Ever since I moved to Washington I have had my sights set on Mount Baker. I have been monitoring the trail conditions but disappointed because most of the trailheads in the area are still inaccessible due to snow. Then I spotted Church Mountain that was partially clear of snow and the road open up to 1 mile from the trailhead. The hike had what I considered a nice mix of forest hiking, meadows and then ridgeline scrambling. It was stated to have 3rd and 4th class section which is just the right amount of challenge I was looking for. Plus Sunday seemed like a good day for Church. Plans were set and away we went to hike my first mountain in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.
Chris at his house at 8 am on Sunday, July 6 2008. We load up into his pickup truck and head off towards Mount Baker. The drive starts off going through farmland as the forests get progressively thicker and more lush. It is overcast but supposed to clear up later in the day. In the PNW you are just happy as long as it is not raining. We did manage to get a few quick glimpses of Church Mountain on our drive and did not see much snow viewing from the south. At one point the mountain and it’s ridge stands out starkly in front of us with dominance and reverence. I always feel intimidation when looking at the peak of a mountain from its base. It always amazes me that the peak is accessible via a dayhike when it appears so far and high above me. We stop in the Glacier Public Service Center to ask a few questions regarding access and conditions. The Ranger was friendly but didn’t provide any more information that we obtained online. The road was clear up to 1 mile from the trailhead where Fossil Creek washed out the road. He did find in the log book that previous hikers said the trail was cleared of fallen trees up to the meadows, which was good news. He did not know much regarding how much snow we would encounter. One quick confirmation between Chris and I and we agree to go ahead with our plans and head out for the trailhead.
The road to the trailhead (well, technically 1 mile from the trailhead) was in pretty good shape except for 2 small washouts. We did see that a minivan made it in and Chris’ low clearance truck had no issues so I would think most vehicles should be able to get in. We park at the newly formed trailhead (note, you don’t need the Forest Pass to park here) and we start hiking. We crossed the washout portion of the road (which could be navigated in a 4x4 in my opinion) and make quick time of the 1 mile to the trailhead. From there, the trail continues on the same overgrown logging road through a previously logged area (logged in 1925 and you can hardly tell). After approx. another mile the trail enters original growth forest. The trees are amazing and the flora lush and green. A fog envelops us giving everything a tropical rain forest like feeling. After another mile or so we come out of the forest and enter the meadows. All at once so much comes into view and our questions regarding conditions and snow levels are immediately answered. The answer being that there is snow, lots of it, but some of the steeper slopes are snow free and the south side of the ridge is basically snow free as well.
We get our bearings and start hiking through the meadows up towards the upper switchbacks that we can see near the summit. There is no hope in following the trail now so we basically pick the best route and roughly follow the trail shown in my GPS. Soon we join the switchbacks and hike in and out of snow and mud. Where the snow has melted carpets of delicate wildflowers and lush green plants are springing to life. In another month or so this trail is going to be spectacularly blanketed with wildflowers. The switchbacks go in and out of snow and definitely become more spectacular and lush as we gain elevation. The final switchback before the scramble to the lookout was my favorite, loaded with wildflowers of every color of the rainbow. Soon we encounter the remains of the lookout (or possible storage shed) and climb a steep little ridge using a steel cable as a handhold. A few minutes later we are on top of the previous lookout site. The views are not that great, but getting to this point rewarding nonetheless.
