After successfully beating off early-season colds, it was time to get back out on a serious trail. Last weekend we stretched our legs on an easier 5-mile loop at the north end of the Chuckanut Mountain trails in Bellingham, WA. This weekend we were wanting to get into some snow, so we made our way to Mount Baker and landed on the challenging Excelsior Peak Trail.
Hike Name: Nooksack River to Excelsior Peak
Date: Saturday January 14
Location: Glacier, WA
Approx. drive time: 75 minutes
Distance: 9 mi. / 15 km
Elevation gain: 3640 ft / 1109 m
Max. elevation: 5480 ft / 1670
Time on trail: 6 hours
We knew we wanted to get up and around Mt. Baker, but weren’t too sure if we wanted to fight the usual crowds of Artist Point. Instead we stopped at the Glacier Ranger Station to get a better idea of our options. Our first thought was to head towards Heliotrope Ridge, but learned that we would need a snowmobile to get there! The Salmon Ridge Snow Park would be nice, but more a valley forest walk, with few views of the mountains. So we opted for the challenging climb up the Excelsior Peak Trail.
The trailhead was easy to get to, a well-labelled parking lot about 8 miles east of the Glacier Ranger Station. There were a few cars already there when we pulled in just before 10 a.m. It was cold and a bit breezy as we got going, strapping on our snowshoes and arranging our gear. Our fingers were pretty frozen by the time we hit the trail.
The trail climbed steadily through the forest, and we were grateful for the heel lifts on our snowshoes to take some of the pressure off our calves. It wasn’t too long before our fingers were warming up, as was the forest around us, catching the morning sun.
A few switchbacks later we took a brief rest stop to admire an incredible ice formation dangling off some mossy rocks.
We had been moving along so well that I was sure we were a couple miles along already. Unfortunately, I was to learn that there was still a lot of mountain to climb ahead of us!
After a handful more switchbacks, and deepening snow, we popped out into a small meadow, which offered us our first view of Mount Baker to the south.
As much as I wanted to be near the top, I could see the mountain still towering above us. We still had another couple miles to go.
The snow deepened and changed to a lighter, fluffier quality as we got higher. I was really glad we had our snowshoes, as we made the last challenging push through the trees and into the wide bowl below Excelsior Peak. We could see our destination, a ridge to the south of the peak. Unfortunately I’ve found that snow always makes slopes look shallower than they actually are! It was a slow, steep slog up to the ridge, but the reward was amazing views of Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan.
Another pair of snowshoers passed by and motored their way to the top of the peak. We didn’t quite have the energy or chutzpah left to make it all the way to the summit. We were happy to settle in on the ridge and enjoy a hearty lunch of warm soup and home-baked bread while soaking in the sunshine and the view.
Eventually we cooled off enough to want to get moving again. We moved quickly and confidently back down through the snowy bowl and back into the forest. What took us about 40 minutes to snowshoe up was barely 15 minutes on the way down!
The trip back through the forest passed quickly with good conversation. We were back to the car by 3 pm, just as the sun set over the nearest ridge. All in all we saw only 10 other hikers through the day, significantly less than the crowds at Artist Point! It was an awesome, challenging hike that proved to us just how strong and capable we are! I look forward to getting back to the Excelsior Peak trail in the summertime, and making it right to the peak!