Fall is starting to appear here in the Pacific Northwest but so far we only have the morning fog and cooler temperatures. Friday evening saw a wonderful sunset over the Puget Sound and, with a developing high pressure ridge, I thought there might be a chance for a repeat performance. After debating where to go, I decided on the Park Butte area on the south side of Mount Baker. As it is, I’m one of the few people that HAVEN’T visited the Park Butte Area.
Like Mount Rainier, the glacier capped Mount Baker is visible from many locations around the Puget Sound. The southern flank of the mountain is adorned with the Easton, Squak, Deming, and Talum Glaciers. For mountain climbers, the Easton Glacier is the most popular and default route up the mountain. For Hikers, Park Butte holds a fire lookout and a great view of Mount Baker and the Twin Sisters to the Northwest from a 5400′ high point on the mountain. For either type of outdoor enthusiast, the journey starts at Schriebers Meadow at 3300 feet and a fairly level wander through acres of huckleberry meadows.
After about 0.8 miles, the trail crosses a series of braids that make up Rocky Creek. The name is quite appropriate because rocks and boulders are everywhere. The rippled landscape reminds me very much of hiking on the slopes of Mount Adams or Mount Saint Helens. After another quarter mile or so, the trail begins to switch back up to gain access to Morovitz Meadows. After about 1.5 miles of switch backing, you reach a trail junction with the Scott Paul Trail. This secondary trail also begins at Schriebers Meadows but takes a 6 mile meandering loop up into the alpine environment before its terminus at the Park Butte Trail. Pay close attention to this intersection during daylight if your plans are to shoot sunset and hike out. More on that later!
From the Scott Paul Trail junction, the views open up impressively. The Black Buttes rise abruptly in the distance in front of you and Mount Baker itself is lies through some small alpine trees on your right. As we entered the meadow, there was some fall color in the huckleberry leaves but the actual huckleberries were still very green! It seems as though last winter’s snowpack was very stingy and didn’t go willingly. The only wildflowers I remember seeing were some Sitka Valerian in prime bloom along a small creek.
A little ways further, you reach another trail junction. This is the main turnoff for all the mountain climbers- the Railroad Grade (named for its steady rate of ascent like a railroad). The Park Butte trail continues across a large open basin before it switchbacks up to a plateau alongside the actual Park Butte lookout ridge. Before that, however, I became tempted to try some reflected mountain shots in a small pool of water in the meadow. We didn’t time our hike correctly so the “golden hour” was just starting.
I took my shots (too quick as I look back on them!) and then did my best to quickly ascend to the plateau. The plateau is about 25 acres in size and very open with three decent sized tarns. The southernmost tarn was made famous by the great Pacific Northwest photographer Lee Mann with this photo (look for “1213 Koma Kulshan”). As much as I don’t care for shooting “icons”, this is where I wanted to go on this day. My hope was that I could find a different take on this view or something different altogether.
As I finally got to the edge of the plateau, the sunset light was really starting to change and I had a decision to make- attempt to make the quarter mile cross country hike to the tarn or find a composition where I was. The sunset was cloud free and almost at the best light so, rather than risk coming back with nothing, I decided to find something where I was. Quite luckily, I happened to like the scene that spread out in front of me. I noticed a rocky hump off trail so I rock hopped to make my way over to it.
The ridge line directly behind me had already put me in shade so I knew that I needed to use one of my neutral density grad filters. I decided on my Lee 0.6 soft edge and began to take shots. After the last warm light on Mount Baker faded, I packed up and sought out my friend, who had continued on ahead of me and onto the plateau. I forgot to check the time for moonrise and quickly found out that this wasn’t it. Before making the hike out, I quickly looked around for a panorama composition. Truthfully, I’m pretty happy with how this turned out!
The temperature really started to fall once the sun went down. I didn’t get too far back down the trail before turning on my headlamp. The trail was fairly moist and mucky at times so I wanted to be sure of my footing. The trail may be a freeway during the day but it’s a ghost town at night. This DEFINITELY is bear country and a hiking trip report from the day before mentioned crossing paths with a bear about the base of the switchbacks.
For this reason, my friend and I were pretty chatty and noisy on the way out. We passed the trail junction with the Railroad Grade and then the junction with the Scott Paul Trail. We entered the forest but, after a while, something seemed off. Neither of us remember a creek being so close, loud, and visible alongside the trail. We crossed the creek and then the trail started climbing. The became a bit more narrow as well. What the hell??
We stopped to think about where we were. As near as I could figure, we must have turned ONTO the Scott Paul trail rather than go past the trail junction. We backtracked along the trail, past the creek and then soon were back at the junction we missed. Apparently it was a sharper switchback in the trail than I remembered during the daylight! Almost immediately, we recognized things along the trail which confirmed we were back on the right track. Making steady progress, we talked, yelled, and clanked our hiking poles to make our presence known.
90 minutes after starting our hike out, we arrived at the trailhead (sans any wildlife encounters). The views here really are amazing and I can’t believe I waited this long to make my first visit!