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Heliotrope Ridge

North Cascades

Location

North Cascades -- Mount Baker Area
View map below

Length

5.5 miles, roundtrip

Elevation

Gain: 1400 ft.
Highest Point: 5100 ft.

Rating

4.46 out of 5

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WTA worked here: 2021
 

Parking Pass/Entry Fee

Northwest Forest Pass
 
 

If you'd like nose-to-nose access to Mount Baker, this first-rate woodsy walk delivers. Over a relatively short, well-maintained trail with mild elevation gain, you can be glacier-side in no time...if the creek crossings allow.

This trail shares access to a popular climbing route on Mount Baker, so the parking lot (with privy) is huge, and the trail is well traveled and in great shape. From the trailhead, it quickly enters the Mount Baker Wilderness and meanders gently among big trees, bridged creeks, and peek-a-boo views of Mount Baker (10,781 feet). In the autumn, the trailside blueberry buffet is plentiful, and in the summer, enjoy the full variety pack of wildflowers, though conspicuously missing are Heliotropes. Evidently early explorers mistook the local Valerian for the vanilla-scented Heliotrope, but the name stuck.

Varying by year, season and conditions (rainfall, snowmelt, temperatures), the couple of water crossings encountered on the lower trail are easily managed. However it pays to remember that whatever you cross in the morning will be flowing higher and faster (sometimes significantly) in the afternoon, especially on a warm day.

At about two miles and 4700 feet elevation, you'll pass an established campsite at the site of the former Kulshan Cabin, built in 1925 by the Mount Baker Club. A little further up is a well-signed junction with the Climbers' Trail which takes off to the right while you head left to follow the Heliotrope Ridge trail.

Almost immediately you'll come to Heliotrope Creek, the most serious water crossing on the trail. The Mount Baker Ranger District has worked in this area, making the water ankle-deep in most places, but caution is well warranted here, particularly in high water. Water can move fast and the rocks are slick.

Real injuries have occurred here, so assess your abilities carefully, and be especially cautious with children and dogs. If proceeding with a dog, consider looping their leash around the chest (under their armpits) and securing into a make-shift harness. If the dog slips and is swept downstream, you don't want your only contact point to be the collar around their neck.

And if crossing with a leashed/harnessed dog, remember to plant your own steps carefully, so that a slip by the dog doesn't pull you off balance. For bipeds, throwing gear at the problem can be helpful, so trekking poles are highly recommended here, and maybe pack in water shoes, sandals or full-on rain boots (in a plastic bag, as they'll be wet when you go to stuff them back into your pack) as well as a change of socks in case the rain boots are suddenly not as tall as they seemed back home. Again, please note that if crossing in the morning, there will always be more water later in the day.

From Heliotrope Creek it's a short meadow walk to Heliotrope Ridge adjacent to the Coleman Glacier's lateral moraine with Mount Baker rising above. Here the glacier is a jumble of seracs (giant chunks of ice cleaving and tumbling in the slow progression of the glacier), and as the summer goes on, taller and taller "sun cups." These are formed when specks of dirt blown onto the snow absorb a little more sunlight than the snow around them and melt a tiny ways into the snow. Eventually, this cycle produces the giant, craggy spikes before you. Looking down into a particularly deep crack or sunlit opening in the ice offers a glimpse of the bluest icy blue to be had. (If it were a crayon color, it'd be called Glacier Blue.) Don't stare directly at it for too long, lest you too get pulled in by its mysterious draw, soon shopping for crampons and a course on glacier travel. From this close, you might hear the glacier creaking and cracking as it slides (glacially... haa, ok) downhill. No matter how solid it seems or how tempting the photo-op, please don't set foot on the snow -- it really is moving and can crack and shift unpredictably.

Alternate Objective: for those with kids, dogs, or who just don't feel comfortable crossing Heliotrope Creek (there's no shame in ever making a call on the side of safety), consider backtracking to the Climbers' Trail junction and exploring that a bit. True to form, the Climbers' Trail climbs steeply and directly up the neighboring Hogsback Ridge and gains elevation quickly. The payoff of course is that within minutes, you're looking right at Mount Baker in its full, unobstructed glory. The higher you go, the bigger the views, and you can reach the Coleman Glacier here too at around 6000 feet. As before, please do not step onto any glacier if not roped and packing the skills to manage a crevasse fall -- this is a real-deal active glacier and should be taken seriously.

From the entire ridge though, the views are remarkable: you can't get any closer to Mount Baker without technical gear, and from this height, you can look down to see where the Heliotrope Ridge Trail meets the glacier a short ways after the creek. Below too stretches the upper lengths of Heliotrope Creek, building momentum for all who dare take it on. Though it's hard to take your eyes off of Baker, behind you stretches a panorama of peaks, forest, and lowland valleys. This is one of the finest views to be had in the Mount Baker area.

If you can manage the weight and feel like making someone's day, consider packing an icy Coke to hand to some exhausted climber working their way down under a heavy pack. Easy opportunities to make someone that happy are rare.

WTA Pro Tip: To cap off this good day, it's hard to beat the North Fork Brewery (Beer Shrine) in Deming for their well-made pizza, startling beer selection and on-tap root beer.

 

Heliotrope Ridge

Map & Directions

Trailhead
Co-ordinates: 48.8021, -121.8957 Open map in new window

Trailhead

North Cascades -- Mount Baker Area

Heliotrope Ridge (#677)

Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Mount Baker Ranger District

See weather forecast

Guidebooks & Maps

Day Hiking: North Cascades (Romano - Mountaineers Books)

Buy the Green Trails Mount Baker No. 13 map

Download a map to plan your hike

Getting There

From Bellingham drive 34 miles east on the Mount Baker Highway to the Glacier Public Service Center. Continue past the center east for about another mile, then make a right onto Forest Road 39 (Glacier Creek Road). After eight miles of mostly paved road, turn left at a junction and continue less than half a mile to the trailhead. Facilities are available here, as is plenty of parking.

Parking Pass/Entry Fee

Northwest Forest Pass
 

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Heliotrope Ridge

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