While Brandon, Sandy, and I drove up Mount Baker Highway, I was trying to figure out just how long it had been since I’d been on a proper hike in the Pacific Northwest. I was shocked to realize it’s been nearly 3 years since I’d done a hike in my home state! My last two visits home were very brief and during the winter, so the last time I was around during the hiking season was before I left for my working holiday in New Zealand.
About this time a very high conspicuous craggy mountain … presented itself, towering above the clouds: as low down as they allowed it to be visible it was covered with snow.George Vancouver
Living overseas makes it easy to de-prioritize home, to stick it on the back burner with the mindset that you can save it for later. If there’s anything this year has taught me, it’s not to take home — and the people and places that make it so — for granted. That’s why I’m so excited about this summer: my chance to explore some new places and make some new memories in my own backyard, as well as visiting some favorite spots along the way. One of those favorites is Mount Baker, so we’d chosen to spend our Saturday hiking Heliotrope Ridge towards my favorite peak in the Cascades.
Mount Baker holds many fond memories for me. I could see it on clear days peeking between foothills as the bus pulled into my elementary school. Then in high school, the mountain became even more awesome with my burgeoning love for snow-sports. Even blowing my knee out while skiing on its slopes did nothing to diminish my love for the peak, and I was back on the slopes the next year to learn snowboarding.
I don’t snowboard very often these days, and I definitely don’t spend much time at my old elementary school, but Mount Baker is still one of my favorite places in the state. That’s mostly due to the epic hikes found around and about its summit, one of which is Heliotrope. I’d spent time hiking Heliotrope Ridge with Brandon years ago, but the weather had been less than ideal that day. This time, we’d gotten lucky.
Blue skies, mild temperatures, and adequate tree cover made the hike a very pleasant affair — barely enough to make me break a sweat! The whole first section is through an evergreen forest, and the trail only becomes exposed near the end.
We’d been a little worried about the stream crossings, as they can sometimes be swollen with meltwater from the glaciers above. Our worries were baseless, however, and the crossings were easy. Not one of our party was swept away!
After only a few miles we caught sight of our destination, Mount Baker in all its glory with the Coleman Glacier sprawling down from the peak.
The glacier is a stunning sight — glacially tumbling seracs crashing together and splitting apart to reveal the icy blue heart of the ice within. Occasionally, a fragment of the glacier will break free, shattering as it lands, or the glacier will creak and groan with the strain of its passage. The first time Brandon and I were hiking Heliotrope Ridge, we saw a chunk of ice the size of a truck break free. Nature doesn’t mess around!
We found a spot overlooking the glacier and had our lunch — subs we’d purchased on the way up. I was hoping to catch another visible sign of the glacier’s passage, but none manifested during the time we spent at the top. I guess we were lucky that first time!
We spent some time exploring the region around the glacier and managed to see one of the most spectacular displays of stupidity on a mountain I’ve ever seen in my life. A dimwit glissaded down a steep patch of snow with his dog, sans any sort of safety gear. He was tumbling and spinning haphazardly down, using his feet to kick out at rocks so he didn’t hit them. Somehow he made it down safely, so his equally thick-headed girlfriend followed him down. It was one of those situations where you don’t want anything horrible to happen, but at the same time can’t help but acknowledge that the parties involved kind of have it coming.
We headed back shortly after, navigating the Heliotrope Creek crossing and finding ourselves once more in the cool shade of the Mount Baker Wilderness. The mild descent was quick and easy, a boon for Brandon’s and my gimpy knees.
In the spirit of my good friends over at Beers at the Bottom, I’d highly recommend stopping at Whatcom County’s favorite beer shrine, North Fork Brewery. Not only do they have a huge beer selection and some of the best on-tap root beer money can buy, but they also have some pretty bomb pizza — the perfect spot for a post-hike pigout session!
Want to try the same route up to Heliotrope Ridge? Check out my GPS tracks on Ramblr!
What’s one of your favorite hikes near home? What makes it so special? Let me know in the comments below!