Hiking Chain Lakes Trail

The final trail in my little ‘Fall hiking in Washington’ series is the Chain Lakes Trail that leaves from the ski area at Mount Baker. Me, Lien, and Emily had visited the previous year in March to snowshoe Artist Point and were totally awed by the views, so we decided to come back in the fall for a different view. It was Thanksgiving Weekend in October 2019, just one week after me and Lien had hiked Yellow Aster Butte. This time we were joined by Emily and my friend Amy, who flits in and out of my life every now any then. We never really know when she’s going to appear and disappear again, but it’s fun to hike with her!

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We had Thanksgiving dinner at my house on Sunday night and then made an early departure on Monday morning to cross the border. Traditionally, me and Brandon have always gone on a Thanksgiving Monday hike (3 years running), but this year he went on holiday and bailed on me, so I had to console myself with my other companions. I really liked both Yellow Aster Butte and Chain Lakes, but of the two, I would definitely have to give the edge to Chain Lakes. At 11.5km, it has half the elevation gain of Yellow Aster Butte, just 375m. The trail starts in the backcountry parking lot at the ski hill. Be sure to get and print out the parking pass online before you go because there’s no where to get it on the mountain. It’s only $5 and I’m told you can get it at the visitor center at the bottom before you drive up, but I’ve never once seen it open on the weekend.

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Chain Lakes is one of those rare trails that is scenic the ENTIRE trail. You’ve already driven up most of the elevation gain to get to the ski hill and from there, the trail continues up to the summer parking lot for Artist Point. In the summer, you can drive almost the whole way up to Artist Point, but at some point in September they close the road. Hiking up the road is the least scenic part of the trail, but still has really nice views looking down into the big bowl that’s popular among backcountry skiers. We decided to skip the Artist Point viewpoint since we’d already done it and instead continued down the other side of the parking lot into the backcountry. I think it’s a bit of an understated part of the trail, but it was one of my favourite parts. You hike right across the slope of Table Mountain, looking out towards Mount Baker.

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From the Skyline Divide Trail, I felt like I was so close to Mount Baker that if I continued hiking I would eventually reach it (you can reach the foothills, but then the trail ends). But from the Chain Lakes Trail, you really are on the trail that goes up to the top of Mount Baker (albeit this is only for experienced mountaineers). It looked like if we just crested a few more hills we’d pretty much be there, but of course, it’s further then it looks as the size of the mountain dwarfs everything surrounding it and can be a bit misleading. Once you get to the end of Table Mountain, the trail turns to continue around the mountain and over to the chain lakes part of the trail. You can also hike along the top of Table Mountain, which may have to be an adventure for another day.

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The first lake you come to is Mazama Lake. You can camp there, but it’s pretty small and not the most scenic, so if you’re overnighting, I’d recommend one of the other lakes instead. After Mazama, you come to Iceberg lake, which is the biggest and has staggering views looking up at the steep cliffs that surround the lake. This is where we decided to stop for lunch and enjoy the views before starting our climb back up the pass to the top of the trail.

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One of the awesome things about Chain Lakes, in addition to the fact that the entire hike is scenic, is that it’s a loop trail, so you don’t have to do any return on the trail. It starts to climb around Iceberg Lake until you reach Haynes Lake, which is where I’d recommend branching off to camp. From there it gets really steep. There’s some great views looking back down the trail at Iceberg lake and you continue climbing to the top of the pass before starting to descend back into the bowl we were looking at from the start of the trail. It seemed like most people were doing the trail in the opposite direction as us, starting with the steep climb up the bowl. I’d recommend going the same way as us though because then you get to finish the hike with what was, in my opinion, the best view.

