There's more than a ski area at Mount Baker. Snow lovers flock to the end of Highway 542 for sledding, snowshoeing, backcountry skiing and more.

Just beyond the out-of-bounds rope marking the west boundary of the Mount Baker Ski Area, J.J. Rice of Bellingham shovels out a shelflike pit in the side of a snow bank. Just the other side of the rope, skiers and snowboarders zoom down the Blueberry Cat Track run, whooping and hollering while carving graceful S-curves in the snow.

Rice digs for a bit, then stops to study the snow. Digs for a bit, then stops to study. He’s trying to get a sense of the snow’s stability before he travels any farther beyond the out-of-bounds rope; a recent snowfall dropped about a foot and a half in the past two days. After about 10 minutes of digging, he likes what he sees.

“This looks perfect,” Rice says. “It’s nice and stable. Now that winter’s finally here, we can hit some good runs.”

On their backcountry skis, Rice and friends will hike up toward Table Mountain and, depending on visibility and snow conditions, drop down toward Bagley Lakes and eventually pop out near the Mount Baker Ski Area’s Heather Meadows Base parking lot. (That’s the upper base.) They’re among the dozens, sometimes hundreds, of folks you see every day in winter on snowshoes, backcountry skis, split snowboards and the like — heading up in the general direction of Table Mountain for free, earn-your-turns snow fun.

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“I must’ve come up here 50 times in the last two years,” says Anacortes’ Arlene Cook, taking a break during a snowshoe hike up toward Artist Point and Artist Ridge, about two miles (one-way) from the base parking lot. On clear days, it affords jaw-dropping views of Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan and seemingly every North Cascades ridge and valley.

Says Cook, while soaking in the view: “I used to hate winter, but not anymore.”

All-ages fun

But this snowy strip of winter nirvana just west of the Mount Baker Ski Area is a launchpad not just for the hard core and/or ambitious backcountry enthusiast. It’s definitely an all-ages, all-skill-levels snow-play venue. (Even no skills.) For lower down, nearer to the parking lot, it’s a snow playground perfect for building snow forts, or for sledding, snow tubing or just having Dad pull you around in the snow.

“Ahhh-ohhh-weee (or something like that)!” squeals 2-year-old Indy Philen, of Glacier, Whatcom County, giggling with delight as her dad makes like a sled dog, pulling her up a small snowy incline about 50 yards from the parking lot.

“This is her fourth time in the snow, and I think she’s just now starting to figure it out,” says proud papa Josh.

Just below the day lodge is an even bigger snow-play spot. Both Picture Lake and Highwood Lake — the ones that show up in the foreground of countless photo calendar shots of Mount Shuksan — fill with snow, their basins becoming giant snowy cereal bowls perfect for snow sliding.

One is likely to see all manner of sliding conveyance here: sleds, toboggans, plastic garbage bags, river kayaks, etc. It’s free, it’s fun as heck, and on weekends, if your fingers and toes become chilled or you’re a bit peckish, the day lodge and food concession are open and within walking distance.

Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham freelance writer and author of “Day Hike! North Cascades” (Sasquatch Books).

He can be reached at mikemcquaide@comcast.net.

His blog is mcqview.blogspot.com.