop the vertigo-inducing cliffs of East Portal with its front row view of Mount Baker and the Rainbow Glacier, but hikers who choose to do even just a short portion of this hike will find spectacular scenery. The hike requires less effort than trails that provide a similar alpine experience, but still requires navigating snowfields, hiking through rocky terrain, a bit of rock scrambling, and occasional routefinding; it's certainly not an easy hike.

Ptarmigan Ridge is typically entirely snowbound until August or September. If you don't have experience route-finding in the snow, don't go before then! There's probably only a month or two each year when the trail is in good condition for hiking and I highly discourage visiting outside that window.

This hike can be divided into roughly six portions, each roughly a mile long except for the last segment, a shorter half-mile rock scramble. The first portion runs from the trailhead at Artist Point to the junction with the Chain Lakes Trail; the second starts from that point and ends when the trail enters a grassy saddle. The third segment ends at a sharp turn where the trail rounds a jutting ridge; the fourth ends at the base of Coleman Pinnacle, above the snowfields at Goat Lake. The fifth segment runs to the flat area at Camp Kiser, while the final segment is a half-mile through scree to the summit of East Portal. Hikers looking for shorter options can turn around after completing the third or fourth segments, both of which offer superb views and a more moderate hike; if you've reached Camp Kiser, you might as well continue to the summit of East Portal, provided you're up for a bit of scrambling and aren't acrophobic.

I hiked this trail alone on a August Sunday that started out sunny and clear but ended up cloudy with a few drops of rain. I drove up to Artist Point the night before to stargaze and see Mount Baker illuminated by the moon. From Seattle, I took I-5 to Bellingham and then followed Highway 542 (the Mount Baker Highway) to its terminus at Artist Point.

Star trails over moonlit Mount Baker
I woke at sunrise, spent some time admiring the alpenglow on Mount Baker, and was on the trail at 7 AM.

Sunrise light on Mount Baker
The trail departed from the west end of the huge parking area (opposite the bathrooms). The trails for Table Mountain and Chain Lakes branched off immediately from the trailhead sign; I followed the trail on the left heading towards Chain Lakes. After an initial downhill and about three minutes of hiking in the trees, the trail came out onto the open slopes on the south side of Table Mountain. The first mile of trail cut across the side of the mountain and provided a good view of Mount Baker and Coleman Pinnacle ahead and of Mount Shuksan and Mount Ruth to the back. Whitehorse Mountain, Mount Watson, and Bacon Peak also appeared to the south; I'm sure that most of the peaks along the Mountain Loop would be visible on a clear day, but the sky that day was a little smoky from wildfires on the Olympic Peninsula. The trail was fairly rocky through this stretch; marmot whistles echoed and at one point I saw a chubby marmot glancing at me from just off of the trail.

Mount Baker views from the Chain Lakes Trail
The first segment and the first mile ended at the fork between the Chain Lakes and the Ptarmigan Ridge trails at the far end of Table Mountain. I headed along the Ptarmigan Ridge Trail. Just past the fork, I caught a clear view of the next segment of trail, which made a downhill drop of over a hundred feet and followed the north side of the ridge before climbing back to the ridge in about a mile.

Ptarmigan Ridge Trail
The ensuing section of trail was the rockiest of the hike. The trail descended via switchbacks onto the lower slopes of the ridge, then crossed multiple tiny streams as it made its way across the mountainside. Some of the best wildflowers of the hike were on this segment of the hike: lupine, arnica, and daisies bloomed in patches of greenery that were interspersed with the generally barren landscape. Views of Mount Baker and Church Mountain accompanied me through this stretch of the hike.

Lupine blooming by stream, Church Mountain in the distance
After traversing the mountainside for a stretch, the trail angled off to the left and began a short but aggressive climb to a saddle along Ptarmigan Ridge. I was greeted at the saddle by a grassy meadow and by views of Table Mountain, Mount Shuksan, and Hagan Mountain.

View from second saddle back towards Table Mountain
The third segment of trail started from this grassy saddle. The trail meandered along the broad top of the ridge for a bit before it committed to following the south slope of the ridge again. Mount Baker and the Coleman Pinnacle disappeared from view, but Shuksan and the rest of the North Cascades provided good company. The trail climbed gradually but constantly for the next mile. After crossing a sloped snowfield, I reached a sharp turn in the trail along a southeast-extending ridge, roughly three miles into the hike.

The view from this turn in the trail was fantastic: to the northeast, I could see Sefrit, Redoubt, Ruth; to the east Shuksan and the Lower Curtis Glacier, Blum, Hagan, Bacon, Watson. Mount Baker and the Coleman Pinnacle dominated the view ahead of the trail. This is a decent turnaround point for hikers looking for less than an 11 mile hike.

North Cascades views from Ptarmigan Ridge Trail
Mount Baker and Coleman Pinnacle from turn on the trail
View from the turn
Continuing onwards, the trail crossed through scree slopes and through pretty meadows; snowfields dotted the mountainside below the trail. Many of Mount Shuksan's glaciers, including the Hanging, Lower Curtis, Upper Curtis, and Sulphide Glaciers, were visible from this angle. The view to the south and the east widened even further and I caught a glimpse of Glacier Peak's summit poking above the wildfire haze.

