Sometimes from the embers of burned and broken dreams, comes a phoenix of new plans and new ideas. I’m constantly reminded when travelling of how some things just can’t be planned for (no matter how hard I try) and how compromise with one’s travelling companions is just part of the whole experience. Our visit to Artist Point in the Mount Baker Wilderness is an example of both scrambled plans and compromise- an example that yielded a romantic evening and stunning photos at that.
While we HAD planned to spend the entire day and night at Park Butte lookout, another group beat us there (by 30 min) so we were left with the option of trying to camp outside the lookout or hiking down early and looking for other options to finish out our day. I am not going to lie, I was desperate to stay up there. Braden however, was keen on hiking down early and looking for a last minute hotel. We spent several hours deliberating and talking with other hikers at the lookout before coming to a compromise of hiking down at noon, driving to Artist Point (which I’d never even heard about in my research before the trip), and finding a hotel. It meant a LONG day since we started at 5AM and would add at least 3 hours of unplanned driving to our entire trip. It. Was. Worth it.
When to visit Mount Baker National Forest:
The road to Artist Point isn’t even accessible until late July/ early August so I highly recommend waiting until at least August or going early September if you want less crowds. The stream crossings will also be slightly less dangerous (still need caution) later in the summer. Otherwise crowded or not, summer is a fabulous time to visit to see the glorious meadows or wildflowers and have the best luck with weather.
Fees to expect when visiting:
Several trails within the national forest/ wilderness area require a $5 recreation fee (per car/day – usually in cash paid at the trailhead) or proof of a national parks pass/ NW Forest pass. Artist Point is very close to the Heather Meadows Visitor Center where you might be able to pay your fees and/or buy a pass but at least in Covid 2020- it was not open.
Best hikes in Mount Baker National Forest:
Top hikes for everyone:
Since we had little time on our last minute visit, we opted for this trail and were so happy we did. It has beautiful views of both Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan (especially in the evening) and beautiful reflecting pools as well. The beginning of the trail was busy but we eventually found solitude further along- enough so that we brought our backpacking meals along with us and had a very scenic dinner. This trail is well maintained, easy to follow, and while it has a little “huffing and puffing potential”, it is short and sweet making it the best bang for your buck.
Distance: 1 mile
Elevation Gain: 157 feet
Bagley Lakes Loop
If you have plenty of time in the area but are still looking for easy hikes, Bagley Lakes Loop will fit that bill nicely. Not only are loop trails the best (so nice having new scenery the whole time) but this trail features not one but 2 beautiful lakes, mountain views, and in the summer: bundles of wildflowers.
Distance: 2.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 259 feet
Winchester Mountain Lookout:
If Parkbutte lookout is a little daunting but you want to experience a historic lookout with cooler views of Mt. Baker- look no further. This trail does still have some decent climbing but is much easier/ and shorter by comparison. It also features views of the stunning Twin Lakes where the trailhead starts from. While this hike doesn’t start from Artist point it does branch off Mt. Baker Highway as you reach the other main Artist Point attractions and would definitely be worth a visit. Just make sure you plan enough time for the road and drive something a little higher (SUV) if you have it.
Distance: 3 miles
Elevation Gain: 1300 feet
Difficulty: Easy- Moderate
Top hikes for experienced adventurers:
Table Mountain Trail
This hike isn’t actually all that hard but should not be attempted by anyone with a fear of heights. This trail continues past Huntoon Point up to the visible and quite unique Table Top Mountain. Go later in the season for sure to avoid tricky snow crossings that will exasperate the height concerns. Otherwise I highly recommend this for an adventurous, less busy addition to a short visit.
Distance: 3 miles
Elevation Gain: 692 feet
What must visitor’s to the area consider a must do, this trail sees many visitors but maybe not so many that make the entire trek and also starts at Artist Point. It’s a longer hike with a good amount of climbing but otherwise not very technical and features more panoramic views of the Mt. Baker valleys. It offers great up close views of Mt. Baker and starts from the Artist Point parking lot. Follow it as long as you wish, it would make a great addition to the shorter Huntoon Point.
Distance: 11.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,480 feet
Difficulty: Moderate/ hard
This trail is at the top of my list next time I’m in Washington and offers superb up close views of the Coleman Glacier. It is actually the approach for popular Coleman Glacier climbing routes so it takes you right up to the glacier, although caution is warranted: If you do not have the equipment or experience with glaciers, do not approach the bottom of the glacier. Coleman glacier is very active and changes can happen very quickly with fatal consequences if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time. The viewpoint of the glacier from the trail is reason enough to experience this trail.
Distance: 6.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,800 feet
*This is another trail that doesn’t start from the Artist point area but instead has a rough road spur off of the main Mt. Baker Hwy.
Must See Views near Artist Point:
The view from Artist Point itself
Again the view from Artist Point/ Artist Ridge whether you hike or not, is SO worth the drive. You don’t need to be fit or have hiking gear- just the time and car sick pills if you have that tendency to make your way up past the Mt. Baker ski snowfields to one of the best views in Washington. From the ridge, you’ll have unparalleled “drive-to” views of both Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan.
We were told it wasn’t worth driving all the way up just for Picture Lake if the road to Artist Point was still closed, but I might disagree. Considering the drive is lovely and there’s other small hikes (like Bagley Lakes) that are before the road closure, Picture lake is absolutely worth seeing- especially if you are a photographer. There’s a short walk encircling the lake and nice wildflowers to frame your shorts. It’s a great place to spend a few calm minutes and considering how easy a stop it is, there’s hardly any crowds.
Our experience at Artist Point:
Considering we had zero expectations and hadn’t even know about the Mount Baker Hwy drive and Artist Point before it was recommended to us, I’d consider our experience a smashing success. While we left Park Butte disappointed and the drive up to Artist Point was exhausting (remember we woke up at like 4:30AM) we found ourselves absolutely entranced with the easy views along the road. We only had a couple hours in the evening so we did the walk around Picture Lake and the hike to Huntoon Point.
Part of our compromise in leaving Park Butte was Braden agreed to a mini photo shoot with me! So photo shoot we did: I busted out the old tripod, changed into my favorite golden dress and we explored along Artist Ridge. We found some great little ponds for reflections, got eaten alive by mosquitos, and enjoyed an easy backpacker meal with amazing views.
Where to stay near Artist Point:
Unless you can camp or can snag one of the fantastic few rented cabins along Mt Baker hwy, the closest towns with readily available hotels is either Bellingham or Mount Vernon. Both are a far drive off from all the trails mentioned here so I recommend camping or looking for your lodgings very early on.
There are surpsingly few developed campgrounds along Hwy 542/ Mt. Baker Hwy. The closest ones to the hiking trails mentioned in this article are the:
- Douglas Fir Campground: Open May 28- September 25th; $22-$25 for tent/ non electric sites. Reservable online here
- Silver Fir Campground : similar open dates but vary more; FCFS – check here for more info on opening dates and cost.
*If you can’t get a spot in either of these two, you can check into Maple Creek Park or Glacier Creek Sno-Park.