Friday, December 14, 2012

Cross country skiing around Mt Baker


The North Cascades in Whatcom County and elsewhere in northwest Washington state 
usually have lots of snow on the many mountains. This should make for some good ungroomed cross country ski touring for people who aren't extreme or skilled backcountry skiers.  But, that's not the case across much of the North Cascades. The Southern Washington and Oregon Cascade mountains are better for ski touring for most people on New Nordic Norm Backcountry (NNN-BC) gear, Salomon Nordic Norm Backcountry (SNS-BC) or 3-pin touring gear because the North Cascades are too steep and avalanche prone except for ski mountaineers or snowshoers, both which should have formal avalanche training and all the equipment.  

On, this type of ski touring is often called "low angle touring". There are extensive logging road systems on National Forest and state DNR lands on the westside North Cascades of course but most of those have been taken over by snowmobiles.  Around Mt Baker, the Canyon Creek and Glacier Creek areas are dominated by snowmobiles especially on weekends.  This is just a fact of life that the quiet and clean air seeking XC skier must work around. 
The Sno-Park on Mt Baker Hwy at the North Fork Nooksack is at 2000 feet elevation which is low elevation. It sometimes does not have enough snow and can get crowded and overused. The trips below are alternatives to the Salmon Ridge Sno-Parks. Outside of Salmon Ridge there are no other non-motorized Sno-Parks around Mt Baker and the snowshoer and skier must find their own routes. 

Since there is no Sno-Park on trips I have done below, the skier/snowshoer must drive as far as they feel comfortable to park then proceed on foot. A saw or ax is good to have to cut blowdowns off the road. The car should be good in snow preferably with 4 or all wheel drive. Tire chains and a shovel are a must. Be careful to not get stuck in a ditch when parking. Take a GPS waypoint at the car before starting off.

Besides steep, avalanche-prone terrain, another challenge for XC skiers in northwest Washington is that a lot of the old logging roads from the heyday of clearcutting in the 1960s, 70s and 80s are now filling in with alder whips and washing out from landslides.  These old logging roads need to be brushed out if they are to stay cross country ski routes. If you don't know if an access road is open call the US Forest Service in Sedro-Woolley. Their webpage on road/trail access has information too but can sometimes be outdated.

Every cross country skier in northwest Washington should have a copy of "Cross-Country Ski Tours: Washington's North Cascades" (2nd edition,1996) by Tom Kirkendall and Vicky Spring.  They should also have the US Forest Service road map of Mt Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and the Green Trails maps for the Mt Baker area like Mt Baker (#13), Mt Shuksan (#14), Hamilton (#45) and Lake Shannon (#46). 

I also highly recommend the Chuckanut Cross Country Skiing webpage at

Google Earth is an amazing tool for research destinations. Learn how to use it fully and you can can find out places to explore. These ski trips are easy to see on Green Trails maps. Mt Shuksan #14, Hamilton #45 and Lake Shannon # 46 and Mt Baker #13 have the ski tours closer to Mt Baker. These Green Trail maps are must-haves.

