Heliotrope Ridge

When I was growing up, my parents would regale me with stories of their adventures in Alaska— particularly their accounts of glaciers, which they visited by foot, ski or kayak. I have since been enamored of these ice rivers, but most of my hiking has been done in Southwest Washington or in Idaho, where there are few easily accessible glaciers. I have seen them in the distance— on the slopes of Rainier or in the crater of St. Helens— but for the most part they have been too far away to make a deep impression. My quest to encounter a real, crevasse filled, blue tinged, rock crushing glacier finally led me to Heliotrope Ridge on Mt. Baker, where the awesome spread of the Coleman Glacier lay waiting.

Heliotrope Ridge

We arrived at the trailhead on a sunny Saturday morning unprepared for the multitude that thronged the parking lot; climbers sorting their gear, parents sorting their children and bikers (who had pedaled effortlessly up the steep, winding road) sorting their already strained muscles, chaining their bikes and bounding off up the trail. We felt a little out of place among the super fit athletes hiking here. Many raced up the trail at light speed and were never seen again. A few, like us, took the trail a little slower. We ended up playing a complicated game of leapfrog with our fellow hikers, passing photographers absorbed in the scenery, only to be passed by them once again when we stopped to take photos of our own.
The trail gains a lot of elevation, but does so over many well maintained switchbacks, and those switchbacks can be tantalizing indeed; raising your hopes of rounding a corner for a fantastic view, but at the last moment zigzagging away. It’s not an arduous ascent due to the ever present cool breeze that wafts from Mt. Baker’s icy heights down through the shade of the forest. There were many glacial streams to cross along the way and, earlier in the season, some might be nearly impossible to ford. As it was, the late August heat kept the streams full of snowmelt, and it was a relief for many hikers to find that the Washington Trails Association (WTA) volunteers were there to help people safely cross the swiftest current.

Glacial Stream Crossing

In fact, the WTA volunteers were working hard all day, repairing a decaying boardwalk through the trees. When we passed, they were wallowing in the mud, attempting to extract a massive boulder that lay mired in the swampy trail where the old boardwalk had been. Without the work of the WTA, many of the trails we take for granted would be in an advanced state of degradation. Seeing them at work gave me a new appreciation of their contribution.

After traversing the forest and fording the streams, the course of the trail finally took us over the ridge to the glacial valley itself. My parents’ accounts of the beauty and power of glaciers couldn’t prepare me for the scene that met my eyes. There were heaps of blue spires, like some fantasy movie creation, and deep azure crevasses slicing the surface of the ice. Here, the senses are overloaded; tumbling waterfalls, towering cliffs, bright meadows and, of course, the mesmerizing blue glow of the glacier that ripples below and above the ridge in frozen waves and icy crevasses. The power of the ice was evident in the rubble that was being torn and dragged from the edges of the glacier and incorporated into the moraines. No camera could do this scene justice, and I could only drink it in with my eyes and revel in the glory before me.Heliotrope Ridge

The atmosphere in the meadows at the end of the trail was that of a carnival; people from every corner of the world stared in wonder at the ocean of ice that flowed from the lofty heights of Mt. Baker. On such a summer Saturday there is no solitude; children play, dogs bark, climbers call and the chatter of many resting picnickers is carried through the meadows on glacial winds. Normally, I value solitude above all, but on this trip I had already resolved to be a tourist, and the overwhelming beauty made up for the lack of personal space.

Still, I can only be a tourist for so long, and I found myself dreaming of some of the other hikes nearby that might have had fewer people. There are several gravel roads that lead off to less popular places, such as Church Mountain and Welcome Pass, and I made mental plans to return to Mt. Baker to try these, too. I left the river of ice with the tide of humanity returning to the trailhead. Someday, I plan to return to Heliotrope Ridge on a weekday in the fall when the crowds will be thinner and the air sweet with the scent of autumn leaves and new frost. Instead of the chatter of the multitude, I would like to hear the screech of the marmot, the murmur of the waterfalls, and perhaps even the groaning of the ice, and the wind’s sigh of relief that the tourist season is nearly over.

It is 2 ½ miles and 2000 feet of elevation gain to the first viewpoint on Heliotrope ridge. To reach the trailhead drive one mile past the town of Glacier (Highway 542 from Bellingham) and turn right onto the mostly paved (but one lane and very curvy) Glacier Creek Road (National Forest Road 39) and follow it for about 8 miles. There is plenty of parking space near the trailhead, but late arrivals on a weekend may be forced to walk some distance to the trail.

Heliotrope Ridge

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