Foliage trails on Highway 542
By Oliver Lazenby
Fall might be the best season for hiking in the mountains. Snow is long gone, mosquitos are dead and the short growing season in the meadows comes to a close, making the high elevations feel more remote than in summer. But the best part is the color. Plants stop photosynthesizing and the green chlorophyll that converts sunlight to food fades away and is replaced with a wine-red hue.
The color show on Highway 542 is put on mostly by the Vaccinium family, which includes huckleberries and blueberries. Their foliage blankets meadows in a deep scarlet, a dramatic precursor to the snowflakes that follow.
Fall in the mountains is also brief. One October snowstorm can put an end to autumn, so hikers have to beat the snow. Fortunately, the high country along Highway 542 has an abundance of ridges and peaks that turn red when the days get short.
Note: To park at the trailhead for all these trails, you’ll need a Northwest Forest Pass, which are sold at the Glacier Public Service Center.
High Divide (Excelsior Pass to Welcome Pass)
Length: 11.5 miles (car or bike shuttle required)
Elevation gain: 3,500 feet
Directions to trailhead: From milepost 45 on Highway 542, go north on Forest Road 3060 (this road is primitive and rough) for 1 mile to the Welcome Pass trailhead and stash a bike or park a car at the trailhead. To get to the trailhead for Excelsior Pass, head back west on Highway 542 to a pull off at mile 41.2.
The hike: For scarlet leaves, it’s hard to beat the High Divide – a long ridge on the north side of the highway. Hikers can get to the divide from several trailheads, but an unbeatable way to see the lofty ridge is a one-way trip from Excelsior Pass to Welcome Pass that maximizes your time in the church of high elevation.
Transportation from one trailhead to the next is necessary to make the 11.5-mile, one-way hike. Two cars will do the trick, but a bike stashed at the trailhead is a more stylish option. If you stash a bike at the Welcome Pass trailhead and drive back downhill to the Excelsior Pass trailhead, the pedal back to the car at the end of the hike is mostly downhill (though there is one substantial hill to climb) and about 6 miles long.
You’ll earn the mostly-downhill bike ride at the trip’s end with a 3,500-foot, 4-mile climb from the highway to Excelsior Pass, at the west end of the High Divide. It’s worth it for the long, gentle ridge walk. The trail east along High Divide from Excelsior Pass and Excelsior Mountain has little change in elevation, ample fall color and expansive views the whole way. Mount Baker, Mount Shuksan, Tomyhoi Peak, Mount Larrabee and the border peaks are some of the highlights.
Round trip: 4 miles to the divide and back, 10+ miles to the end of the trail at Chowder Ridge.
Elevation gain: 1,500 feet
Directions to trailhead: Turn right onto Glacier Creek Road (Forest Road 39) 0.7 miles past the Glacier Public Service Center. Then, immediately turn left onto Forest Road 3. Follow this road for 12.6 miles to the trailhead.
The hike: With its high gardens of wildflowers in summer, berries and red foliage in the fall, and views of Mount Baker year-round, Skyline Divide is good in any season. Fall offers a chance to roam the popular ridge with a few less people than usual. The hike starts in old-growth forest on a wide and uniform trail that contours for 2 miles up to the divide. The view from this northernmost part of the divide is as good as any on the hike, and it’s a fine spot to turn around for a short hike. The trail continues south on Skyline Divide, undulating over gentle knolls, all the way to Chowder Ridge on the northern flank of Mount Baker.
What’s divided by Skyline Divide? That depends how far you look. Slopes on either side of the divide drop off for thousands of feet toward Deadhorse Creek to the east and Thompson Creek to the west. Further afield, and with the right light, you can the Salish Sea on one side and into the heart of the North Cascades on the other.
On your way south on the divide, there’s one important junction to watch for. At 3.3 miles from the trailhead, the trail forks. The left path appears much more popular, but it veers off of the ridge and dead ends in a mile or so at Deadhorse Creek. It’s a good place to camp with water all summer, but for views and fall color go right. The path is steep and loose after the junction but soon levels out and becomes easy to follow. Get as close to Mount Baker as you like before retracing your path to the trailhead.
Length: 10 miles to the cirque and back
Elevation gain: 1,500 feet
Directions to trailhead: Travel east on Highway 542 for 12.5 miles past the Glacier Public Service Center. Turn left on Hannegan Pass Road #32. Follow Road #32 just over 1 mile to the junction with Nooksack Cirque Road #34. Follow Road #34 for 1 mile to the parking area at the end of the road.
The hike: To explore more high country colored red by the Vaccinium family, try Heliotrope or Ptarmigan Ridges. For something different, head for Nooksack Cirque – a rock basin adorned with hanging glaciers that forms the headwaters of the North Fork Nooksack River.
What makes it different? After 3.6 miles, the gentle Nooksack Cirque Trail disappears and you’ll have to pick your way up a gravelly riverbed for two more miles to reach the cirque. This walk up the riverbed requires countless stream crossings (don’t even try to keep your feet dry) and with the early snow melt and dry summer, low flows should make hiking to the cirque this fall easier than usual.
Ruth Creek separates the Nooksack Cirque Trail from the trailhead. Cross its icy water on a logjam or ford the knee- to waist-deep water. Curmudgeonly hikers know creek crossings are a fail-safe way to leave the crowds behind; solitude is the reward for wet feet.
Once across, hunt for a ribbon of trail leading southeast into the woods. The trail starts out with easy walking on an old roadbed. The path narrows at the boundary of the Mount Baker Wilderness, just over 3 miles from the parking lot. Continue through old-growth hemlocks until the trail ends at the edge of the river, about 3.6 miles from the trailhead.
The braided river meanders from one side of its gravelly bed to the other, requiring frequent stream crossings. Fording the channel is easy at first, but the river gets narrower and faster toward the cirque. Trekking poles make crossing the creek easier. When the stream finally becomes impassable, stop to admire the rocky basin and the glaciers slowly whittling it deeper. x