|Coleman Glacier and Mount Baker|
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous due to difficult stream fording and steep trail to Hogsback Camp
Access: Bumpy gravel-and-paved road to trailhead okay for most cars, Northwest Forest Pass required
The only reason you could leave Heliotrope Ridge disappointed is if you were looking for heliotropes. Wildflowers? Check. Mount Baker? Check. The main reason to hike to Heliotrope Ridge, though, is for the massive view of the crevasses and seracs of the tumbling Coleman Glacier, one of the most close-up viewpoints of a major glacier reachable by trail in Washington State or anywhere, really.
The most difficult part of the hike is fording Heliotrope Creek. The trail makes a total of four unaided stream crossings, of which the hardest by far is the third crossing, over Heliotrope Creek. As the creek is the principal drainage for meltwater from the upper Coleman Glacier, the volume of the creek is quite large and thus crossing the stream is quite difficult. Rock hopping is somewhere between difficult and impossible, depending on the rate of flow; your best bet is to hike through the shin-deep stream itself. Bring hiking poles and appropriate shoes for the crossing and keep in mind that glacial meltwater is literally almost freezing. Also be aware that flow rates fluctuate during the day and are typically highest in the afternoon, meaning that the water may be substantially higher and faster and the crossing thus substantially more difficult on your return hike.
I hiked this trail on a hot, sunny Saturday. Setting out from Seattle in the early morning, I followed I-5 north to Bellingham and then followed Highway 542 (the Mount Baker Highway) east just past the hamlet of Glacier to Glacier Creek Road. I turned onto Glacier Creek Road and followed the sometimes paved, always narrow, usually winding road for 8 miles to the parking lot at the Heliotrope Ridge trailhead; even before 9 AM on a Saturday, the parking lot was entirely full so I had to park along the side of the road just up from the trailhead itself.
Heading out from the trailhead lot, the Heliotrope Ridge trail immediately crossed a creek via a well-built bridge and then entered the Mount Baker Wilderness. This bridge was the only assisted stream crossing of the hike; from there on, all other streams had to be forded. The trail started by delving into the forest, climbing at a moderate grade. Although the trail was at times rocky, it was generally a pleasant uphill and at times crossed through swampy and muddy areas via well-placed wood planks. There were no real views to speak of but the trail itself was nice if not very remarkable for the first mile and a half. Bugs were all over the place early in the hike and were quite aggressive whenever I stopped, which kept me going along the trail at a fairly constant pace to keep the biting insects at arm's length.
|Forest along the trail|
|Waterfall along the trail|
Past the junction, the trail immediately entered a clearing with a reasonably good view of Chowder Ridge and more importantly of Mount Baker and the Coleman Glacier. For hikers who don't choose to cross Heliotrope Creek and forgo the Climbers' Route, this view is as good as it gets- so you should almost definitely plan for one of those two options!
|First view of Mount Baker and the Coleman Glacier|
My first view of the Coleman Glacier was stupendous. The blue ice of the glacier was torn open into numerous crevasses as it cascaded down Kulshan's slopes in spectacular icefalls. The glacier was enormous, dominating my entire field of view, and was complemented by an equivalently large field of ice beyond, the Roosevelt Glacier. Waterfalls thundered off the terminus of the Roosevelt Glacier, where meltwater from the ice momentarily underwent freefall at the edge of the ice-carved cliffs.
After briefly enjoying the view at this initial viewpoint, I followed a social trail along the rim of the moraine uphill to an enormous rock that marked the main viewpoint at Heliotrope Ridge. Here, the path along the rim rejoined with the principal trail to Heliotrope Ridge at a viewpoint with a magnificent view of the glacier's many folds and the many ice rivers emanating from the summit of Baker itself.
|Seracs on the Coleman Glacier|
|View into Canada|
|Subalpine basin at Heliotrope Ridge|
As soon as the Climbers' Route exited the trees, views were excellent in all directions. Views of the Roosevelt Glacier and Bastile Ridge, the red colored arm hugging the Roosevelt Glacier, improved as I climbed up. I noticed many more waterfalls tumbling downwards throughout the meadow-filled slopes. The Coleman Glacier above the camp area became progressively more clear as well and it soon became possible to spot the tracks left by numerous climbers heading out from Hogsback Camp to summit Kulshan itself.
|Mount Baker and the Coleman and Roosevelt Glaciers from Climbers' route|
|Wildflowers blooming along the Hogsback|
|Mount Baker, Colfax Peak, and the wildflowers at Hogsback Camp|
|Coleman Glacier above Hogsback Camp|