Traverse from Lookout to Church Mountain
We hiked just under 4000' elevation gain and 4 miles to reach Church Mountain Lookout. This is as far as the maps show the trail, and most guide books only explain the trail up to the lookout and not beyond, obviously leaving out the best part! It had started to sprinkle, the fog was coming in and the heavy snow conditions made the traverse to the true summit more intimidating that it really was. I was actually not confident that we were going to summit, even though we had plenty of time. From the lookout Chris evaluated his options and went wide and loss some elevation and took the snow field and stayed north of the ridge and rocks. I also evaluated and come up with a different plan and went due west along the ridge following what appeared to be a scrambler's trail (when it was not covered in snow). There were several areas that I had to cross the steep snow field requiring the removal and stowing of the ice axe many times. Along this first section we stayed on the north side of the ridge until we rounded the last Gendarme and then headed over on the south side. This is really the only logical route. From there we traversed west on the south side of the ridge through a steep gully and stayed low (a few places even lower than usually necessary to drop below the tongues of snow and ice) for approx. 0.1 miles until you see a larger gulley heading north and slightly east (to your right). We followed this to the notch in the summit ridge and encountered what I would consider the only 4th class section (possibly only 3rd class, I am not sure). We left our packs here and after a short 20' scramble we were back on the ridge. We followed the ridge for a while thinking that the next high point was the summit, but it wasn't and then we noticed the scrambler’s trail to the north. We dropped down a little and followed this trail along the ridge (popping up to soon for another false summit) until we reached the true summit with summit cairn and 2 USGS Summit markers. Dow Williams' route page has the route description down pretty good.
Unfortunately the summit had totally fogged in and we could not see much but whiteness. A view through the fog of Kidney Lake to the north appeared from time to time, with a bright blue perfect kidney shaped border around ice and snow. We imagined the views that could be had on a clear day and discussed how the mountains feel so much smaller when fogged in. We did not hang around long and then returned the way we came, this time following the scrambler’s trail to the north of the ridge all the way to the 4th class section (did not summit any of the false summits). Our descent was uneventful. We met several other groups on their way up, some looking to summit as well, others just hiking up to the snow line. We were back at the truck by around 3:30 pm for a total of ~ 6.5 hours, 11.5 miles and just under 5000 feet elevation gain. A great hike! Each section of the hike seemed to have its own unique and totally beautiful micro climate, starting with the younger forest hiking along the logging road, then into the original growth forest, out into the meadows and then the rocky ridge scrambling.
Maps and Information:
Download GPS Track in .gpx format
Download GPS Track in Google Earth .kmz format
MANY MORE PHOTOS
Links and History:
Great list of the flora seen during this hike
The following exerpt is taken from "Lookouts: Firewatchers of the Cascades and Olympics" by IRA Srping and Byron Fish. Summary with photos from Google Books
Church Mountain, near the western boundary of the national forest between Nooksack River and the Canadian border, has several summit, the highest of which is 6,315 ft. The lookout, a cupola-type put up in 1928, was on the rocky top of a 6000-foot peak. In addition, there was a trail and a telephone line to West Church Mountain, elevation 5,610 feet, which provided the lookout with another vantage point if he needed.
What he saw was the Nooksack Valley stretched out east to west, the town of Glacier almost 1 vertical mile below, and a ring of mountains - the Sisters, Mount Baker, Shuksan, Icy, Ruth and the Border Peaks. Down the north side were the two Kidney lakes, buried under snow until August.
Keeping a building on Church Mountain was a problem. Heavy snow loaded it down and ice built up on the supporting cables until is almost collapsed the structure. When the cables were loosened, the building shifted on its foundations.
Actually, the same problems existed at many a cabin that had to be guyed in place. The laws of physics can be a nuisance. Wood (as in building) expands in damp weather and shrinks when it dried . Steel (as in cable) contracts in cold temperatures and expands when it is hot.
Tensions had to be adjusted for the season, and it was not a job to be entrusted to a novice. With one material expanding and the other contracting under conditions that could range from sub-zero ti plus-100-degree temperatures, setting the correct tension was somewhat akin to tuning a violin.
The lookout on Church Mountain was removed in 1967, and thirty years later a half collapsed storage shed and an outhouse are all that remain. The site is fairly clean, but rusting cables and hunks of metal still dangle from were they were shoved over the Cliffside. The 4 steep miles of trail climb the south side of the mountain.