Winter Hikes: Baker River, An Immersion in Green

Here's a great option for a lowlands winter hike in the North Cascades from a new guide book. Hiking Mt. Baker & The North Cascades by John D'Onofrio is not your typical hiking guide. In addition to providing information to navigate the trails, this book focuses on the inspiring beauty to be found on these extraordinary footpaths. More than a book to tell you how to get to these spectacular destinations, this book tells you why to go. Join us at Village Books Friday December 8 at 6 pm to celebrate the launch of D'Onofrio's new book with a beautiful slideshow and tales from the trails >> more info!

Springtime settles over the valley of the Baker River like a luminous mossy dream. The Baker River Trail offers visitors a master class in the color green: the lush rain forest is a thousand shades of verdure. The air itself seems green. It’s a tangled world of twisted branches, contorted roots, and the hypnotic swaying of old man’s beard draped from the gnarled limbs of age-old cedar and hemlock, the patriarchs of the north woods.

Water is everywhere, ingeniously making its way down the valley walls in a thousand streams and cascades. The roar of distant waterfalls high on unseen cliffs provides an impressive counterpoint to the lively water music of the river. Here and there, you’ll get glimpses of snow dappled rock faces a thousand feet above the clear river, drifting in and out of the mists.

The exploring here is easy as the trail provides mostly smooth sailing through the green forest (except for a short bit of scrambling where a bridge crossing Lake Creek washed out a few years back), ending at the moss and fern gardens beside Sulphide Creek. Depending on the level of the creek, you can rock hop upstream to obtain distant glimpses of the Sulphide Glacier on nearby Mt. Shuksan. The creek itself is a thing of beauty, boisterous, cold and crystal clear.

Sometimes you can hike here in the dead of winter when the high country is buried in snow—the maximum elevation is only 275 meters (900 feet) above sea level. It’s a rare taste of low-elevation wilderness and a great way to spend a languid—and colorful— afternoon.

Hike Description:

Find the well-marked trailhead at the end of the Baker Lake road—there’s a large parking area with an outhouse as well as a few informal campsites. If you arrive late you can spend the night here and be on the trail at first light. Head upriver on the old roadbed, the going is smooth and easy. At 1 kilometer (.6 mile) you’ll arrive at a junction. The Baker Lake Trail turns right and crosses an impressive suspension bridge over the Baker River. For the Baker River Trail, stay straight, but by all means, detour out to the middle of the bridge and have a look at this wild northern river. Sometimes water ouzels can be seen doing their underwater gymnastics in the cold, clear river among the tumbling water, polished rocks and dancing reflections.

The Baker River Trail continues up the river, gradually moving away from the water through the vibrant green rain forest. Mosses dominate the trailside scenery, covering the ground and hanging in curtains from the venerable trees.

Cross a side creek on a re-routed section of trail that requires scrambling down a steep bank, weaving your way through fallen trees, and climbing up the other side. When the water is high, this crossing can be difficult, or occasionally, impossible. Continue through alder and vine maple and skirt a complicated bog, the work of ambitious beavers. Just past the pond, you’ll enter North Cascades National Park.

Wind through the vibrant forest, catching glimpses of peaks and waterfalls until the trail dead-ends at Sulphide Creek, 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the road. There are a few campsites back in the woods. If you want to camp here you’ll need a permit.

Day Hike or Backpack

Difficulty: 1
Wow Factor: 2
Distance: 8 kilometers/5 miles
RT Elevation Gain: 90 meters/300 feet
Pros: This delightful rainforest walk is a great choice when the highlands are buried in snow.
Cons: Can be muddy. A creek crossing may pose problems.

ACCESS: From the North Cascades Highway (WA-20), turn north on the Baker Lake Road near milepost 82. Follow the Baker Lake Road (FS-11) north for 42 kilometers (26 miles) to its end at a large parking lot. The trailhead is obvious, wide and well marked.

PERMITS: A Federal Recreation Pass is required.

BACKPACKING CAMPS: There are two established campsites (and a mountain toilet) within North Cascades National Park at the end of the trail near Sulphide Creek. A free Backcountry Camping Permit is required, and must be picked up in person at the North Cascades National Park office on WA-20 in Sedro-Woolley.

ADMINISTRATION: Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Mount Baker Ranger District, North Cascades National Park

Text and photos by John D’Onofrio, a writer and photographer who has spent 40 years exploring the Mt. Baker area and the North Cascades. He is the co-author (with Todd Warger) of Images of America: Mt. Baker (Arcadia Publishing) and his essays on wilderness travel have been published in numerous national and regional magazines. His photography has been exhibited throughout the United States, widely published, and utilized by the U.S. Park Service, Forest Service, North Cascades Institute, and the National Parks Foundation. A resident of Bellingham, WA, he has published and edited Adventures Northwest Magazine since 2012.

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