Imagine magnificent views of Mt. Baker, beautiful vistas of Mt. Shuksan, and amazing flowers and snow (yes, I said snow) to set it all off. You can see all of this and much more from the Ptarmigan Ridge Trail in the Mt. Baker Wilderness. Although this same area is better known for its Chain Lakes Trail, my advice is to skip the lakes and use your hiking muscles to walk out on the ridge. The lakes look like lakes, but the mountain scenery is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.
From the Glacier Public Service Center, drive east up Mt. Baker Highway 452 for 24 miles to Artist Point. Along this road is a Visitor Center, but it was closed when we drove past it (we may have been in Washington, but we were still living on Eastern Time!). However, the pit-toilet restrooms were open, which was nice. There are also pit-toilets at Artist point. This is also the trailhead for the hike up Table Mountain and the popular Chain Lakes Trail (#682).
The trial starts from the side of the parking lot opposite the restrooms. There is a kiosk that tells about the trails near the trailhead, which can help you find it. The trail climbs slightly as it rises along the side of a ridge, and eventually enters the Mt. Baker Wilderness. From here, the trail continues to climb, with ever better views of Mt. Baker ahead and slightly to the left. After about a mile, you will come to a trail split, with one trail going straight toward the Chain Lakes, and the other turning left down Ptarmigan Ridge. Although you could turn left here, I would suggest going slightly farther down the Chain Lakes Trail to a huge rock on the left side of the trail. From this rock (which is very easy to climb onto because it is mostly underground) there is an incredible view of Mt. Baker. Make sure you take lots of pictures—one of those we took ended up on the front cover of our Christmas letter, and another was the desktop of our computer for a long time. All that to say, the picture taking is great! After you’ve taken some pictures, go back to the trail and back to the trail split.
From here, we went down to the Chain Lakes. However, they are just that—lakes—and we didn’t find them very spectacular. The lakes are in wooded sections, so you couldn’t even get views of the mountains reflected in the lakes. If you like lakes, go for it, but if not, don’t bother. We ended up turning back because of the number of flies that were around the lakes. They didn’t really bite, but they swarmed us, so we decided it would be better to get back up where the flies weren’t.
As it turned out, this was one of the best things we could of done. We went back to the rock overlooking Mt. Baker and ate lunch, then started the decent down the Ptarmigan Ridge Trail (#682.1). The trail will go down for quite a while through a meadow that is on a steep slope (thankfully the trail isn’t this steep), and then will go back up again, all along the side of a ridge. There are some really pretty flowers in this section, as well as the brightest green moss I’d ever seen. Little streams trickle down the side of the ridge, so you may have to hop around a bit to not get your feet wet. Eventually, you will actually cross the ridge and start ascending (although this section is flatter) the other side of the ridge. In this section there may be snow—Washington had such a hot summer the year that we were there that many of the permanent ice fields had melted, but we could see where they had been and had to walk across some snow that was still there. What fun to have a snowball fight in August!
After a while you will enter an alpine meadow. This is absolutely lovely, with, at least in mid-August, pretty purple flowers and small shrubs. Many huckleberry plants also border the trail. After the trail leaves the meadow, it becomes fairly narrow and snakes its way around the side of the ridge, occasionally encountering some rock-slide-prone areas that may take a little scrambling to get over (it’s not bad, though). Here you will really start to get views of Mt. Shuksan to your left across the valley, although Mt. Baker has disappeared behind the ridge. Mt. Shuksan isn’t as perfect in shape as Mt. Baker, but it is still absolutely beautiful.
We stopped at a place where there was an outcropping of rock/gravel that overlooked Mt. Shuksan to the left and a rocky valley with snow in it to the right (we were guessing it’s 2-3 miles down the trail, but I’m not sure). While we were resting, several mountain goats went through the rocky valley, which was really neat. Because we’d spent so much time hiking down to the lakes and back up, we had to turn around at this point, to get back before it got dark. To avoid this, many people backpack this trail—some even were starting out as we were going back. We will definitely have to go back and hike some more of this trail.
The trailhead to Coleman Pinnacle is 4 miles, from the trailhead to Camp Kiser is 5 miles. Backcountry camping is allowed, but there are regulations, including that camping must be done in designated campsites.
Round Trip Trail Length: Up to 9 miles
Facilities: Primitive restroom and informational sign at trailhead
Fees: A Northwest Forest Pass is required for each vehicle parked at the trailhead. This is $5 per day, although an Interagency Passes and Golden Age/Access Passes are accepted.
Would I go 100 miles out of my way for this?
Monday Mon Feb 19 20%
Mostly clear. Lows overnight -13 to -9F.
Tuesday Tue Feb 20 20%
Cloudy skies early will become partly cloudy later in the day. High 9F. Winds NW at 5 to 10 mph.
Wednesday Wed Feb 21 20%
A mix of clouds and sun in the morning followed by cloudy skies during the afternoon. High 13F. Winds WSW at 5 to 10 mph.
Thursday Thu Feb 22 20%
Cloudy skies early, followed by partial clearing. High 17F. Winds NW at 5 to 10 mph.
Friday Fri Feb 23 50%
Cloudy. Snow showers developing in the afternoon. High around 15F. Winds SW at 10 to 20 mph. Chance of snow 50%. Snowfall around one inch.