Health & Wellness: Fall hikes in Whatcom County worth the drive

Published on Thu, Sep 13, 2012 by Aubrey Laurence

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North Cascades summits aren’t unattainable to lightly equipped day hikers with tight schedules and high expectations.

If you want to experience a few of the most jaw-dropping vistas in the North Cascades, yet lack the time, technical skills or stamina that many peaks in this region require, you still have options. Read on for three low-effort, high-reward summit hikes – relatively short hikes (within a few hours of Blaine) with awesome summit views.

Sauk Mountain
Round-trip distance: 4.2 miles
Elevation: 5,537 feet
Total elevation gain: 1,200 feet

Most hikes in the North Cascades begin under a canopy of conifers, but this one begins with wide-open views of the Skagit River valley – right from the parking lot.

Not far into the hike, a narrow path ascends via a dizzying number of switchbacks, but they’re short. None of the trail is overly exposed, but you will need to watch your footing in a few sections.

After winding around the mountain up to the summit ridge, you’ll arrive at the site of a former fire lookout. This is where most hikers stop to soak in the views. The true summit is only a short distance away and a few feet higher, but it requires a sketchy and exposed scramble. 

No matter where you turn around, you’ll find expansive views from all points along the summit ridge. On clear days you’ll be able to see Mt. Baker, the Pickets, Glacier Peak, Mt. Rainier, the Olympics, the San Juan islands and much more. And when you realize that all this eye candy cost you a mere two miles and 1,200 vertical feet, you may even feel a bit guilty about it. Or not.

On your way back down, be careful to not take the spur trail down to Sauk Lake, unless that is your intention.

Directions: From I-5, drive east on State Route 20 (North Cascades Highway) past Concrete, then turn left onto Forest Road 1030 (Sauk Mountain Road). Drive up FR 1030 for a little more than seven miles and take a side road to the right, and then continue up that road for about a quarter mile to the trailhead parking area. A Northwest Forest Pass (or America the Beautiful Interagency/National Parks Annual Pass) is required.

Winchester Mountain
Round-trip distance: 3.5 miles
Elevation: 6,521 feet
Total elevation gain: 1,300 feet

This short, relatively easy hike offers some of the finest views around, which is probably why it’s so popular. Plan on going early to beat the traffic up the narrow road and the crowds on the trail. 

The trail starts in between the Twin Lakes, and in no time it begins climbing a steepening slope of evergreens, tall grass and wildflowers.

If you become enamored by the scenery at the beginning of this hike, you’ll be happy to know that the views continue to improve with each step you ascend.

The hardest part of the route is where the trail traverses a steep slope up to a rocky ridge, right before switchbacking up the southwest side of the mountain. As you approach this point, it will look worse than it really is. Just take it slowly and step carefully.

Before you know it you’ll reach the summit, which is home to a restored fire lookout thanks to the Mt. Baker Club.

Saunter around the lookout cabin and enjoy the intimate views of Tomyhoi Peak, American Border Peak, Mt. Larrabee, the Pleiades, Mt. Shuksan, Mt. Baker and countless peaks to the east. You’ll also have a commanding view of the turquoise-hued Twin Lakes directly below.

Directions: From Bellingham, take State Route 542 (Mt. Baker Highway) east. About 13 miles past Glacier, turn left onto Forest Road 3065 (Twin Lakes Road), which is just past a department of transportation building. Immediately angle left, staying on FR 3065. After about 4.5 miles, you’ll pass the Yellow Aster Butte trailhead parking area at a sharp switchback, and if you have 4WD, a high-clearance vehicle or a low-clearance 2WD vehicle that you don’t care much about, you should be able to make it all the way up another 2.5 miles to the Twin Lakes area. Sometimes snowdrifts and/or fallen trees block the road, so check conditions before you go. A Northwest Forest Pass (or America the Beautiful Interagency/National Parks Annual Pass) is required.

Skyline Divide
Round-trip distance: 4-9 miles
Elevation: 5,800 to 6,563 feet
Total elevation gain: 1,500-2,500 feet

Skyline Divide may not be a proper mountain, but once you gain this ridge, you’ll surely feel like you’re on top of one. 

As you break out of the woods and onto the ridge, just two miles and 1,500 feet of elevation beyond the trailhead, you’ll pop out onto an idyllic alpine meadow. A gentle hill up to the left makes the perfect place to stop and picnic while viewing Mt. Shuksan, Mt. Baker and seemingly countless other peaks in every direction.

On the other hand, if you turn to the right after gaining the ridge and then follow the path along the undulating ridge all the way to Point 6563 and back, you will gain another 2,500 feet of elevation and hike about nine miles total. And for that extra effort, you will be rewarded with increasingly dramatic views of Mt. Baker’s north face.

Directions: From Bellingham, take State Route 542 (Mt. Baker Highway) east. About a mile past Glacier, take a right onto Forest Road 39 (Glacier Creek Road), and then take an immediate left onto Forest Road 37. Follow this gravel road for almost 13 miles to the trailhead parking lot at the end of the road. A Northwest Forest Pass (or America the Beautiful Interagency/National Parks Annual Pass) is required. 

Aubrey Laurence has climbed hundreds of mountains throughout the U.S. and in a half-dozen countries. Beyond his passion for the mountains, he is an avid traveler, photographer and homebrewer.