Hiking Yellow Aster Butte

Last week I wrote about my trip to the Skyline Divide Trail in 2018, so I figured I’d continue on writing about some more of my adventures across the border in the Mount Baker Wilderness Area. The second hike I decided to explore in the North Cascades was Yellow Aster Butte. I have Stephen Hui’s book “105 Hikes in and Around Southwestern BC”, which features 3 hikes down in the cascades, so me and Lien decided to try and do them all. We were already down one with Skyline Divide and we thought that ‘Yellow Aster’ sounded promising for fall colours and decided to attempt it a year later in early October 2019.

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It was just me and Lien on the hike, so we got up early to cross the border through Sumas and then followed the forestry road up off the main road to the trailhead. I don’t think they plow this road in the winter, so access to the hike would be limited by the road conditions. The trail profile is really similar to Skyline Divide in that both hikes are 13km long, but with 750m of elevation gain, Yellow Aster Butte is a little bit steeper.

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The trail starts with lots of bright colours as you weave your way through some low shrubs and trees looking out towards Mount Baker. Honestly, the trailhead is probably the most colourful part of the entire trail because from there you head into the woods for a few kilometers to climb up to the alpine. On the East Coast, most of the fall colours come from the trees, but my experience on the west coast has been that most of the colours come from the shrubs. The low lying plants turn beautiful hues of orange, yellow, and red. The bottom of the trail was mostly oranges and yellows, but once we popped out into the alpine, there were a lot more reds along the trail.

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Once you exit the woods, you continue climbing up around a big bowl to the butte. For those who aren’t familiar, a butte is an isolated hill with steep sides and a flat top. Personally I think yellow aster butte is a bit of a misnomer because it looks a lot more like a mountain to me than anything else, but I’m no expert. As you keep climbing, the views start to open up more and more. There were a few overripe blueberries hanging on along the trail and it looked like the area had recently received its first smattering of snow. It’s a bit of a barren area, but still very scenic.

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The trail is a little flatter as you circle around the edge of the bowl, but then it starts climbing again to the end of the trail, with a steep section up to the top of the butte. This part of the trail had snow on it when we visited, but it was the kind of snow that makes you really unsure about what kind of footwear to use. I think studs would have been ideal, but we only had microspikes, so we used those. They were clumping up a bit from the dirt underneath the snow, so we probably could have just struggled up without them, but why risk it when we carried the spikes all the way up there anyways!

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From the top there are some pretty awesome views of the trail and we stopped to have lunch. Despite it being weeks earlier than when we’d hiked Skyline Divide the previous year, it was much colder and I bundled up in my winter parka, contrasting the shorts I’d been wearing the year before. It just goes to show you really have to be prepared for any weather, especially when hiking in shoulder season. While we felt like we were on top of the world, the trail actually continues another kilometer down the ridge and back up to another peak on the other side. Some people were crawling down the bank to finish the hike, but we decided it wasn’t worth the risk along slippery ground. The view from the first peak is absolutely incredible so we were already satisfied.

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We took our time coming back down, stopping to snack on some berries and taking lots of pictures of the surrounding vista. We were in a bit of a goofy mood, which is one of my favourite ways to feel on a hike, so we took lots of funny pictures of us in our surroundings and generally had a good laugh on the way down. Despite the cold weather, it was still a really nice day and we resolved to come back the following week to do the Chain Lakes Trail!

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Hiking Skyline Divide

It’s been a few years now since I did this hike, but it was my first time hiking across the border in the North Cascades and it inspired me to come back several times after to explore other hikes in the area. Skyline Divide is one of many hikes in the Mount Baker Wilderness Area and is located about a 2 hour drive from Vancouver. For some reason I’ve done almost all of my hiking there in the fall, with the exception of having snowshoed Artist Point twice (once as a day trip and once as a snow camp). We always cross the border at the Sumas Crossing because it’s less busy and in this case, actually closer to our final destination than crossing at Peace Arch. The last time we crossed the border (which trust me, was not recently), Lien actually got questioned about why he came to Sumas so much when he lives in Vancouver, well this is why – hiking.