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The view from the top of the pass is really unreal. The mountains stretch out around you in every direction and as you climb up the side of the Mazama dome, you really feel like you’re on top of the world. We’d already had lunch, but we decided to stop and have a break to make tea so that we could enjoy the view for a little bit longer! Even though we still had a few kilometers left to go, from the top we could pretty much see the trail down to the bottom almost the whole way there. We continued from the pass and started the long descent down the bowl to the parking lot. We were basically undoing all of the elevation from the rest of the hike in this stretch, which is why I recommend doing the hike from the other direction, that way the ascent is more gradual, with a few flat parts in between as you climb up. The descent down the bowl though is hard on the knees, so something to take into consideration as well.

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The trail switchbacks for a while until you finally reach the bottom. It weaves through the valley and you pass by a few more lakes and the most quaint little rock bridge. Seriously, there’s no part of this trail that is not scenic, and even a few minutes before the parking lot, we were still stopping to take pictures of things. Except for Emily, who was badly in need of a washroom and sprinted the last 15 minutes of the trail to get to the outhouse.

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Sadly that was our last adventure in the North Cascades. I returned the following winter with Carolyn and Brandon to snow camp on Artist Point, but unfortunately with Covid, we haven’t been able to return. I was hoping to do a few hikes in the summer and fall again, but sadly I’ll just have to wait until next year (hopefully). Either way, if you’re from Washington, I’d definitely recommend hitting up the North Cascades, and if you’re Canadian, put in on your bucket list!

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Road Trip to Steamboat Rock

Steamboat Rock is a little bit further than I normally venture on the weekend, but we decided to visit on a random weekend in May last year and ended up having a great trip! Spring is always rough because the weather gets super nice in Vancouver, but it still takes several months for the snow to melt in the mountains. I was itching to take my hiking boots out, so we decided to head in search of less snowy trails.

It’s about a 6 hour drive to Steamboat Rock, which is a state park in Washington on the other side of the cascades. It’s a long distance for a single weekend, so we decided to get a head start and drove halfway there on Friday night, crossing the border in Abbotsford and camping in the cascades south of Manning Park and Ross Lake. It was after 10pm by the time we pulled into the campsite, so we didn’t do much Friday night except set up camp and get some sleep. We were still in the mountains, so it was pretty cold overnight and I was glad I had packed my winter bag. Emily was sweating in her homemade down sleeping bag, but the rest of our poor friends, Lien, Kevin, and Yuka, were all pretty cold as it was a first time experience for them camping in the mountains in May.

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We got up early on Saturday and had the most beautiful drive through the rest of the cascades. The most interesting part about driving to Steamboat Rock is that you pass through almost every landscape you can think of on the way there. We were below the snow line at the campsite and the rivers were flowing fast from snow melt. But as we continued, we drove back up past the snow line and were surrounded by gorgeous snowy mountain vistas. It was a little jarring to see that there were still a ton of snowshoers and skiers out in May when we were all anxiously awaiting the next season.

We left the cascades and entered the flatlands that slowly turned into desert. It’s a really different kind of landscape, but beautiful in it’s own way. We passed several dams and reservoirs before eventually coming to Steamboat Rock State Park. The old river has carved out canyon like features at Steamboat Rock and the river bed has since been impounded for use as a reservoir, so it makes for a dramatic view looking at the rock canyon and the still water below.

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We got a campsite right next to the hiking trail. All the campsites were car camping and it was primarily RV’s at the park. Not really my preferred kind of camping, but it was easy and we had a gorgeous view of Steamboat from our campsite. It differed from a lot of campsites I’ve stayed in in that there were pretty much no trees around, just grassy fields running into the lake, Not ideal for privacy, but great for stargazing, which was one of our other motivations for visiting the park.

I really liked the hike, although I wasn’t super impressed with the maintenance of the trail going up the canyon. The campsite is located next to the lake, so you start the trail by hiking about 200 metres up to the top of the canyon. From there it’s a pretty flat hike around the edge of the canyon, with some great views of the lake and surrounding area. But the hike up to the canyon is pretty sketchy. I’ve done my fair share of sketchy hikes, but this one is located right next to a 300 site campground filled with RV’s, so it’s a pretty high trafficked walk and I saw a lot of inappropriate footwear and preparedness that I thought warranted the park investing some more work in the trail. You’re mostly hiking up scree and some sections where the rock has all worn away on the sides and it’s a steep, slippery trek. It’s not too bad on the way up, but really dangerous coming down as it’s super easy to dislodge rock that could hit those below you. I personally fell twice and scrapped up my hands a lot.

