Chain Lakes Loop

August 2022 was the month of stunning, brand-new hikes for me–I went three for three!

Despite living in Bellingham for school for the better part of 4 years, I had never actually been hiking in the Baker area. That simply had to change! There’s tons of beautiful hikes here, and a small snow-free window to do them in. The drive was a punishing four hours each way, with the hike and a beer stop it was more than a 12 hour day. But that’s the price you pay to hike somewhere beautiful.

I don’t usually advocate tips at the beginning, but if you want to do this hike, warning now: It is VERY exposed. Use caution on a hot day, bring lots of sun protection and water. First aid for pups can be wise too, as I’ve heard the rocks on this trail can cut up paws badly. Also, there’s dozens of trails in the area, so I’d urge having a map and your route planned in advance.

An idea of how exposed the trail is.

As this is a loop, you have your choice of direction. You also have your choice of starting point, either Heather Meadows or Artist Point. The lot at Artist Point can and will fill up, even on a weekday, and if you are antsy to get started, you hit Heather Meadows first on the drive, so that’s where we stopped. There’s a part called Wild Goose that is super steep with stairs and loose rocks, and depending on where you park and what direction you go, you’re either starting with down or up steep (if departing Artist Point), or having up steep fairly early on (clockwise from Heather Meadows), or pretty close to the end (counter from Heather Meadows). I think this hike was so gorgeous, I’ll just have to try all four options out before giving a definitive best option*, but will write from our perspective of starting at Heather Meadows and going counterclockwise.

A look back at Shuksan (and Bagley Lake).

Immediately, we went downhill, and the views started. I was thrilled to have Brandon from Beers at the Bottom join Marissa and I! Brandon lives in Bellingham and had done the trail frequently, and was invaluable as a guide as well as company. We had small tarn-like lakes at our feet, Mount Shuksan behind us, and were approaching Mount Baker with every step.

The lake was the most stunning blue color, even from afar.

The heat was already getting to us. I have brought 5.7L of water total for myself and my dog, and I was pretty worried about his black fur in the constant sun, even after he had done so well at Park Butte–this was far warmer and more exposed than that day had been, even if it is a shorter and easier trail. Around 2.2 miles in was our first big snack break point, a stunning ridge between slices of Baker and Shuksan. I hadn’t actually brought a ton of snacks (the drawbacks of imprompteau hiking), but made do with what I had. It was a great view and great company, chatting hikes, beer, and gear. We eventually had to tear ourselves away, but it was that or melt and become one with the mountains. Once we departed, it was a little windy here, and we even dipped (briefly) into the shade as we tucked downward. The views of Baker (or Koma Kulshan) towering over Iceberg Lake were absolutely jaw-dropping. I kept taking more pictures as we headed lower and lower.

There were some brave souls in the water at this shore–brrrr!

The shade ended, and the trail flattened a bit. We reached a strip of trail between Hayes Lake on our right, and Iceberg on our left. If backpacking, Hayes is one of your only options for overnight stays. There is a backcountry toilet here as well. From here, you skirt closer to Iceberg Lake, and at 3.6 miles in was another jaw-dropping break spot.

The climb starts up again after this. While it was hot, with a touch of smoke in the air, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, so it was hard to find anything to be unhappy with. Seeing a WTA work party toiling away in the sun near Mazama Lake (the other choice for backpacking campsites) made us feel a little better about the heat, and there was even a tarn close enough for my (leashed) pup to splash in and cool off!

As you skirt around Table Mountain, the views of Baker, and the sun hitting the trails, get more powerful. There was a big snowfield here someone had their dog romping in, which I should have made the group pause for us to do. Instead, we pushed onward, climbing more and more. We came to a junction with the Ptarmigan Ridge trail (another stunner on my wish list), but kept left to finish the loop up. From here the trail left Baker and was facing Shuksan, and it leavened out a bit, and there were even tiny patches of shade for our water breaks. The trail got far more crowded as we approached Artist Point, but there was another snowfield opportunity I wasn’t going to pass up. After my pup cooled off, we cut through the (very full) lot (with bathrooms if needed) to try to rejoin the trail.

Mount Shuksan, close enough to almost touch.
The permanent cairns guiding you on the Wild Goose trail.

At just the Wild Goose portion, there’s huge permanent cairns to help guide you. The descent down the steep, rocky stairs started immediately, and I was super thankful to not be ending with climbing up these as my very last act on trail (*not to self: do not ever do clockwise from Artist Point). I definitely had shaky legs, and using poles here was a little wonky, but we were so close to done it didn’t matter. The last quarter-mile after the stairs was a complete and utter blur, as we all were so happy to get to the car and some air-conditioning. Overall, this was an amazing hike, one I thought definitely earned its place as one of 100 Classic Washington Hikes. Some hikes are a one and done for me, but this one, I can tell, I’ll be a repeat customer–armed with sunscreen and a wide-brim hat.

 

 

In summary:

Distance: WTA said 6.5 for the loop, Brandon and I both clocked 6.4.

Elevation: WTA said 1820, I measured 1675 on Gaia. Depending on route and starting point this can greatly vary in terms of toughness, and I was happy to have poles for parts on the way down.

Parking: NW Forest Pass or America the Beautiful Interagency pass.

Bathrooms: There are pit toilets at both trailheads, and a backcountry toilet near Hayes and Iceberg Lakes.

Food Storage if Backpacking: Safe storage recommended.

Fires: No fires at this elevation allowed.

Best Beer Bet: I was hoping to finally go to North Fork Brewers along the Mount Baker Highway, but they don’t allow dogs! Beer and amazing pierogis were had at the dog-friendly and delicious Otherlands Brewing in Bellingham.

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