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Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Get outside: Skyline Divide hike

By Micah Evangelista

Details

Length: 9.0 miles round trip

Elevation gain: 2,500 feet.

Highest Elevation: 6,563 feet.

Estimated travel time: five-six hours round-trip.

I left early Friday morning with intentions of beating the heat and any crowds of people. The escape into the mountains provides a break from the constant hustle and bustle of everyday life. It allows for a time for contemplation; a chance to not worry about school or work, and to instead appreciate the accessible destinations that lay right here in our backyard in Whatcom County. Skyline Divide has always been one of my favorite hikes, providing stunning views the whole way. The only downside is that it sees a lot of traffic, so starting early or going on a week day is recommended. I arrived at the trailhead at 7:15 a.m. and was the first person to pull into the dusty parking lot. I brought a friends dog, Theo, with me for company on the journey.

An overview

As the snow melts in the high mountains and summer progresses, the beautiful peaks of the North Cascade mountain range hosts dozens, even hundreds of hikes for people of all ages.

Skyline Divide traces a long, escalating ridge, following the upward slant of the mountain toward the white-capped peak of Mount Baker, or as the Lummi Native Americans called it Koma Kulshan, meaning “Great White Watcher”. The trail ascends at a consistently-steep pitch, so be sure to pace yourself. Once you reach the highest point, wildflowers and stunning 360-degree views will make it hard to leave.

Theo the German Shepherd stands in a grassy field in front of Mount Baker. // Photo by Micah Evangelista

Directions

From Western Washington University: Get on Interstate 5 North, take Exit 255 to Sunset Drive, and begin to head east. After a few stoplights, the road will turn into Highway 542, the access point to Mount Baker and the stunning North Cascades. Take in the views during the 50-minute drive. The weaving road traces the flowing body of the Nooksack River. Once you enter the small town of Glacier, stop for a drink and break at the Glacier Public Service Center. Here, they sell Northwest Forest Passes, which are required for parking at the trailhead. Continue for another 0.8 miles, and take a right on FR-39 (Glacier Creek Road), and then an immediate left onto Forest Road 37. Signs will indicate the Skyline Divide trail. Follow this gravel road for 12.9 miles until you reach the trailhead.

The Trail

Be sure to bring the essentials with you, water, as there are no water sources along the trail, snacks and sunscreen. The trail starts steep, gaining 1,500 feet of elevation in the first two miles. It weaves its way back and forth through the old-growth forest. Western hemlocks, evergreens, and silver fir trees sprout toward the sky on either side of the trail as it switchbacks it’s way up the mountain. While quite steep, the trail is well maintained by the Whatcom Trails Association, providing a golden brown guide to the views ahead. After two miles, the trail begins to escape from the tree-line, opening into a vast few of the North Cascades.

As you reach the first knoll, luscious green and flower-filled meadows stretch for miles to either side as you follow the ridgeline upward. Mount Baker looks directly at you to the south, and to the east, Mt. Shuksan’s sharp peak points toward the sky. Here, the trail forks. To the left, campsites can be found for those looking to stay overnight. Day hikers continue right, officially stepping into the Mount Baker Wilderness, marked by a sign next to the trail. The trail from here ascends up gradual rolling knolls, a green flower filled “staircase” with two and half more miles to the summit. At the second knoll, another fork gives a decision, either a more difficult route that reaches a higher elevation to the left, or the more traveled path to the right. If you are in any doubt, stick to the right, amazing views will be provided no matter what

At the next knoll continue right to climb the final rollers ahead. Now Baker looms larger than life only three miles away. It’s snow-capped grace and glaciated face cooling the air. Here, traces of snow from the previous winter are abundant. A few sections even require a walk across a snow patch. Mount Baker Ski Area received 844 inches of total snowfall this season, which is almost 200 more inches than the average snowfall. This white blanket takes a while to melt off some of the higher hikes, so expect some snow to be on the trails until mid August.

As you summit the sixth and final knoll, you have finally made it to the top. At 6,563 feet, the views are breathtaking. Mount Ruth, Mount Challenger, American and Canadian Border Peaks and Church Mountain are just a few of the iconic peaks of the North Cascades that line the horizon.

Now, enjoy a snack, snap some pictures, and relax. The walk down will be hard on the knees, but the views from start to finish are worth coming back for.

If you’re interested in checking out other hikes in the area the following will not disappoint:

Church Mountain

Goat Mountain

Yellow Aster Butte

Chain Lakes Loop

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