Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Yellow Aster Butte

Mount Baker and Yellow Aster Butte
8 miles round trip, 2900 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate to lower peak; rock scrambling necessary to obtain higher summit
Access: Rough gravel road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

From its position north of the North Fork Nooksack River in the North Cascades, Yellow Aster Butte offers a commanding view of two giants, Mounts Baker and Shuksan, as well as a sweeping panorama of the rest of the North Cascades. The North Cascades is known for the difficulty of its hikes; while not an easy trail, Yellow Aster Butte is certainly an exception to the idea that every good hike in the North Cascades requires a mile of elevation gain. The second half of the hike is fully in the open, making this an utterly enjoyable journey through open slopes of heather and huckleberry to the top of a small mountain. Hikers who wish to add on a rock scramble can tag the true summit of the butte for a fun, short scramble and even bigger views. In autumn, the changing foliage of the berry bushes along the trail make this an excellent fall color hike.

I hiked out to Yellow Aster Butte on a September Sunday when summer turned to fall. Leaving Seattle, I took I-5 north to Burlington, then Highway 20 east to Sedro-Woolley, then Highway 9 north to its junction with Highway 542, the Mount Baker Highway. I turned right to head east on the Mount Baker Highway, following it past Glacier until I reached the turnoff for the Twin Lakes Road (if you cross the Nooksack River and see signs for the Silver Fir Campground, you've gone too far). I turned onto Twin Lakes Road and followed it over five bumpy miles to the Yellow Aster Butte Trailhead. The road is in poor shape, with a few severe, car-eating potholes and protruding rocks, but it was manageable in a sedan driving slowly. There is no real lot at the trailhead, but the road is wide enough for roadside parking on each of the two switchbacks on the road leading out from the trailhead; I arrived a little after 10:30 AM and parking was more or less full, as this is a popular hike.

From the start, the trail immediately embarked on an uphill climb, pushing through some short switchbacks in the forest before emerging into an open avalanche slope on a long switchback. The open slope allowed views back down to the cars parked alongside the road below, upvalley towards the mountains around Twin Lakes, across to Goat Mountain, and southwest to Mount Baker.

Mount Baker view at the start of the trail
Upon re-entering the forest, the trail climbed steadily as it traversed the southern side of Yellow Aster Butte and soon entered the Mount Baker Wilderness. The climb through the forest here was surprisingly pleasant due to a soft dirt trail tread.

Entering the Mount Baker Wilderness
About three-quarters of a mile into the hike, the trail ascended through a series of switchbacks through the forest; at the top of the switchbacks, the trail emerged into a clearing at the bottom of a small basin with views of the nearby meadow-filled slopes, about 1.2 miles and 1100 feet up from the trailhead. Huckleberry patches dotted this clearing and I noted two campsites in the basin.

After passing through the basin, the trail recommitted to the ascent, climbing through forest briefly before breaking out into subalpine meadows of heather and huckleberries. Views were initially limited to the red and golden hues of autumn on the slopes near Gold Run Pass and Yellow Aster Butte but soon expanded to include Mount Baker rising to the southwest. Soon afterwards, I arrived at a trail junction, about 1.5 miles and 1500 feet uphill from the trailhead; Yellow Aster Butte was to the left, Tomyhoi Lake was to the right. I took the left fork and started on the trail to Yellow Aster Butte.

Views of Mount Baker near the Tomyhoi Lake-Yellow Aster Butte trail junction
Once on the Yellow Aster Butte trail, I got a reprieve from the constant ascent: the trail gained just 400 feet over the next mile and a half. The trail began to trace the huckleberry-filled slopes of the High Divide just below Gold Run Pass, soon moving onto the slopes of Yellow Aster Butte itself. Views to the south widened: after initially just being able to see Mount Baker, Mount Shuksan and Goat Mountain joined the fun.

Shuksan and Goat Mountain
The trail re-entered the forest for a short stretch, then reemerged into the open at a small basin wedged between two ridges of Yellow Aster Butte. Here, the trail ventured near a snow patch that had lasted through the summer and crossed a stream; this was the last reliable source of flowing water on the hike. Past the creek, the trail stayed out in the open for the rest of the way to the top of Yellow Aster Butte.

Stream flowing off Yellow Aster Butte
After crossing the creek, the trail made a brief climb as it began wrapping around towards the south side of Yellow Aster Butte. The lower summit of the butte was visible directly above and I spotted multiple people standing atop the peak. Although it was still early September, fall colors were everywhere: the berry bushes had all turned maroon.

Yellow Aster Butte
Once Mount Baker reemerged, the views became stunning and stayed that way for the rest of the hike.