Mount Shuksan and Mount Ruth
Along this stretch of trail, I passed by a notable set of columnar andesite. Although igneous in origin, this andesite isn't from Mount Baker- in fact, much of the columnar andesite seen here and at Table Mountain and Arist Point was formed by eruptions of the ancient Kulshan caldera, which predated Mount Baker by a few hundred thousand years.

Columnar andesite along the trail
The trail wrapped around the base of Coleman Pinnacle and climbed through a snowfield before turning around another ridge, roughly marking the four mile mark on the hike. Mount Baker reemerged, with the Park and Rainbow Glaciers pouring down its eastern flank. A barren, snow covered ridge led out to the jewel-like waters of Goat Lake. The twin Portals rose at the base of Mount Baker. For hikers not going all the way to the top of West Portal, this is as good as the view gets before the very end of the hike.

Goat Lake
While admiring the scenery from the ridge, I caught a glimpse of a herd of at least 30 mountain goats relaxing in a basin below Ptarmigan Ridge.

Mountain goats
After rounding the turn, the trail climbed through meadows on the west side of Coleman Pinnacle, providing constant views of Mount Baker, Rainbow Glacier, and the Portals. After reaching a high point with an excellent view back towards Goat Lake, the trail descended to a snowfield and then continued descending as it traversed southwest across the slopes of two burnt-red colored bumps on the ridge. I crossed intermittent snow patches and even more intermittent wildflower patches that featured brilliantly colored lupine.

Wildflowers blooming, Mount Baker and the Portals
Soon, the trail came to another saddle. The view ahead was a barren world of rock and ice: Mount Baker and East Portal loomed ominously and the Sholes Glacier was splayed out on the slopes of the Portals. Views to the north also opened back up: I could now see Skyline Divide, Church Mountain, and Excelsior Ridge.

The Portals and Sholes Glacier
From this point onwards, the trail stayed just above the Sholes Glacier, heading slightly uphill to a glacier-bound plateau with many rock shelters for camping that I assumed was Camp Kiser (the area was abandoned when I hiked through). Here, the Sholes glacier was right next to the trail, making it a logical route for traversing to the Portal for the Park Glacier climbing route. Looking back, there were good views of Coleman Pinnacle from the back side and reemergent views of Mount Shuksan. The camp marked a distance of five miles from the trailhead.

Coleman Pinnacle and Mount Shuksan from Camp Kiser
I stayed on the trail, which became even narrower and fainter past the camp as it began a stiff uphill climb. The path was easy to lose, so I relied on cairns for most of the ascent up the loose, rocky slopes of East Portal. This final climb from Camp Kiser to East Portal was the longest sustained ascent of the entire hike and the most difficult part of the hike. The path crossed two more snowfields and skipped the false summit of East Portal before emerging onto the almost knife-thin summit ridge of the mountain. I followed the ridge until its very end to come to a harrowing, stomach-churning overlook of the Portal and Mount Baker's Rainbow Glacier. From this viewpoint, there was a vertical drop of a few hundred feet to a rocky col between the Rainbow and Sholes Glaciers, with West Portal rising jaggedly and dramatically on the other side of the pass. Mount Baker itself was resplendent, a splattering of yawning blue crevasses and crumbling ridges of sawtooth rock on a shimmering white canvas.

Rainbow Glacier on Mount Baker
The name "The Portal" is quite confusing here: The Portal refers to the low pass that connects the Sholes Glacier and the Rainbow Glacier. The Portals typically refers to the set of rocky peaks that bound the Portal on either side; each of the Portals is in turn named by their relative positions (East and West Portal).

In the opposite direction, my view was a feast of Cascade peaks. Closer in, I could see Sholes Glacier as it spilled downhill to its terminus over a thousand feet below me; just slightly further away was Coleman Pinnacle and Ptarmigan Ridge, which I had followed to reach this lofty vantage. Even further out was a sea of peaks: Skyline Divide, Excelsior, Church, American Border, Larrabee, the Pleiades, Goat, Sefrit, Ruth, Redoubt, Shuksan, the Pickets, Blum, Hagan, Bacon, Watson, Eldorado, Spider, Formidable, Snowking, White Chuck, Pugh, Sloan, and countless other spires that I didn't recognize, including some peaks in Canada.

Sholes Glacier and the North Cascades from East Portal
I sat in amazement of the views until clouds started rolling in around midday, covering Baker and obscuring the endless parade of peaks on the horizon. I had the trail mostly to myself in the morning due to my early start but ran into hordes of hikers on the way back that afternoon. I returned to the trailhead just in time to avoid an afternoon rain shower and arrived back in Seattle by evening.


  1. Excellent Trip Report, I'm impressed with your peak identification knowledge. I am considering Ptarmigan Ridge for an overnight this weekend. Would Camp Kiser be the best choice?

    1. Thanks for visiting! Camp Kiser has a good number of sites with rock shelters, so it's a decent choice for getting protection from the wind. I also saw a good number of people camping at the base of Coleman Pinnacle, near the ridge above Goat Lake, where there's enough flat terrain to camp. The views are spectacular at either place.