A new trail connects Bellingham to the summit of Mt. Baker
By Ian Ferguson
You see Mt. Baker on the horizon, dwarfing the surrounding peaks, and you wonder how long it would take to get there on foot. Could you do it in a week? Could you climb it once you got there? Cross a flat expanse, scale some hills, and you’re at its base. A long slog up those ice cream slopes and you’re there, on top of the world. It looks possible, if not easy.
A proposed trail connecting Bellingham Bay to the Ridley Creek Trail up Mt. Baker will allow adventurous explorers to give it a try. The proposed route follows Bellingham city trails to North Lake Whatcom Park before going up and over Stewart Mountain to the South Fork Valley, then up Mosquito Lake Road and Middle Fork Road to the Ridley Creek trailhead. The Ridley Creek Trail, recently restored after decades of neglect, accesses Baker’s beautiful southern slopes, with Schreiber’s Meadow, Mazama Camp, Park Butte Lookout and the Easton Glacier all within reach. The distance from Bellingham Bay to Baker’s summit is 54 miles, and it won’t be long before people are setting speed records. They’ll have to beat an impressive time already.
Last August, Daniel Probst, Aaron Poh and Beat Jegerlehner ran the 108-mile round trip, from Bellingham Bay to Mt. Baker’s summit and back in 48 hours and 17 minutes. Probst and a few others are hoping to cut that time in half to 24 hours this June. Probst is the founder of the Bellingham trail-running group Cascade Mountain Runners, and it’s largely thanks to his efforts that the route is being developed.
Probst has a dream of creating an annual 108-mile footrace called the Mt. Baker Ultramarathon that would run from Bellingham Bay to the summit of Mt. Baker and back, and he’s close to making it happen. After proving the route could be run, Probst and the Cascade Mountain Runners set to work restoring the Ridley Creek Trail with help from the Washington Trails Association (WTA) and the U.S. Forest Service. They opened the corridor, cleared downed trees, graded switchbacks and fixed washout points.
“It’s a couple of seasons away from being in really good shape, but as long as the forest service continues to maintain the bridge over Ridley Creek, the trail will be open for hikers and runners as soon as the snow melts this summer,” Probst said.
Although it hasn’t seen much use in the last few decades, the Ridley Creek Trail has a storied past. The Mt. Baker Marathons of 1911–13 used the Ridley Creek Trail, then called the Deming-Mount Baker Trail, as their southern route. The Mt. Baker Marathons sent racers from Bellingham up Mt. Baker and back via two routes: one by train to the town of Glacier and up Mt. Baker via the Coleman Glacier, the other by automobile through the town of Deming and up Mt. Baker via the Deming-Mt. Baker Trail and the Easton Glacier. The idea was to pit man against man, train against car and route against route. Joe Galbraith won the race via the Deming-Mt. Baker route, although Harvey Haggard might have won had a bull not blundered onto the train tracks, derailing the train on his ride from Glacier to Bellingham after a successful summit.
“The original race was also a challenge between communities to determine what route up Mt. Baker would be the gateway to the mountain,” Probst said. “The Glacier route got the road, but 100 years later, the Middle Fork route will get the trail.”
With the Mt. Baker Ultramarathon, Probst hopes to honor the history of the Mt. Baker Marathons and the early days of mountaineering on Mt. Baker’s slopes.
“It’s our goal not only to revive the original spirit, but also to curate the history of the trail and the original races, and to revive that every year,” he said. “We’re also hoping to advertise the race so that 50 percent of the participants come from outside the U.S., because this is really a world-class route that should be put on a world stage.”
Having raced in some of the biggest ultramarathons in the world, including the 200-mile Tor des Geants in Italy, Probst knows the ingredients of a successful ultra. However, his planned route runs into a major obstacle halfway through the Ridley Creek Trail where 3 miles of the trail cross through the Mt. Baker Wilderness on the way to the National Recreation Area. The U.S. Forest Service restricts competitive events in wilderness areas, but the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest Service has the power to grant an exception. Probst is rallying local leaders to help make that happen. Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws, who has run four marathons himself, signed a letter of support to help Probst petition the U.S. Forest Service.
“The race is supported by local businesses and the outdoor community, and is set to gain world-wide recognition,” Louws stated in his letter. “The event will fund the construction of a community-supported Bellingham-Mt. Baker trail system, providing a year-round recreation and tourism draw.”
A big part of what makes Bellingham the adventure capital of the northwest is the glaciated volcano 50 miles to its east. Probst believes the Bellingham-Mt. Baker trail would strengthen that connection by establishing a non-motorized path from one to the other.
Anyone can hike or bike the route today, but much of the route currently consists of logging roads and back roads. Probst hopes to eventually build 30 miles of single track for a continuous trail. Reviving the Ridley Creek Trail was step one; step two is getting the Whatcom County Parks department to permit a section of new trail from North Lake Whatcom Park to a viewpoint at the top of Stewart Mountain. A few miles of user-built trail already exist on the recently acquired county parkland on the eastern shore of Lake Whatcom.
“This section of trail is a key project that we could break ground on this summer,” Probst said. “It would be an opportunity for Whatcom County Parks and Recreation to show that progress is being made in this new park, and the publicity surrounding it will help promote tourism in Bellingham. The trail here is already established; it’s just a matter of formalizing it. There’s a huge community of trail users pushing hard to get going in the new park, and there’s an army of trail builders ready to go.”
If all goes to plan, the Mt. Baker Ultramarathon could happen as soon as the summer of 2016. Meanwhile, you can step out your front door with a backpack and see how long it takes you to stand on Mt Baker’s summit. x