Thursday, June 21, 2018

Skyline Divide

Mount Baker rises above Skyline Divide
8 miles round trip, 2500 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Long gravel road with potholes to trailhead; Northwest Forest Pass required

Skyline Divide is a hike that lives up to its lofty name: this trail follows a meadow-filled ridge emanating from the glaciated Mount Baker and delivers miles of knockout views of Washington State's North Cascades and of the Pacific Range in British Columbia.

I've hiked Skyline Divide twice. On my first visit, intermittent clouds hid Baker and many of the other nearby peaks but I found August wildflowers in full bloom; on my second visit, the skies were clear and the views stretched to forever on a late fall day when patches of fresh snow had already begun to coat the Cascades. To reach Skyline Divide from Seattle, follow I-5 north to Bellingham and then follow Highway 542 (the Mt. Baker Highway) east a little past the town of Glacier to Glacier Creek Road. Right turn onto Glacier Creek Road and then immediately left turn onto Forest Service Road 37, a gravel forestry road. Follow this often-bumpy road uphill for 12 miles to the trailhead.

At the trailhead, we signed the register for entering the Mount Baker Wilderness and then hit the trail. The initial two miles of the trail involved a 1500-foot elevation gain through the forest on steady switchbacks; towards the end of the climb, small clearings began opening up with views of the nearby Twin Sisters. In summer, these clearings were filled with blooming wildflowers. At the two mile mark, the trail gained the meadow-covered top of Skyline Divide. In the summer, these meadows were lush green and filled with blooming wildflowers including heather, arnica, lupine, and valerian; in fall, the grasses had turned yellow and brown. A side trail led towards the north towards the top of a small nearby knoll, while the main Skyline Divide Trail continued south, heading towards the grand form of Mount Baker directly ahead.

Skyline Divide in summer
While my summer visit had limited views, during my fall visit I was able to fully enjoy the views as soon as I reached the ridgeline. Shuksan and Baker were the two crowning glories of the view, but a vast array of other North Cascade peaks were visible: Ruth, Challenger, American Border, Tomyhoi, Church, and Redoubt were only some of the many summits that lined the horizon.

Shuksan and the North Cascades
From here onward, the trail stayed out in the open, delivering knockout views along the entire length of the ridge. Skyline Divide is a ridge with multiple knolls, or tiny summits; hikers can follow the ridge for as long as they wish, though hikers who choose to follow the ridge further will find ever better views. As I continued along the trail, going up and over one knoll and then going around the next, views opened further in all directions. To the north, the Canadian peaks of the Pacific Range were visible; to the northwest, a layer of haze at the base of the mountains covered the Fraser River Valley and the city of Vancouver. Patches of gold dotted the valley of the Nooksack River, islands of autumn deciduous trees in a sea of Northwest conifers.

View out into the Fraser River Valley and the Vancouver metropolitan area
Looking into the Pacific Ranges in Canada
The highlight of the view was still Mount Baker- Komo Kulshan- which rose ahead of us on the trail as we followed the spine of Skyline Divide. The Roosevelt Glacier poured down the north face of Baker while the Coleman Glacier could be seen flowing down from the saddle between Baker and Colfax Peak.

Mount Baker
While the first two miles through the forest on this hike are ordinary, the latter part of the hike through open meadows make Skyline Divide a superlative day hiking destination. While I've listed the hike as being 8 miles round trip here, which covers hiking through the first four or five knolls along the ridge, very ambitious hikers or hikers who simply want to enjoy more of the incredible scenery here can continue over five miles from the trailhead with over 3000 feet of elevation gain to Chowder Ridge, which begins to lead up the slopes of Mount Baker. The wildflower meadows are confined to Skyline Divide itself and end at the base of Chowder Ridge; Chowder Ridge may be snow-covered until late in the season.

Summer wildflowers at Skyline Divide
At our turnaround point on our fall visit, views were spectacular in all directions and extended from Black Peak, deep in the North Cascades, to Vancouver Island. Laid before us was a panorama that included peaks named Judge Howay, Church, Redoubt, Challenger, Eldorado. The andesite columns and summit plateau of Table Mountain were visible at the foot of Mount Shuksan, the spire-crowned glacier throne of the North Cascades. We were amused when we passed a group of hikers doing a scantily-clad costumed photoshoot near the trail here.

Church Mountain, Skyline Divide, and American and Canadian Border Peaks
View through the Cascade foothills towards the San Juan Islands
The deep North Cascades, including Black and Eldorado Peaks
I highly recommend this trail as one of the highlights of hiking in Washington State.

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