THE PLACE TO GO WHEN YOU CAN'T GO BACKPACKING

Hiking Table Mountain – Mt Baker

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Having come from Seattle, we probably spent more time on the road than on Table Mountain but it was time well spent. Go soon–this extended summer won’t last forever and the road to Artist Point could close without much notice depending on when it snows and how much. While snow at Mount Baker will make skiers happy, if you are like some of us, you’re probably not yet ready to let go of this glorious Fall weather we’ve been experiencing lately.

As for that long drive, let that be part of your Mount Baker experience. Once you leave Bellingham on The Mount Baker Highway (SR 542) you’ll likely be tempted to stop several times before you get to Artist Point where the hike begins. En route you’ll drive through the little town of Glacier where you may want to stop and check out the shops, cafes, and rental shops.

We do suggest stopping in at the Glacier Ranger Station and Visitor Center (just outside of Glacier) for current trail and road conditions. Take a few minutes to admire the robust handiwork of the Civilian Conservation Corps that built the stone structure and check out the relief map of Mount Baker inside. Outside they have a tree on display, so ancient that you’ll need a microscope to see the individual rings.

After leaving Glacier you may encounter the inevitable “Road Work Ahead” and “Be Prepared To Stop” signs that pop up like mushrooms this time of year. We did. Though we were anxious to be on our way we understand such work is a necessary evil and in our best interest. Luckily, the wait wasn’t long and we were soon moving again.

We enjoyed the rest of the drive as the highway snaked its way between cliffs toward the Mount Baker Recreation Area/Ski Area. We longed to stop at Picture Lake (where you will see lodges and ski lifts) to take the photograph that everyone else takes on the way to Mount Baker. Here, Mount Shuksan casts its reflection in a pond.

Picture perfect

We only cast a longing glance toward the lake and kept going. We also skipped stopping at the Artist Point Visitor Center, knowing we needed the time we might have spent there for the hike and the drive back to Seattle. The last stretch of SR 542 is circuitous, and with views in all directions you’ll need to focus your attention on the road.

Eyes on the road

Last year so much snow fell at Mount Baker that the Washington State Department of Transportation was unable to open the road to Artist Point. Trails there remained snowbound over most of the year. Thankfully, they were able to plow the road this year and as of Sept. 25 the road is snow-free. Other trails take off from Artist Point ranging from nature trails to strenuous hikes. A sign displays the hikes and level of difficulty.

The Table Mountain trail (Tr 681) was snow-free except for one small patch just above the trailhead. We crossed the snow and started climbing the steep, rocky trail, stopping several times to take photos of Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan on our way.

When you first see Table Mountain it looks impossible to climb, let alone hike.

View of Table Mountain from Artist Point
Table Mountain from Tr 681

Indeed, the trail is an engineering marvel, but it’s safe enough for most hikers to experience unless there is snow. We recommend sturdy boots and if you are hiking with children keep them close. If anyone in your party is uncomfortable with the exposure (whether real or perceived) be willing to turn back. Hiking is meant to be a joy, not an ordeal to be endured.  The trail is about two feet wide in places (no guard-rail) and climbs in switchbacks with expanding views of Mount Baker, Mount Shuksan, and the Border Peaks.

If your idea of a summit is sharp and pointy you’ll find that Table Mountain is neither. It is more akin to a mesa or broad plateau with several easily accessible highpoints and views in all directions. When you get to the plateau you’ll come to an unsigned junction. If you go right (east toward Mount Shuksan) you’ll soon find yourself at the edge of the plateau with dizzying views of the Bagley Lakes below. Mount Baker– which you can’t miss unless there’s a blizzard – is to the southwest.

Mount Baker

You’ll likely discover a few cairns scattered about the plateau. Artist Point was so named because the setting inspired artists to set up their easels and paint the mountain scenes as they do to this day. There’s something about Table Mountain that brings out the artist. A few years ago there were dozens of elaborate cairns on Table Mountain, some of them arranged to form Chinese characters. Today there are only a few (we don’t know who builds them or who takes them down) though weather may play a role in knocking the cairns asunder.

For a longer hike, walk from the junction toward the far western endof the plateau on a well-defined trail. Wander from snow-patch to snow-patch and from knoll to knoll. There are plenty of viewpoints to go around. While the hike is short, the experience is immeasurable.

A hiker stands beside a cairn enjoying the view from Table Mountain

Fall color is returning to these lofty elevations where shadows from jagged ridges fall on permanent snowfields only climbers would dare to cross. The sun-warmed boulders are latticed with colorful blueberry shrubs, the moss twinkles with moisture,

and mysterious bubbles line the bottoms of rivulets that make their way down to the lower plateau.

Moss twinkling in the sunlight

 

Rock outcroppings rise above snowfields that have not melted out this year and are easy to cross. Each knoll holds a hiker or two.

At the far edge of the plateau you can look down on Chain Lakes. Years ago you could follow a trail down to the lakes but the trail, which crosses permanent snowfields was considered dangerous enough to be closed. Scant evidence of the trail remains.

After spending a decadent amount of time on Table Mountain we hiked back to Artist Point but could not bear to leave. Instead we hiked out along the half-mile Artist Ridge Trail (Tr 669) to Huntoon Point for a closer view of Mount Shuksan and its sinister, though compelling crevasses. Along the trail, white snags reared up from mounds of crimson blueberry shrubs beneath a sky so blue and vast it almost made us dizzy. This short hike calls for the almost forgotten art of dawdling – so, indulge!

Getting there:  From Seattle drive north on I-5; at Bellingham get off at Exit No. 155 to SR 542 (east), continue through the small towns of Maple Falls and Glacier, continue to Artist Point (about 59 miles from Bellingham). Allow about 3.5 hours for the drive (one-way) from Seattle.

Additional Information:  The Table Mountain Trail is 2.5 miles round-trip with 750 feet gain

The Artist Ridge Trail to Huntoon Point is one mile round-trip with 200 feet gain.

Map:  Green Trails No. 14 Mount Shuksan. For additional information on roads/trails contact the Mount Baker Ranger District at (360-856-5700) or visit their website at www.fs.fed.us.r6/mbs . A Northwest Forest Pass is required. Dogs are not allowed on Table Mountain.

 

Karen is a Washington native raised near the foothills of the Olympic Mountains. She has been hiking since the early 1980s and hikes year-round. Karen has published articles and photographs in The Seattle Post Intelligencer (she wrote “Hike of the Week” for the Seattle Post Intelligencer for several years) and has also been published in Washington Trails Magazine (formerly Pack and Paddle and Signpost), Enumclaw-PATCH, Sierra and The Seattle Times. Mountaineer Books published her book "Hidden Hikes" (out of print) and she was co-author of "Best Wildflower Hikes, Washington. In addition to hiking Karen scrambles, snowshoes and is also a runner.

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