Snowshoeing to Artist Point ahead of the big melt
May 25, 2023 at 5:00 a.m.
The first summer hike in the North Cascades involved snowshoes.
I could no longer wait for the big melt of late July after being relegated to winter outings along the Salish Sea. I missed the mountains.
Sorry, Chuckanuts. Love the off-season jaunts among the cedar, pine, hemlock and firs. But the craggy Cascadian peaks are the main attraction around here.
These past weeks have been too beautiful to wait until June to dust off the microspikes and peck my way to Excelsior Peak or other snowy destinations above Mount Baker Highway.
On a recent Friday, I loaded my winter pack with extra layers of fabric I would not need and drove to Heather Meadows.
The Mt. Baker Ski Area closed in April, but it hasn’t stopped snow hounds from taking advantage of fine weather and thick piles of the fleecy stuff that appeals to winter sports enthusiasts.
Snowboarders and Nordic skiers strapped equipment on their backs and huffed up the slopes for the cheap thrill of streaking down. Then there were the snowshoers plowing through drifts like Arctic foxes.
The mountain had a friendly vibe because no matter the activity, we were of like minds: embrace the final weeks of a winter wonderland that soon would become earthen paths treaded by hordes of hikers.
I met snowshoer Rick as he descended the steepest section above the Heather Meadows Visitor Center. Rick sounded in great spirits, saying he encountered only one other person at Artist Point earlier in the morning.
The beauty of snowshoeing is not just the spellbinding scenes of virgin snowfields, the brisk alpine air and front-row seats to Mounts Shuksan and Baker.
It’s the solitude. Only dedicated recreationists drive up the mountain to spend a day in the slippery world of snow and ice.
Rick suddenly pointed to the Herman Saddle along the Chain Lakes Loop trail, one of Artist Point’s most popular hikes. Snowshoers and skiers trek to the saddle and then drop into the bowl that flows into Upper Bagley Lake, he said, as if it’s not a big deal.
“Really?” I asked, nonplussed.
I was winded on my first climb of the season, praying I’d make it up the monster slope where we stood. The idea of continuing from Artist Point along the Chain Lakes Loop back down to the Bagley Lakes did not seem plausible.
I knew about going to Huntoon Point, about 0.7 of a mile from the Artist Point parking lot. But the idea of looping around Table Mountain sounded challenging for a day of snowshoeing.
The notion of such an adventure reminded me that all backcountry users should check with the Northwest Avalanche Center before heading into the wintery wilderness. Treat the area as backcountry once the 1,000-acre ski resort closes for the season because no one is patrolling it. Even the heavily trafficked route to Artist Point traverses avalanche terrain.
The Washington Trails Association report warns the cirque that Rick pointed out is avalanche-prone. The routes to the Bagley Lakes from the parking lot or visitor center are also exposed to avalanches.
Snowshoeing isn’t foremost on the mind of most local winter fanatics. Whatcom County is known for the Mt. Baker Ski Area, an early adopter of snowboarding but also popular among skiers.
Still, Nordic types have plenty of options. The Nooksack Nordic Ski Club has local intel for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Club members welcome shoers but ask they avoid trampling groomed skate lanes.
Save these destinations for next winter: Salmon Ridge SnoPark, located at mile 46 on Mount Baker Highway; Hannegan Pass Road, just west of the SnoPark and White Salmon Road between mile markers 51 and 52.
Artist Point is by far the premier location. The climb to the Point starts at 4,200 feet, which means it has a deep snow cover from November through June. The ascent is about 1,000 feet — not much compared to elevation gains of 2,000-4,000 feet on many of our summer trails.
Yet, it felt like a mountaineering trek along the staircase route that loosely follows the lung-busting Wild Goose section of the Chain Lakes trail. It didn’t help I hadn’t shoed this past winter, or the uncommonly hot days of May turned the trail into something resembling cold, creamy polenta.
As I scrambled upward, everyone along the way said, “Follow the markings in the snow.” Skiers and shoers had paved a path to the top. It’s difficult to get lost above the treeline where everything is open.
I stopped to gaze at Shuksan and the Skagit Range featuring American Border Peak and Mount Larrabee. I used the vistas as an excuse to rest. After all, the entire white landscape provided 360-degree blissful views.
Snowshoe markings around a gully led me to tracks that ascended like an escalator. Only on my way back did I discover a gentler climb 50 yards from where I took off.
I made it up the steep slope despite slipping a few times. Once on the snowcat track, I found the cairn marker for the Wild Goose Trail and made my way to the top.
A few other wanderers tiptoed around Artist Point. Otherwise, I had the place to myself. I inhaled a turkey sandwich in seclusion as a breeze tickled my soul.
I still had to hack my way to the parking lot. The old saw, “All downhill from here,” did not apply to the task ahead of me. I just don’t care for descents. I want to blame it on aging, but friends have evidence of my inexpert alpine skiing.
As I crept down the long, steep section, a visitor from Richmond, British Columbia, cheerfully barreled past in boots made for a night out. She didn’t bother with poles.
I eventually reached the car after 5 miles of snowy splendor.
The summer kickoff went better than planned. It often provides lasting memories, if for no other reason than the revolt of thigh muscles.
Mostly it is a transitional moment to celebrate the last imprint of winter as the sun’s warmth signals longer days and a promise for happy trails.
Rejoice. The lazy, hibernal months are behind us.