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But once you get to the top, it’s pretty easy going! We hiked the entire trail around the rim of the canyon and I really liked it. The topography is so different from what we’re used to seeing and it was fun to explore something new. What was surprising though, was that we saw a lot of people on the hike up, but once we started hiking the rim, we didn’t see a single other person! So I think a lot of people just hike to the top for the view and then go back down (more reason to invest in the trail).

I have barely spent any time in the desert, but between this trip and my trip to Vegas (which was only a few weeks before), I went on two desert hikes in the same month! We joked on our hike to Valley of Fire State Park in Neveda that we would freak out if we saw any rattlesnakes or scorpions. Well we had that opportunity at Steamboat Rock State Park! We actually ended up seeing an impressive amount of wildlife on the trip. We saw one deer on the road driving through the cascades, as well as 3 more deer hanging out on top of Steamboat Rock. We also saw a ton of marmots of all sizes on Steamboat Rock and the whole park was filled with all different kinds of birds, from small songbirds and blackbirds, to eagles and dozens of vultures.

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But the most jarring was definitely seeing a rattlesnake for the first time. Or more accurately, hearing a rattlesnake for the first time. Me, Emily, and Lien were hiking ahead when we heard a rattle and frantically started looking around, immediately spotting a rattlesnake staring at us to our right. We backed away, but evidently he was just as afraid of us and turned on his heel and slithered away into the bushes, shaking his tail at us. About 10 minutes later, Lien came across another snake, this time directly on the trail. This one didn’t have a rattle in it’s tail, but after a bit of research, we think it was a baby rattlesnake, because it definitely wasn’t a garter snake. Kevin (who missed out on both snake sightings) thought it would be funny to secretly shake a bottle of pills later on the trail and watch the three of us freak out, but he got a stern talking to about how traumatic it was for the rest of us.

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Snake trauma aside, it was a super fun trip. It was really hot out and even though it was only May 4th when we went, me, Emily, and Lien decided to take a quick dip in the lake when we finished the hike. It was the earliest I’ve ever been swimming and while it was cold, it really wasn’t that bad and had nothing on some of the glacial lakes I’ve swam in. It felt great to wash all the dirt off and the cold water feels so good on aching muscles.

One of the pros of spring camping is that the fire ban hasn’t yet kicked it! So we spent the rest of the evening roasting hot dogs and enjoying a campfire. Yuka impressed us all with her wood chopping skills and Lien was ecstatic about finally getting to try out his tent for the first time. Once the stars came out we all spent about an hour making some attempts at night photography. They weren’t some of my best photos, but I had fun messing around with the camera and actually having a tripod for once (thanks Kevin!). The only downside to the campsite was the sandflies. It wasn’t bad during the day, but once the sun went down they came out in swarms. Fortunately they don’t bite, but it was really annoying and a ton snuck into our tent somehow.

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We rolled out around 10am the next morning and had a long drive back to Vancouver. It wasn’t too bad on the way there because we broke up the drive between two days, but it definitely made for a long drive back. We stopped in this cute little town called Leavenworth on the way back for lunch. It’s in the middle of the cascades and the whole town is German. It’s a total tourist trap with all kinds of German restaurants and attractions. We had schnitzel burgers and ice cream before hitting the road again. We hit some pretty bad traffic after that, but we found an old CD case in the car with all of Lien and Kevin’s angsty teenage music from the early 2000’s and had a great laugh seeing what kind of music they used to like. Apparently Kevin had a penchant for angry German screamo and techno tv show theme songs, while Lien had a secret love for country music and Avril Lavigne.

So overall I had a lot of fun on this trip. I do think it would probably work better with an extra day to explore through the cascades a little more, but it was really fun to get out of Vancouver and explore something totally new!

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