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We’ve been dying for the land border to open back up so we can do more fall hiking in the Mount Baker area, but until then, I’ve been reminiscing about the gorgeous weekend in late October 2018 when Lien and Kevin decided to do the Skyline Divide trail. I had no intentions of going with them because a friend had just visited and we’d spent Friday night partying followed by a full day exploring Whistler on Saturday, so I was pretty tired. But at the last minute I decided I didn’t want to miss out and joined Lien and Kevin bright and early to drive down towards Baker. So glad I did because I had the best time on this hike!

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Like most hikes, Skyline Divide starts with a steep-ish climb up through the forest to get to the ridgeline. It’s about 4km to the top and then from there, it’s scenic “skyline” views the whole hike! I was in awe of the view when we first hit the top and something about this trail just makes you want to keep propelling forward. There’s a small side trail to a viewpoint right when you reach the ridge and then there’s a fairly steep section as you continue along the trail. From there the trail undulates up and now from peak to peak – it’s a workout, but the views are incredible, I truly loved every second! I love trails that hike along the ridgeline because they are truly epic, but generally you have to hike quite a distance up in order to get to those kinds of trails, making them better for backpacking. Skyline makes for a great day hike!

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I’m not sure where the official end to the skyline trail is, but it keeps going from peak to peak and at some point we passed the end and just kept on going. Poor Kevin was struggling with all the uphill sections. Every time we crested a hill me and Lien would be like, “Oh wow, this is amazing, but look there’s another peak after this one, we have to go there!” We kept saying “Last one Kevin, we promise!”, but we were lying every time. There was always another peak that we wanted to push on to and I don’t think Kevin had the energy to say no to such gorgeous views. I think our energy and excitement was mostly propelled by the fact that the entire time you are hiking towards Mount Baker. So after every peak you think that if you push just one peak further, you’ll get an even better view. This was my first hike in such close proximity to Mount Baker and I’ve since learned that Baker is extremely misleading in sheer size. It’s so large in comparison to all the other surrounding mountains, that it tricks you into thinking it’s much closer than it actually is.

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In any case, we continued to push forward until the trail started to look less like a trail and more like a climb. Then we finally stopped for lunch and continued soaking in the views. It was late in October when we did this hike, so in retrospect I’m impressed we were able to push as far as we did as we would have had limited daylight hours, so we must have been making a pretty good pace. It was also surprising how warm it was – I’d worn my zip off pants and ended up taking off the pant legs and just hiking in shorts. But I do remember it being a particularly warm Fall that year, so that’s definitely not normal. In contrast, we did another hike in the same area (Yellow Aster Butte) last year in late September and I wore my winter coat and there was snow at the top, so the conditions vary from year to year. Just because we were able to hike Skyline in late October that year doesn’t mean it would still be accessible at the same time in the future.

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After lunch there was nothing to do but push back, climbing every peak in reverse. I didn’t notice that much traffic on the trail in, but I guess we’d had a head start on a lot of people because we definitely encountered a lot more hikers on the way out. Even late in the afternoon some were just cresting the ridgeline, I suspect their ultimate goal may have been to catch the sunset, which would have been lovely, but we still had to drive back to Vancouver, so we started the trek back down to the car. The forested section is definitely not as fun coming down. It’s quite steep, which I find hard on the knees and poor Kevin was dying. It’s not my proudest moment, but I really just wanted to pound down the last section to get back to the car to rest my knees, so I left the boys behind and ended up waiting for them at the car.

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According to my hiking book, Skyline Divide is officially 13km long with 670m in elevation gain, but I tracked 16.5km and 830m elevation gain on the hike we did, so not too much farther than the official trail, I think perhaps 2 peaks beyond. In conclusion, I would 100% recommend this trail. It’s steep at the beginning, but overall not a challenging hike and it has the most rewarding views! Very sad we haven’t been able to go down to the North Cascades this year, but looking forward to more hikes in the future.

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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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