Friday, September 7, 2018

Church Mountain

View of the North Cascades from Church Mountain
8.5 miles round trip, 3700 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous
Access: Bumpy gravel road with a creek crossing to the trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

Church Mountain rises steeply from Washington's North Fork Nooksack River Valley, jutting like a rocky steeple along a meadow-filled divide north of Mount Baker. The former fire lookout site at the lower summit offers views of Mount Baker, the North Cascades, and Canadian peaks while the mountain's green slopes are profuse with wildflowers in midsummer. This is a gorgeous destination accessible with a stretch of switchback work in the forest and is quieter than more popular nearby destinations like Skyline Divide, Heliotrope Ridge, or Yellow Aster Butte.

I hiked Church Mountain with two friends (sisters!) on a summer Saturday when overcast weather hung over the Puget Sound but the sun was shining in the mountains. From Seattle, we followed I-5 north to Burlington, then Highway 20 east to Sedro Wooley, Highway 9 north from Sedro Wooley to its junction with 542 (the Mount Baker Highway). I took the Mount Baker Highway east past the village of Glacier, crossing the Nooksack River before turning left onto the East Church Mountain Road. I followed the Church Mountain Road uphill four miles to the trailhead; this gravel road was generally in decent shape, although at one point I had to drive through a road washout at Fossil Creek. I handled this fine with a sedan, but a higher clearance vehicle may be better when the water level in the creek is higher earlier in the summer.

From the trailhead, we followed an old road trace gradually uphill for the first half mile of the hike. The trail left the road at the first switchback and began a steady uphill climb through an endless series of switchbacks. The trail generally maintained a nice dirt tread with switchbacks that weren't too steep, but the endless back-and-forth along the slopes of Church Mountain still got tiring, especially since a friend and I were carrying 30-pound packs to train for our upcoming climb of Mount Rainier. There were no open views early in the hike, though there were spots where we could peek through the foliage to see the ridge of Skyline Divide rising on the other side and some corners of Mount Baker just beyond.

The trail started opening up as we approached the 3-mile mark. Crossing two small clearings, we encountered blooming wildflowers- monkeyflower, lupine, aster, and paintbrush- as well as narrow views of the Twin Sisters in the distance. A little bit further forward, the trail entered a wide, open meadow in a bowl on the high slopes of Church Mountain. Plenty of wildflowers were blooming here, including valerian and tiger lilies. Wandering through the meadow, we caught our first clear views of Mount Baker, which was lucky as incoming clouds soon covered Mount Baker for the rest of the day.

Mount Baker from the Church Mountain Trail
The trail crossed a bubbling stream that was fed by pretty waterfalls on the higher slopes of the mountain. Wildflowers were profuse as were bugs; we kept moving to avoid being insect lunch.

Stream through the meadows on Church Mountain
The trail then began climbing out of the bowl, making some switchbacks as it climbed higher up in the meadows. Wildflowers were a constant companion, as were views of the high cliffs of Church Mountain above us.

Meadows of Church Mountain
At this point, Mount Shuksan emerged. Mount Baker is the tallest of the peaks in this area of the Cascades; Shuksan is the second-tallest. The summit pyramid of Shuksan rose regally from the peak's throne of glaciers.

Mount Shuksan
The meadows were lined with blooming heather and the bright green leaves of huckleberry bushes. While most July and August visitors would be able to best appreciate the flowers, late season visitors would likely have a berry feast here each fall.

Heather and huckleberries
The trail emerged into the upper portion of the meadow along the south ridge of the mountain. After climbing up onto the ridge, the trail made a sharp switchback and swung back to the east. The dirt path was often narrow and angled here as it made its way through grassy fields of valerian.

Church Mountain upper meadows
The trail made a final steep switchback at a subalpine meadow campsite and cut east across the slopes to reach the south ridge again, coming to a knob where the dirt trail ended at the base of a rocky block. Views were expansive here: we could look to the west and see directly down the slopes of Church Mountain to the Nooksack River and the Mount Baker Highway.

Trail through the meadows, Canadian and American Border Peaks and Mount Larrabee in the distance
Beyond the knob, the trail made a sharp switchback and began ascending the rocky summit block. A cable seemed to offer a handhold for ascending a steep, rocky route to the summit, but I found that it was easier to cut to the right and follow a less steep path that reached the summit with less exposure. The hike ended at a former fire lookout site, a false summit of Church Mountain: the true summit block was just west, a castle-like tower of stone. Snow patches still dotted the northern slopes of the mountain, feeding two small tarns in the bowl to the north of the summit. A third summit of Church Mountain lay just to the east, its meadow-crowned spire connecting to the verdant slopes of the Excelsior Divide. Only a few forested ridges to the north separated where we stood from the Canadian border; unfortunately, low clouds kept us from seeing across the Fraser River valley to the southern summits of the Pacific Range. On a clear day, it's likely that we could've seen past Abbottsford to Mount Robie Reid and Mount Judge Howay.

Church Mountain summit and lakes north of the ridge
Although Mount Baker had ducked into the clouds to the south, the panorama of North Cascades peaks to the east was on full display. Excelsior Peak and the green slopes of the High Divide led towards Mount Tomyhoi, Mount Larrabee, and American and Candian Border Peaks. Mount Shuksan towered over the Nooksack Valley and faraway Mount Redoubt marked a visible outpost deep within the Cascades.

Nooksack Valley and the North Cascades
The North Cascades
After enjoying lunch and dumping the water weight that we had carried up for training, we descended leisurely back to the trailhead.

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