Even as many popular hiking trails in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest remain snowbound, summer has arrived on the south-facing slopes, where a month of sunshine has wildflowers in full bloom across the alpine meadows.
That's especially true for Church Mountain, a 6,315-foot ridge with a steeplelike spire that towers over the North Fork Valley just east of Glacier.
"There's lots of wildflowers," said Ali Canales, a U.S. Forest Service ranger at the Glacier Public Service Center. "They're just gorgeous."
Canales said she hiked the trail recently and conditions were good. Other hikers have made similar observations, she said.
"That's a good one right now," Canales said. "Church Mountain is pretty much snow-free to the meadows, then there's patchy snow from the meadows to the summit."
Travelers should take care on the edge of snow patches and when there's running water under snow, she said.
In addition to wildflowers, the summit offers a sweeping view of Mount Shuksan, Mount Baker and the Sisters - the region's most impressive mountain peaks.
But the lure of beauty comes with a price. This hike is not for the faint of heart.
Ken Wilcox's definitive "Hiking Whatcom County" gives it four footprints, indicating the most difficult of hikes - and that's not an exaggeration.
"It's a death march," a friend of mine once said. "Yeah, a death march."
But oh, the view!
From the old fire lookout site, removed in the 1970s, you'll enjoy a dizzying panorama of the North Fork Valley and Mount Baker Highway below. Just below, on the snow-swirled north face, are blue-green tarns called the Kidney Lakes.
Your nine-mile, round-trip trek starts with a seemingly endless series of switchbacks through deep forest canopy, gaining about 1,000 feet every mile. Total elevation gain is about 4,500 feet from the trailhead parking area.
After about three miles, the trail opens into mountain meadows, skirting the lush green hillsides. Be sure to turn around and catch your first glimpse of Mount Baker's snow-covered cone.
Just below the trail's end it's a moderately easy scramble up the last few yards to the lookout site. The actual peak, a few hundred yards to the west, is said to be a technical climb and should not be attempted without proper training and mountaineering equipment. Keep children close; a fall from the lookout site could prove fatal.
Be careful of crumbling rock, especially on your descent. I used an old wire cable embedded in the rock for stability.
Bring extra food and water and carry good insect repellant. Bugs can be pesky, especially in the meadows and swampy areas near Deerhorn Creek. This hike could take six hours or more, depending on your stamina and how long you decide to remain at the top.
Later in the afternoon, on a sunny day, the alpine light is wondrous.
The Church Mountain trailhead is about 21/2 miles up Forest Service Road 3040 (East Church Mountain Road), which is on the left about 51/2 miles past the Glacier Public Service Center - a U.S. Forest Service ranger station just east of Glacier on Mount Baker Highway.
About 2 miles up the road crosses Fossil Creek. A recent trail report at fs.usda.gov/mbs/ advises that the road is not recommended for very-low clearance vehicles. I've crossed it with ease in an old Toyota FJ-40 and in my wife's Subaru Outback. According to the website kulshan.com, hikers have found seabed deposits, including the occasional trilobite, at the creek crossing.
A recent construction project in the vicinity of the Road 3040 turnoff could delay your trip by about 30 minutes, depending on where the road is blocked on the day of your visit.
There's a pit toilet at the trailhead. A Northwest Forest Pass or day-use pass is required. Both can be obtained at the Glacier ranger station.
Because this is such a long hike, and the trailhead is so far from the nearest refreshment, I keep snacks and well-chilled drinks in a cooler at my car, or a camp stove and preparations for coffee, depending on the weather.
ROBERT MITTENDORF is a Herald copy editor and page designer. Suggest your ideas for local family-friendly events or day trips at 360-756-2805 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.