Below is a list of areas that I have XC skied that not many people know about

  1. Twin Lakes Road up to Swamp Creek: FR 3065 and 3066.  This is the road up to Yellow Aster Butte trailhead. Park at the Sno Park then bushwhack through forest to the gravel pit.  Then ski west to the Twin Lakes Rd. About 3 miles up is the Swamp Creek spur. The bridge is out but can sometimes be skipped across. An old logging road continues up into an old clearcut for more views.
  2. upper Anderson Creek: FR 3071, from the Sno-Park.  Continue past where grooming ends and to the end of the road in a hanging basin.
  3. upper Kidney Creek Rd: FR 3130.  Springtime tour.  This old road off Canyon Creek Rd north of Church Mtn is getting brushy and there could be blowdowns down low.  The Canyon Creek Road is blocked due to landslide in 2012.
    spring corn snow on Kidney Creek Road
  4. Welcome Pass: hike to the snowline with skis.  Trail is very steep.  Ice ax was necessary.  Surprisingly easy skiing up on the ridge.  This is real backcountry skiing. Illegal snowmobile use on this ridge well within the Wilderness boundary. Most people would use snowshoes on this trip.
  5. Porter Creek Rd: gated first left off the Middle Fork Nooksack Rd (FR 38).  Requires a low snowline at about 500 - 1000 feet elevation. Ends at a high clearcut with good views of Twin Sisters Mountains. 
  6. Dailey Prairie from Middle Fork Nooksack: there's a new bridge over the Nooksack as of Oct. 2008. The mining company rebuilt the bridge in Aug. 2008. People park at the bridge and walk over. Weekdays may see mining trucks. Bowman Mountain seems like a good destination too but I did not make it all the way on foot.
  7. Stewart Mtn from Middle Fork Nooksack: drove up as far as you can on FR 38 then skied up the first left beyond the turnoff that goes to the new, possibly closed bridge over the Middle Fork Nooksack.  Views of the Twin Sisters and other mountains are very good.  The photo above is from this trip.  This tour depends on correlating snowline.   There's a long spur road running east below that top that should be explored.
    route up Stewart Peak from Middle Fork Nooksack
  8. DOT comm tower from Wells Creek Rd: FR 33.  Starts at gate above Nooksack Falls.  This trip requires a low snowline. 
    North Fork Nooksack from near Nooksack Falls
  9. upper Cougar Divide Rd along Wells Creek: FR 33.  This road is gated above Nooksack Falls until some time in spring.  Ride mountain bike to snowline in spring then start skiing.  Avalanche slopes on west side of Barometer Mtn make this a tour for spring when it's stable. 
    mountain biking to the snowline on Wells Creek Road
  10. Slide Mountain: on DNR land south of Kendall.  Drive to snowline from North Fork Rd beyond the turnoff to Racehorse Falls.  Turn right uphill before the gravel pit.  I was able to drive to a large, new clearcut at maybe 1500 feet elevation (?!) in spring.  This is a spring tour.  There's a great little bowl beyond the lake where the road deteriorates.  There's a lake at (UTM, NAD27 CONUS) zone 10U 0570571, 5415015, elevation 4212 feet.  A highpoint goal on a spring snow posthole hike was Pk 4884 on Slide Mountain at UTM Zone 10U 0572191, 5413132. 
  11. Toboggan Pass from Racehorse Creek: This was hard to find at first. I drove beyond the turnoff to Racehorse Falls and went right up toward Racehorse Creek. I parked at junction of road that runs down to bridge over Racehorse Creek and started skiing. Had lunch below the communication tower. The ski down was outstanding due to perfect slope and perfect snow. Google Earth shot here.
  12. Canyon Lake Community Forest: I drove to the snowline.  Hike or ski to snowline then ski to viewpoint as described in Ken Wilcox book "Hiking Whatcom County".  The open areas with "reprod" in old clearcuts up on the ridge, south of the lake look pretty good.  The access road is closed from Mosquito Lake Road due to washout. However, may be possible to access Canyon Creek Lake from # 11. Toboggan Pass above in spring when you can drive higher due to a high snowline
  13. Upper Glacier Creek: FR 39 and 36.  These are the roads near Heliotrope Ridge trailhead.  Be sure to go on a weekday in spring or there will be tons of snowmobiles.  Magnificent views from Lookout Mtn and there's a nice bowl on the north side for yo yo-ing.  The east side of Pk 5328 has nice views.  
  14. West Church Mountain: FR 3120.  This road is gated and closed to motorized use until April 15 to protect wildlife habitat so it's a good place to explore before then to get away from noise and stink. It was accessed from the Canyon Creek Road which unfortunately closed due to washout at SR 542 near Glacier.

Places I want to XC ski but have not and hope to hit this winter/spring of 2012 - 2013

--The Finney Tract of the Mt Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest south of Lyman, west of Darrington and east of Mt Vernon. I wish this area had a non-motorized Sno Park.  The terrain is more mild than other parts of the North Cascades, there are a lot of old logging roads and it's closer to where a lot of people live.  Now there are only snowmobile Sno-Parks.  This means you should only ski here on weekdays in spring.  I haven't skied here but want to especially the road to Gee Point trailhead and Finney Peak. Trip reports on NWhikers here and here.
--The climbing route to North Twin Sister Mountain from the Middle Fork Nooksack has a lot of logging roads.  It goes though Dailey Prairie (see above).  The upper part just west of the Mt Baker Wilderness boundary and west slope of Twin Sister Range has logging roads and high elevation clearcuts end which look like good places for low angle ski touring. They say a mountain bike is good for the ridge back down to the bridge over the Middle Fork Nooksack

-- the first big open subalpine bowl on Goat Mountain Trail off the Hannegan Road in spring.  Good skiers ski down from near the top.  I can't.  I'd be happy with yo yo-ing in the bowl after carrying in skis on a hike in spring.  

--I've hiked to Hannegan Pass in spring.  If the avalanche hazard is low, the terrain on the west side of the pass looks like it has some easy XC, backcountry ski touring.  This would be good area for a spring, corn snow camping trip.

--Lookout Mountain south of Bellingham looks like it may be a good XC ski tour if the snowline was low.  That'd be unusual.  This is a hike in Ken Wilcox's "Hiking Whatcom County"

--the powerline corridor that steeply climbs Stewart Mtn from the North Shore Lake Whatcom Trail looks like it'd be a good ski tour if the snowline was low and there was plenty of snow at 2000 feet at this location.  That'd be unusual.  This is a hike in Ken Wilcox's "Hiking Whatcom County"

-- Rankin Creek Road at the end of the Middle Fork Nooksack road FR 38. This is near the Ridley Creek trailhead (seldom used). This part of the Middle Fork road is gated in winter at Wallace Creek. It climbs on switchbacks from about 2500 feet elevation to 3600 elevation. (Gren Trails # 45 Hamilton, WA)

--  FR 1130 the road to Rainbow Ridge trailhead. Ascends to 3600 feet elevation with good views from openings and second growth forest in old clearcuts.

-- Mt Josephine which is the red rock-topped peak north of Hamilton, WA. We've hiked it from logging roads that approached from the west. I've also hiked to upper Josephine Lake from the south east. The ridge road seems like a good ski tour.