My first taste of the North Cascades, and yes, they were delicious! I’m quite certain I will be going back for seconds...and even thirds.
While I would love to say that I was fulfilling the dream of a lifetime on this week long trip, that would be…not exactly correct. Up until last fall the North Cascades were never on my radar screen. Actually, a year ago, I doubt that I could have even named a dozen peaks in the North Cascades. The area never really garnered my attention. There were a few good reasons, first being the weather. The general belief here in the Midwest is that the weather in the Pacific Northwest sucks; cloudy and rainy ALL the time. Why would I want to spend a week hiking in an area that guaranteed lousy weather? Up until I looked through this album did I ever really stop to think that maybe the weather doesn’t suck ALL the time. Then there’s all that pesky snow! While it sure does add to the beauty of the mountains, I pretty much lack any snow travel skills. If you are looking for entertainment, just watch me try and walk across a snowfield. The song Slip Slidin’ Away comes to mind. I have just never had to think about acquiring snow travel skills, and my general belief was that peak bagging in the North Cascades guaranteed some mountaineering or at least some basic snow travel, so again, why would I want to go to the North Cascades? In all seriousness, the North Cascades never made my radar list because there were always just too many other beautiful places I had on my to do list. I only take one big trip a year out west and the wish list is long. I have yet to get to the Wind River Range or Glacier National Park, and I very much want to get back to the San Juans and spend a week in backcountry of the Weminuche Wilderness…amongst many others trips. I could go on and on, but one of those three areas were my primary objective for 2013.
But that all changed last fall, and no, it was not my idea, This trip was the brainchild of my son Andrew. He informed me that several of his friends were heading to see DMB at the Gorge Amphitheater on Labor Day weekend 2013. Apparently they had been talking about this for many years, dating back to their college days, and now Andrew was biting the bullet and making it happen. He suggested, “Why don’t we spend a week hiking in Washington, and then head to the Gorge?” I was a little reluctant at first, but eventually gave in, deciding that this would be a great way to spend my vacation; hike for seven days and finish up the week with a concert with my son and his friends. With that, the planning wheels started spinning!
But the planning initially was pretty overwhelming. The North Cascades are huge and I didn’t know much about the area so I was starting from scratch. Eventually I took the lazy approach and sent gimpilator a note asking for some recommendations. I was hoping to get a couple of suggestions. Instead I got a list with about 20 peaks. I also solicited ideas from Matt Lemke. Between the two of them I had enough info to get started on my research. I debated between backpacking and dayhiking as the options were endless! Finally, I decided that since this was my first trip to the North Cascades, maybe it would be best to just get a sampling of several areas. My son Andrew and his friend Andy would be hiking with me, and in the end we would spend two days together along the Mount Baker Scenic Byway and then three days in North Cascades National Park. After that we would part ways; they would head to the Gorge, and I would head to Salmon la Sac in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness for two days of hiking solo. It would be a wonderful week of dayhiking. The weather would be a mixed bag, but the scenery was nothing but gorgeous. Yes, I fell in love with the North Cascades! And as of this writing, odds are pretty good that is where I will be next August.
I owe a number of people thanks for making this trip happen as I had plenty of help in the planning stages. Gimpilator and Matt I’ve already mentioned. But several others answered a large number of questions regarding logistics, etc., including (but probably not limited to), Snidely Whiplash, ExcitableBoy, and Bill Reed. And of course my son Andrew! If he hadn’t made the original suggestion to head to Washington, I’m sure this trip report would be about an area completely different. So without further ado, Thank You!
I picked Yellow Aster Butte for our first hike on Sunday, and we wouldn’t be disappointed. By the end of the day we wondered if anything could possibly top it all week. That’s debatable! But from start to finish, Sunday would end up being the most perfect day of the entire trip.
I debated for quite a while whether or not to even spend time in the Mount Baker area. I wanted to focus our time on hiking and not on driving, and adding the area to the agenda would definitely add to the drive time. But in the end I decided I had to make the drive, for no other reason than I absolutely positively wanted to see Mount Shuksan. And on the hike to Yellow Aster Butte, I would get my wish. Shuksan - and Baker - would dominate the view (and thus the pictures in this TR).
We started Sunday morning in Bellingham. After flying into SeaTac on Saturday we headed to Bellingham for the night. An old friend lives there and we hadn’t seen each other in seven years, so we took him up on the offer to crash at his place. It made a great way to start the trip, with dinner down at the waterside, a soft bed, warm shower and a hot breakfast, plus plenty of time to catch up with old friends. I didn’t want to be rude and rush out considering their hospitality, but I did want to be on the road to the trailhead by 8 AM. Fortunately they are early risers, so all went well.
