Alpine Sunset: Backpacking Mt. Baker’s Chain Lakes Loop

8 miles
1500 feet elevation gain

I sat with my back against a rock, watching the mountains reflected in the lake below. As the sun slowly dipped over the horizon and twilight descended around me, I sighed with happiness. This is what I have been missing since I left the PCT last fall.

Sunset over Arbuthnet Lake

I started my adventure earlier that morning, scrambling to readjust as my original hiking plans for the weekend fell through. After repacking my bag for a solo trip, I drove north. I headed to Mt. Baker as a backcountry permit is not required to stay overnight in that area – it’s first come first served. (Note: a Forest Service Pass or day use fee is required for parking). I crossed my fingers and hoped to get lucky.

View of Mt. Shuksan from Artist Point

They have the cutest outhouse up here

I arrived at Artist Point by 11:30 am. Large piles of snow lined the parking area but the parking lot itself is snow-free. A Forest Service Ranger was stationed under a canopy in the parking lot so I walked over and mentioned that I was headed to Chain Lakes. He thought that was a great idea but advised me to camp only in designated sites as they are trying to rehabilitate areas that have been overused in the past.

This Ranger was really helpful.  Thanks Ranger!

Snowbank in the edge of the parking lot

I chose to hike the trail clockwise and so took a moment to locate the Ptarmigan Ridge trail. I had to climb over a snowbank when leaving the parking lot and then the Ptarmigan Ridge Trail emerged, snow-free for the most part. For the first mile, the trail hugs the side of Table Mountain with stunning views of Mt. Baker ahead and Mt. Shuksan behind. The temperature was in the upper 80s and this section is fairly exposed, so I stopped to apply sunscreen and guzzle some water.

Hiking the Ptarmigan Ridge Trail

Mt. Baker in all her glory

This snowfield is a piece of cake

After a mile, I took the junction for the Chain Lakes Trail which dips down and over the ridge into a basin. Here, I encountered what is currently the biggest snowfield on the Chain Lakes loop. I traversed it ok in my Altra Lone Peak trail runners but took my time as I had to navigate down a hill.

At the junction with Ptarmigan Ridge and the Chain Lakes trail. This snowfield is more challenging to cross.

Thumbs up!

Looking behind – a view of the snowfield after I crossed it

Crossing another snowfield on the way to Mazama Lake

After passing the snowfield, from there the trail is snow-free down to Mazama Lake. Mazama is the smallest of the Chain Lakes and has lovely views of Table Mountain, as well as a privy. I took the side trail to check out the 4 campsites to the west of the lake and was surprised to find them all unoccupied. I considered stopping there for the night, but my curiosity got the better of me and I pressed on.

Mazama Lake

Switchbacks are never fun but this view somehow makes them easier…

West face of Table Mountain as viewed from Mazama Lake

I was so glad that I did. Five minutes later, Iceberg Lake came into view and my jaw dropped. The north flank of Table Mountain juts dramatically out of the lake with snowbanks encircling the water’s edge like a delicate necklace. I haven’t seen anything this magnificent since I left the Sierras.

Iceberg Lake – be still my beating heart!

Trail selfie at Iceberg Lake

Wildflowers along the Chain Lakes

For families or those wanting a shorter hike, this is a good place to turn around. It’s just over 2 miles to Iceberg Lake one-way – with only 100 feet elevation gain on the way there and 450 on the way back.

No camping is allowed next to Iceberg Lake so I continued along to Hayes Lake. According to my map, there are 4 campsites scattered around the lake so I began hunting for them. Hayes Lake is much bigger than Mazama and also more popular – and it’s easy to see why. The views of Table Mountain’s north face are gorgeous from this vantage point. I saw several tents set up illegally around the lake in unofficial spots which is a shame.

Hayes Lake with the Table Mountain in the background – check out the bird circling overhead!

Hayes Lake as viewed from my campsite

This shitter has the best view that I have ever seen

I ended up walking all the way around Hayes Lake to the very last campsite and was happy to find it unoccupied. It’s a 20-minute walk from the toilet on the other side of the lake but has stunning views of both Hayes and Arbuthnet Lakes. I spent a pleasant evening in solitude, watching the sun set over Arbuthnet Lake.

My humble abode for the evening

Arbuthnet Lake at dusk

In the morning I broke camp around 9:30 am and continued hiking clockwise up to Herman Saddle. I couldn’t help but look behind me periodically to take in the view of Mt. Baker with Chain Lakes framed below.

View of Mt. Baker with Iceberg Lake in the foreground

The same view but taken from higher up

…and even higher up still

The views at the top of the saddle are magnificent and I stopped for an early lunch and to drink it all in. There is still some snow here as well, but it’s less steep than the snowfield at the junction with Ptarmigan Ridge Trail and seemed easier to manage. Also I got a signal on my phone here for the first time since the previous day.

Herman Saddle in the distance

Approaching Herman Saddle

Herman Saddle!

View of Mt. Shuksan from the top of Herman Saddle

Once over the saddle, the trail descends along the side of Mazama Dome to Bagley Lakes. The Heather Meadows Visitor Center was barely visible in the distance, along with gorgeous views of Mt. Shuksan. I passed many day hikers huffing up the hill as I descended – some clearly unprepared for the heat and the elevation. This section is very exposed and I found it more difficult than I anticipated based on the map.

Look closely and you can see the trail descending along the side of Mazama Dome

Mt. Shuksan

Bagley Lake

Do-it-yourself icepacks for achy knees

A neat-o bridge over Bagley Lakes

Once at Heather Meadows, I elected to hitch back up to Artist Point rather than taking the Wild Goose Trail to close the loop. This section parallels the road and I heard that it’s very steep and not terribly inspiring.  I stuck out my thumb and was reminded of all the times I hitched last summer on the PCT.  Ahhh… memories!

Heather Meadows Visitor Center

I sighed with satisfaction when I made it back to my car.  What a lovely hike.  I’ll definitely be coming back to this one.

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