No words.
When the trail finally turned around the southern end of the ridge of the butte, an extraordinary panorama unfolded of the open ridges of the High Divide, dotted with lakes, with Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan to the south. In the gap between Shuksan and Baker, I spotted the Mount Baker Highway snaking up from the Nooksack River to the ski area and Artist Point; farther way, behind Artist Point, I could see layer upon layer of peaks, including Whitehorse, Big Four, and Del Campo peaks, which were as far away as the Mountain Loop Highway.

Shuksan and Baker
High Divide
Fall colors at Yellow Aster Butte
At 3.5 miles from the trailhead, the trail arrived at the base of the west ridge of Yellow Aster Butte. Views opened to the north of bulky Tomyhoi Peak and the collection of jewel-like tarns at its foot. American and Canadian Border Peaks made their first appearance to the north.

Tomyhoi Peak and lakes
At this point, an unmarked trail broke off to the left, heading downhill into the lakes basin. I stayed on the Yellow Aster Butte trail, which at this point began heading steeply up the ridge, making a beeline for the summit. This was by far the steepest portion of the hike, packing 500 feet of elevation gain into about a quarter of a mile. Although steep, the ascent was made easier by the sweeping views of Baker and Shuksan.

Shuksan along the final ascent
Final ascent to the summit
3.75 miles from the trailhead, I finally arrived atop the south peak of Yellow Aster Butte. The summit had copious flat space to accommodate multiple hiking groups, although the top wasn't too crowded when I arrived. I lunched with views of Baker and Shuksan towering over the North Fork Nooksack River watershed. The summit provided an incredible vantge point to study the glaciers on both Shuksan and Baker. The north face of Shuksan displayed the Hanging Glacier, White Salmon Glacier, and the Price Glacier; I even spotted Price Lake at the foot of the mountain. On Baker, the Rainbow and Park Glaciers coated Kulshan's eastern face. I had a direct view of the Mazama Glacier and of the Sholes Glacier, which sits on the slopes of the Portals and Ptarmigan Ridge, where I had hiked the year before. The high, green ridge of Skyline Divide extended north (to the right) from the bulk of Baker itself and the craggy spires of the Black Buttes appeared behind the Roosevelt Glacier.

Mount Baker
To the west, the open ridgetop of the High Divide (not to be mistaken with the identically named ridge in Olympic National Park) stretched out to Church Mountain, the sharp peak that initiates the range. Tomyhoi Peak was joined in the north by American and Canadian Border Peaks and Mount Larrabee and the Pleiades. The true summit of Yellow Aster Butte was also visible to north.

High Divide and the tarns below Tomyhoi
To the east, I spotted both the lookout and the flagpole atop Winchester Mountain. Farther out, Mount Redoubt and the Pickets dotted the horizon; I also caught a rare glimpse of the massive Challenger Glacier covering the upper reaches of Mount Challenger. Closer in, Goat Mountain and Mount Sefrit were pointy spires on the skyline.

Mount Redoubt
After sufficiently enjoying these views, I decided to continue onward to the true summit of the butte (hikers who choose to skip scrambling to the true summit will shave a half mile round trip and 400 feet of elevation gain from the hike). The true summit is north along the ridgeline from the south peak and is about 40 feet or so taller. To reach that summit, I followed a well-trod social trail north from the lower peak: this trail descended the better part of 200 feet as it dropped from the south summit down to the ridgeline connecting the two summits. The quarter mile of trail along the spine of the butte between the two summits was absolutely spectacular, with open views to both sides.

Ridgeline walk connecting the two peaks
Yellow Aster Butte rigeline
The last hundred meters up to the true summit was a Class 2 rock scramble. This was not a difficult scramble; before I knew it I had arrived at the rocky true summit of Yellow Aster Butte. This summit is much quieter: while I ran into at least ten or so people at the south peak, I only saw two other hikers atop this peak.

From the summit, the view north featured Tomyhoi Lake at the foot of the Border peaks and Mount Larrabee. I also observed that the border was easy to discern: while the American side of the mountains is fully protected in the Mount Baker Wilderness, logging roads and a recent clearcut made clear where those protections ended and Canada began.

Canadian Border Peak, American Border Peak, and Mount Larrabee rise above Tomyhoi Lake
While the viewshed atop the true summit was more or less the same as that from the lower south peak, there were a few interesting additions of note: this peak offered a good perspective of the wall of the Pickets stretching south from Mount Challenger.

Mount Challenger and the Pickets, Goat Mountain
The views from Yellow Aster Butte were so beautiful that I was loathe to leave, finally heading back only to honor commitments I had made in Seattle later than evening.

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