Springtime in the Northwest means melting snow in the mountains, streams rushing with cold, clear water and showery days warmed by the occasional sun break. Trees sprout new leaves, flowers appear and the days grow noticeably longer. For families with children of any age, it's a time to reconnect with nature, to truly appreciate the beauty of the region we call home.
Even as many popular trails in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest remain snowbound in late spring and early summer, adventurous families, whose children are up to the challenge of a strenuous hike, will find satisfaction on the Church Mountain and Heliotrope Ridge trails.
Both rise sharply into the slopes above the Mount Baker Highway just east of Glacier, with steep sections that test the glutes. Snow may linger on the trails and creek crossings can pose a challenge early in the season; it's best to call for current conditions at the Glacier Public Service Center, 360-599-2714.
Travelers also should take care on the edge of snow patches and when there's running water under snow.
There's a pit toilet at both trailheads. A $30 seasonal Northwest Forest Pass or $5 day-use pass is required. Both can be obtained at the Glacier ranger station, located near milepost 34 east of Glacier on the Mount Baker Highway.
Church Mountain, a 6,315-foot ridge with a steeple-like spire that towers over the North Fork Valley, offers a sweeping view of Mount Shuksan, Mount Baker and the Sisters - the region's most impressive mountain peaks.
Heliotrope Ridge, an approach used by climbers who plan to summit Mount Baker, will bring hikers close to the Coleman Glacier and on clear days gives a stunning view of Mount Baker.
But the lure of beauty comes with a price. These hikes are not for the faint of heart. Ken Wilcox's definitive "Hiking Whatcom County" gives them four footprints, indicating the most difficult.
Church Mountain's 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 that are strewn with wildflowers in spring and summer. 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 an old fire lookout site, removed in the 1970s, to enjoy a dizzying panorama of the North Fork Valley and the Mount Baker Highway below. Just below the lookout, on the snow-swirled north face, are blue-green tarns called the Kidney Lakes.
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.
The Church Mountain trailhead is about 2 1/2 miles up Forest Service Road 3040 (East Church Mountain Road), which is on the left about 51/2 miles past the Glacier ranger station.
About 2 miles up, the road crosses Fossil Creek, which usually is passable. It the road is flooded, park here and walk about a mile to the trailhead.
Because this is such a long hike, and the trailhead is so far from the nearest refreshment, we keep snacks and well-chilled drinks in a cooler at our car, or a camp stove and preparations for hot cocoa and coffee, depending on the weather.
If you enjoy Artist Point for its view of Mount Baker, you'll swoon at the sight of the 10,781-foot volcanic dome from Heliotrope Ridge. At the top of the 5-mile round-trip route you'll be face to face with Coleman Glacier, gazing in awe at the its blue ice crevasses, surrounded by high meadows painted in a mosaic of white, orange, purple and yellow wildflowers. Snowmelt-fed waterfalls cascade over rocky ledges.
The steep route with its occasionally dicey creek fords also requires a bit of stamina and might be too tough for tykes. Fit and adventurous parents, however, can tote a baby or toddler in a backpack.
To get to Heliotrope Ridge, take Mount Baker Highway east from Bellingham to Glacier. Continue east on Mount Baker Highway less than a mile to Glacier Creek Road on the right. Drive about eight miles along a narrow, curvy road to the trailhead. Watch out for potholes. Parking at the trailhead is plentiful, but the lot can be crowded by noon.
The trail starts in dense forest of hemlock, cedar and fir, climbing sharply at times and often skirting the edge of steep ravines. If you attempt the hike with younger children, keep an eye on them.
After about a mile, you will encounter the first creek crossing at the base of a bridal-veil waterfall - a good spot for a short rest and to let the kids play in the water. Continue another mile until the trees start to thin, offering glimpses of the snowy peaks and flower-filled meadows.
Around the 2-mile mark, the trail splits. Keep a sharp eye out for the marker sign, because it blends in with the foliage and the cutoff is easy to miss.
To the right is the climbers' route, a steep half-mile scramble to Coleman Glacier. To the left is an easier route to a lateral moraine - rocky debris deposited by the glacier - and a genuinely stunning view. With luck you'll see roped-up climbers with axes and crampons practicing their crevassing skills.
The round trip can take as little as three hours or as long as five hours, depending on your stamina and the amount of time you spend at the top. The return trip to the trailhead is all downhill.
Wear sturdy shoes or boots and carry trekking poles: Portions of the pathway can be muddy and you will get your feet wet scrambling over boulders at the creek crossings. Because the creeks are glacier-fed, a crossing that was easy in the morning can be a roaring whitewater in the afternoon.
Bring snacks or lunch, and lots of water for everyone. Sunscreen and a hat are a must on sunny days; layered clothing is essential in cooler weather.
Suggest your ideas for family-friendly events or day trips to Robert Mittendorf at 360-756-2805 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more Bellingham Families news online at BellinghamFamilies.com or on Facebook at Bellingham Families.