Park Butte

Greg and I spent four days and five nights up around Mt. Baker last week. Our original plan had to been to go backpacking into Garibaldi Lake, which is south of Whistler, BC, and use it as base camp for day hikes up to Panorama Ridge and Black Tusk. But ten days before we were to depart, we checked trail updates and realized that this trip would be impossible with the monumental amount of unmelted snow around there. We looked into backpacking options in North Cascades National Park, but realized we would run into the same problems there. So we car camped and day hiked (although more than half the day hiking options were also under snow) and saw some AMAZING scenery.

The first day we hiked up to Park Butte. This is on the south side of Mt. Baker and is a doozy of a hike. 7.5 miles and 2,200 feet of elevation gain and 360 degree views at the top. We had read reports online that there were still parts of the trail under snow. I LOATHE hiking in snow. But this hike just sounded too spectacular to pass up, so we did it anyway, hoping for the best.

The trail starts out nice and easy and flat as it passes through Schriebers Meadow.

But before long, the trail begins a series of switchbacks and you climb up and up and up and up. Just past the two-mile mark, at 4,600 feet, you hit a big meadow. It’s very hard to picture what this meadow looks like in a normal summer. When we arrived, it was completely buried in snow. Yes, we hit solid snow at 4,600 feet. In late July. It boggles the mind.

We donned our gaiters and struggled across the meadow. We soon had awesome wiews of Mt. Baker looming to the north.

We followed the “trail” into an area of sparse trees where at least half a dozen different backpackers had found bare ground to set up camp. It soon became apparent that we were headed in the wrong direction, towards the Railroad Grade trail. So we turned back. When we approached a junction that we had sailed through earlier, I saw the two-foot-tall sign and pointed it out to Greg, noting aloud “Here’s the sign. We missed it earlier.” One of the hikers in a group that had just finished eating lunch there said, not apologetically, “Oh yeah, probably because I was sitting in front of it.” Uh yeah, ya think?

Despite the enormous popularity of this trail and the 30+ cars at the trailhead, not many people had braved the deep snow to head up to Park Butte recently. We completely lost the trail and just started heading cross country. We were in open meadow areas and we had the GPS and after awhile we could actually see the lookout atop Park Butte, so it wasn’t difficult to navigate. It was difficult, however, to walk. The snow was soft and unstable and the going was slow. The hardest part, though, was how bright it was. The midday sun reflected off all that white snow and I quickly ended up with a headache from squinting, even though I was wearing sunglasses.

Soon we were on the final push to the lookout.

Our timing could not have been better. Two other small groups of hikers started heading down from the lookout about ten minutes before we reached it. Later, when we left, we would pass a couple heading up there. But the whole time we spent up there, we had the place all to ourselves. Divine! And the views! These pictures simply don’t do it justice.

Mt. Baker is RIGHT THERE.

To the east are the high rugged mountains of North Cascades National Park. You can see a bit of Baker Lake down in that valley. That’s where we were camping.

To the south is Loomis Mountain (and although you can’t see it well in this pic, we could see the snowy mountains of the Glacier Peak Wilderness in that direction too).

To the west we could see Twin Sisters Mountain.

And to the northwest, our only snow-free view, the Middle Fork Nooksack River flowed away into the distance.

You can stay in the lookout; I don’t think you even need to make reservations. There was a logbook in there and I took a quick scan through it. I was astonished to see entries all throughout the winter. But I was saddened to see that most of the winter visitors arrived by snowmobile (although there were a few snowshoers). I find it hard to imagine enjoying this beautiful place when your mode of transportation is a loud obnoxious machine.

Here’s me and Greg at the lookout. You see that bare skin above my gaiters and below my shorts? Yeah, bad sunburn there. I don’t ever put sunblock on my legs because I don’t need to. But then, I never hike on snow either, which has amazing reflective qualities. I also got a slight burn on my face, another place I don’t put sunblock since I always wear a hat. But a hat does nothing for light reflecting off the snow beneath you! Doh!

After enjoying the stunning scenery, we made our back through the miles of snow.

Eventually we made it back to bare ground. I never thought I’d be so happy to see dirt. I will never again take it for granted! It’s easy to walk on and doesn’t blind me when I look at it!

Despite my aversion to snow and hiking in it, I’m glad we did this hike. The views are nothing short of spectacular.