|Mount Baker, Park and Rainbow Glaciers, the Portal, and Sholes Glacier|
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required
There are many good hikes in the Pacific Northwest; Ptarmigan Ridge is an exceptional hike. The views start from the parking lot at Artist Point and never stop, improbably becoming ever more expansive at every turn of the trail. This entirely alpine hike explores the rocky slopes of Ptarmigan Ridge, the meadows around Coleman Pinnacle, the snowfields above Goat Lake, and the stark, harsh glaciated terrain of Mount Baker's East Portal. The full hike starts at Artist Point and ends atop the vertigo-inducing cliffs of East Portal with its front row view of Mount Baker and the Rainbow Glacier, but hikers who choose to do even just a short portion of this hike will find spectacular scenery. The hike requires less effort than trails that provide a similar alpine experience, but still requires navigating snowfields, hiking through rocky terrain, a bit of rock scrambling, and occasional routefinding; it's certainly not an easy hike.
Ptarmigan Ridge is typically entirely snowbound until August or September. If you don't have experience route-finding in the snow, don't go before then! There's probably only a month or two each year when the trail is in good condition for hiking and I highly discourage visiting outside that window.
This hike can be divided into roughly six portions, each roughly a mile long except for the last segment, a shorter half-mile rock scramble. The first portion runs from the trailhead at Artist Point to the junction with the Chain Lakes Trail; the second starts from that point and ends when the trail enters a grassy saddle. The third segment ends at a sharp turn where the trail rounds a jutting ridge; the fourth ends at the base of Coleman Pinnacle, above the snowfields at Goat Lake. The fifth segment runs to the flat area at Camp Kiser, while the final segment is a half-mile through scree to the summit of East Portal. Hikers looking for shorter options can turn around after completing the third or fourth segments, both of which offer superb views and a more moderate hike; if you've reached Camp Kiser, you might as well continue to the summit of East Portal, provided you're up for a bit of scrambling and aren't acrophobic.
I hiked this trail alone on a August Sunday that started out sunny and clear but ended up cloudy with a few drops of rain. I drove up to Artist Point the night before to stargaze and see Mount Baker illuminated by the moon. From Seattle, I took I-5 to Bellingham and then followed Highway 542 (the Mount Baker Highway) to its terminus at Artist Point.
|Star trails over moonlit Mount Baker|
|Sunrise light on Mount Baker|
|Mount Baker views from the Chain Lakes Trail|
|Ptarmigan Ridge Trail|
|Lupine blooming by stream, Church Mountain in the distance|
|View from second saddle back towards Table Mountain|
The view from this turn in the trail was fantastic: to the northeast, I could see Sefrit, Redoubt, Ruth; to the east Shuksan and the Lower Curtis Glacier, Blum, Hagan, Bacon, Watson. Mount Baker and the Coleman Pinnacle dominated the view ahead of the trail. This is a decent turnaround point for hikers looking for less than an 11 mile hike.
|North Cascades views from Ptarmigan Ridge Trail|
|Mount Baker and Coleman Pinnacle from turn on the trail|
|View from the turn|
|Mount Shuksan and Mount Ruth|
|Columnar andesite along the trail|
|Wildflowers blooming, Mount Baker and the Portals|
|The Portals and Sholes Glacier|
|Coleman Pinnacle and Mount Shuksan from Camp Kiser|
|Rainbow Glacier on Mount Baker|
In the opposite direction, my view was a feast of Cascade peaks. Closer in, I could see Sholes Glacier as it spilled downhill to its terminus over a thousand feet below me; just slightly further away was Coleman Pinnacle and Ptarmigan Ridge, which I had followed to reach this lofty vantage. Even further out was a sea of peaks: Skyline Divide, Excelsior, Church, American Border, Larrabee, the Pleiades, Goat, Sefrit, Ruth, Redoubt, Shuksan, the Pickets, Blum, Hagan, Bacon, Watson, Eldorado, Spider, Formidable, Snowking, White Chuck, Pugh, Sloan, and countless other spires that I didn't recognize, including some peaks in Canada.
|Sholes Glacier and the North Cascades from East Portal|