Yellow Aster Butte is essentially a walk up, so what follows is a photo trip report, other than a few nuggets of useful information thrown in (not necessarily climbing related).
The 4.5 mile drive up the gravel road was no problem. Our rental car was a “fake SUV” (Chevy Captiva), two wheel drive and 4 cylinders, and while the clearance may be slightly higher than a standard car the road was pretty well graded and I’m sure wouldn’t be a problem for any vehicle.
There were a number of cars at the trailhead. I had read that this was a popular hike, and considering it was Sunday, I figured the trail would be busy. The trail was busier than I care for, and this would be my only minor complaint for the day, but since I was expecting it I didn’t let it detract from the day. Sometimes you just have to deal with a crowded trail!
The scenery on this hike is stellar, from start to finish. You aren’t on the trail very long when you get the first views of Mount Baker. It only gets better as you move up the trail. At about 9 miles round trip, and maybe 2,500 feet of elevation gain, I couldn’t help but think this was way too easy of a hike for the volume of stellar scenery.
This was Andy’s first time in an alpine setting and he was blown away. Later he would tell me that he was expecting to see some incredible scenery, but this hike was way over the top and the scenery was so much more beautiful than he imagined it would be.
We stayed on the trail all the way to the false south summit and were pleased to see that this is where the majority of people appear to stop. There were at least three groups here and that’s where they stayed. The route over to the actual summit looked pretty straightforward and that’s where we headed - alone. Exposure was minimal all the way to just below the summit block. The last 25 vertical feet allowed for some fun scrambling and then we were at the top – one at a time. The summit block has enough room for one! And yes, the views are amazing.
We made it back to the south summit and once again found several groups of hikers content to just stop there - and take a group photo of us.
While the hike up Yellow Aster Butte was amazing, the good times for the day didn’t stop there. We were front country camping all week, so we headed to Douglas Fir where I had a riverside campsite reserved. One of the best front country sites I’ve ever had! We were camped right by the North Fork of the Nooksack River. The river was wide and loud. Perfect spot! We headed into Glacier, about three miles down the road, and bellied up to the bar for dinner at Graham's Restaurant (thanks Bill!). My kind of place! Good food, great cold beer, and the atmosphere inside the place was entertaining to say the least. Afterwards, we found the roadside self-serve firewood just west of town (thanks again Bill!) and made our way back to Douglas Fir where we enjoyed a good fire, several more cold ones, and the roar of the Nooksack River. A perfect ending to a perfect day.
We were only staying at Douglas Fir one night, so in the morning we broke camp and headed up the road to the Lake Ann trailhead. The good weather we enjoyed on Sunday would not accompany us on Monday. While it never rained, the cloud ceiling was pretty low and blocked some of the amazing scenery that I’m sure we missed. But as I learned last year on my day in the Holy Cross Wilderness, low lying clouds can sometimes present some amazing landscapes, and we would have a few of those this day.
Lake Ann was a late addition to the itinerary. Originally I had planned on bagging Hannegan Peak or Excelsior Peak, but I decided a hike with less elevation gain/loss was in order early on in the trip. A few months before, Andy injured his knee, ironically while training for the trip. I was worried that a lot of elevation loss early on would aggravate his knee and make for a tough week for him. So instead of going for a summit, I decided on a lake in an alpine setting. With the low lying clouds, it ended up being a better choice!
Unfortunately Mount Shuksan would never show her beautiful west face all day. And I assume there are great views of Mount Baker from this trail, but if that is true, we never saw even a glimpse of Baker. However, we did get some great views of Shuksan Arm, and the highlight of the day was the views we had of Lower Curtis Glacier.
We did the complete walk around the lake and stopped for some lunch. While here I had hoped to do some more exploring. In particular, the north ridge of Han Peak had interested me. It looked like gaining the ridge would be straightforward and then it would just be a matter of seeing if there was a route up the face. If not, from the topo map, it looked like it would be possible to just skirt around to the saddle and then continue up the standard route to the summit from there. Unfortunately it was a little late for side trips as we had a long drive ahead of us. We needed to get to Newhalem, where we would be camping for the next three nights. So we headed back to the trailhead, knowing that Han Peak would have to wait for another day.
Timing wise it was probably a good thing that we left when we did. Actually we should have left about 15 minutes earlier. By the time we made it to Newhalem it started to rain, which meant setting up a wet camp. And unfortunately the rain would stay with us for a good portion of our stay in North Cascades National Park, but we would still end up having an amazing couple of days…