MOUNT BAKER — Minimal pain. Big gain.
Perched atop the historic fire-lookout tower on Park Butte and staring at Mount Baker’s frosty face under a cloudless blue sky in early August I realized I was in one of the more spectacular settings in the North Cascades, and I didn’t have to knock myself out to get there.
I’ve struggled to climb Sahale Arm at Cascade Pass, scratched and clawed my way up the snowfield to Spider Gap above Spider Meadow, and huffed and puffed up the steep trail to Snowy Lakes, north of Rainy Pass.
But the trail from Schreibers Meadow to Railroad Grade and the alpine playground that is Park Butte? It gives more than it takes.
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Other backpackers apparently share my enthusiasm.
The hike up the southern slope of the state’s third-highest peak draws 5,000-6,000 hikers and climbers each summer. Well-known to backpackers in Whatcom and Skagit counties and Canada, this high-country gem is also no secret to many Seattle-area hikers, who can make the easy drive to the trailhead in less than three hours.
“It has spectacular views,” said Rowena Watson, a North Cascades National Park employee with the Mount Baker Ranger District. “When you consider you can get close to a very active and dynamic glacier (Easton), and that it’s a pretty easy hike, you can see why it’s so popular. A lot of people take their kids on their first backpacking trip there.”
Baker in its glory
It took our group of 10 a little more than two hours to cruise through Schreibers Meadow, cross a steel bridge over Rocky Creek and power up steepening switchbacks and onto heather-and-blueberry bush-laden Upper Morovitz Meadow. This first leg of the trip represents a 1,200-foot elevation gain over a little more than two miles.
It’s here where you get your first full-on view of Baker and all its 10,781-foot-high glory. The meadow is a good place to stop, eat lunch, catch your breath and get ready for phase two – either straight ahead to the Park Butte lookout, or the path that veers right, up a stone stairway to Railroad Grade.
Railroad Grade, the west crest of a moraine created by the receding Easton Glacier, is aptly named. It follows a steady, uniform pitch up the mountain – like a railroad grade. The trail also is used as an approach to the summit. But backpackers shouldn’t be intimidated by the high-climbers. Take this narrow “railway to heaven” – but watch your step so you don’t fall off the sheer cliff and into the moraine – to even more spectacular sights.
We passed the campsites at lower Railroad Grade and climbed another 1,000 feet to the 5,500-foot high camp, where we would spend the night. While a few of us relaxed at camp, others in the group continued on another 1,000 feet up Railroad Grade to the base of Easton Glacier. A few of the really brave members of our group even jumped in a tarn with large chunks of ice.
Climb to the lookout
The highlight of the trip for me, however, would come the next day on our trip back. We returned to the fork in the trail at Upper Morovitz Meadow, stashed our backpacks, and made the one-mile ascent to the fire lookout tower at Park Butte.
The 1,000-foot climb is a thigh-burner at times, but certainly easier carrying a bottle of water or a light daypack. On the way, at the 4,800-foot level, is Cathedral Camp and the trail to Mazama Park. The trail steepens from this point to the lookout tower, which sits atop a pile of large boulders.
It’s a steep scramble up the rocks to the short stairs to the tower deck, and then – wow! To paraphrase Uncle Eddie in the movie “Christmas Vacation”: “It’s a butte, Clark!”
The panoramic views from the tower are breathtaking. Baker, looking like a giant scoop of ice cream, is in your face, its glaciers glistening in the sun. Looking due west from the “back deck” you see the red-tinted Twin Sisters Mountains and the Nooksack River Valley.
A step inside the tower, built in 1933, is a step back in time. I’ve always been fascinated by fire lookouts, wondering who used to spend their summers there and what they did with all that time on their hands. Old, faded maps of the area are spread out on a table. A “lightning stool” sits by the back window. The room includes a bed, and the log shows a couple from Chicago had slept there the previous night.
The lookout tower, which is maintained by the Skagit Alpine Club, is a popular overnight destination for backpackers. It’s first-come, first-served. The key is to arrive early in the day to claim your spot.
On the way down we took one of the myriad side trails that meander around Park Butte. We scampered through the alpine meadow, peered down at partially ice-covered Pocket Lake below, swam in a tarn that reflected snowy Mount Baker and basked in the afternoon sun. There were virtually no bugs the entire trip.
It wasn’t a surprise to see more backpackers heading up the trail — on a midweek day no less — as we returned to our cars. High usage concerns officials such as Watson, who has seen the growth in popularity at areas like Park Butte. She stresses that people need to respect fragile meadows that are snow-free only a few months of the year.
“Hiking is so much more popular than it used to be,” she said. “More young people in their late teens and early 20s are hiking now. I love to see that. But instead of closing down areas, we need to open up more areas, spread them out a little bit.”
As for me, I’ll return with the crowds to Park Butte.
Rick Lund of Skagit County is a Seattle Times page designer.