With the hiking season in the higher Cascades elevations nearing its end, a series of trails around Artist Point and Heather Meadows beckon with the promise of varied scenery and a degree of physical challenge that ranges from easy to highly strenuous.
All these hikes revolve around the Chain Lakes Trail, a more or less circular route that boasts sweeping views of Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan, steep rocky switchbacks, colorful wildflower meadows and pastoral valleys dotted with blue-green subalpine lakes.
Within a few weeks, the area is sure to be covered in snow and inaccessible to all but the most confident and determined hikers. But summer is lingering with the recent sunny weather, although overnight temperatures that were near freezing this week may doom the remaining wildflowers before long.
Many people are drawn to the Chain Lakes Trail because of its changing scenery, said Mary Beth Phelan, a volunteer at the U.S. Forest Service station in Glacier.
"There's so much contrast that someone is exposed to on that hike - which is very nice," Phelan said.
She said most of the route is snow-free, but three snow bridges remain in the Bagley Lakes area near the Heather Meadows visitor center and there's a 100-yard patch of snow near the section that passes Table Mountain. All snow patches on the trail are easily crossed - including one section that hikers can walk under.
Still, Phelan advised hikers to use caution, traversing snow patches on the downhill side and using a "kick step" for traction on slippery slopes. Carry hiking poles for stability and turn around if you don't feel confident about the crossing, she said.
"For people who have a lot of comfort on snow, it's not a big deal," Phelan said.
Obtain a trail map at the Glacier Public Service Center, just east of Glacier on the Mount Baker Highway, or at the Heather Meadows visitor center near milepost 56 on the Mount Baker Highway. Visitors can buy the required day-use or annual pass at the Glacier station, which also has clean restrooms and a small visitor center that features a relief map of the area and natural history displays aimed at children. There are only pit toilets at Heather Meadows, but the center itself is a piece of history, built in the 1940s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Both centers are open daily through the end of the month: 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. for Glacier and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. for Heather Meadows. For more information, call the Glacier Center at 360-599-2714.
? For families with very small children, start your hike at the Bagley Lakes Trailhead, taking the Chain Lakes Trail across the dam to the right. The easy half-mile route follows Bagley Creek to a stone bridge. Go left at the bridge, following the trail uphill for a side trip to the Heather Meadows center, or continue back upstream on the Bagley Lakes Trail toward the parking area. The creek is cold but inviting for small children, and the trail features wildflowers, small patches of ripe wild blueberries, and views of the glaciers atop Mount Shuksan. Also of interest are several outcroppings of a black igneous rock called andesite, which forms hexagonal columns.
? For a more moderate hike of about 6.5 miles, start at Artist Point and follow the Chain Lakes Trail across Table Mountain, descending about 800 feet into a valley dotted with lakes. Mount Baker rises to the south, an imposing vista. Overnight camping is allowed here in designated sites only on a first-come, first-served basis.
If hiking through, follow the trail between Iceberg Lake and Galena Lake uphill to Herman Saddle, and then downhill three miles to the stone bridge across Bagley Creek and going uphill to the Heather Meadows center. Here, you'll have a short but seriously glute-busting hike on the Wild Goose Trail back to the Artist Point parking lot.
Portions of the Wild Goose Trail are snow-covered and many people prefer to hitch-hike back to the parking area from here. Alternately, you could rest and send a single member of the hiking party uphill for your car.
? The longest and most strenuous combination of hikes - some nine miles in all - starts from the Bagley Lakes Trailhead. Keep right across the dam and right again at the stone bridge, ascending a rock-strewn ravine below Table Mountain. There's rushing water and shallow creek crossings the entire way up to Herman Saddle, where you'll get your first glimpse of Mount Baker in the distance and Iceberg Lake in the valley below. Descend into the this natural bowl, ascending about 800 feet on the other side and traversing along Table Mountain to the Artist Point Parking lot. Locate the Wild Goose Trail near the restrooms and descend to Heather Meadows, following either the Lower Wild Goose Trail or the Bagley Lakes Trail back to the Bagley Lakes Trailhead.
Robert Mittendorf is a Herald copy editor and page designer. Suggest your ideas for local family-friendly events, hikes or day trips at 360-756-2805 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.