As some of you may have noticed, I’ve taken a bit of a break from blogging recently. The wildfires and heavy smoke blanketing the region at the end of summer really got me down – both mentally and physically. I caught one of those lingering colds that took a long time to shake off, and found it hard to get back into the groove again afterwards.
But as the rare sunny days of autumn slipped by, I was acutely aware that I was missing my last chance to spend quality time hiking in the mountains. Soon many of my favorite places would be inaccessible without snowshoes or skis – and to be honest I’m not much of a snow person. I needed to get myself out of my funk and up to a mountain top. And I wanted to take someone special with me.
And that’s how I found myself driving to Mt. Baker’s Artist Point on Saturday morning with my 7-year-old niece Ava. On a family hike earlier this year, she held my hand and commented several times that she wished we could go on a hike together, with just the two of us. Her words stayed with me for the rest of the summer and so I decided that it was time for a special Aunty-Niece Day.
Trees crowned in autumn colors lined the road as we drove east on the Mt. Baker Highway. We admired the golden leaves and peekaboo glimpses of the Nooksack River as we drew closer to our destination. Ava’s enthusiasm was contagious as she admired the scenery from her booster chair in the back seat. “It’s so beautiful!” she exclaimed.
We decided to start our adventure at the Heather Meadows Visitor Center. The parking lot was filling up rapidly when we arrived and began exploring The Wild Goose Trail. Ava energetically bounded up the path and hopped from rock to rock. Shady parts of the trail were still covered in ice, and she lost her footing at one point and landed hard on her butt. After checking to make sure she was ok, I held her hand for the next icy section and then I slipped and fell. D’oh! After that we slowed down quite a bit and chose our steps more carefully.
It finally occurred to me that we were not parked by the Visitor Center after all, but had accidentally parked at the Lower Bagley Lakes parking lot. We returned to the car and drove up, up, up to Artist’s Point at the very end of the road. The drive is a dramatic one, with hairpin turns and cliffs forming steep dropoffs on either side of the road.
The upper lot was already and full and crowds of people milled around when we arrived. Artist’s Point is not a place for solitude, but it is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen that is accessible by car. Both Mt. Shuksan and Mt. Rainier are on prominent display and form a breathtaking backdrop to the alpine meadows.
After parking in the lower lot, we headed to the Chain Lakes Trailhead. I knew from my backpacking trip of the Chain Lakes Trail earlier this summer that the first mile of the trail is flat and would be easy for Ava to manage. The path hugs the side of Table Mountain and offers stunning views of Mt. Baker to the southwest.
I had initially thought that we might make it to the Chain Lakes, but our pace was slow and I decided adjust our expectations to a shorter adventure. It’s such a beautiful area that it really doesn’t matter how far you go. Ava hiked in front of me and took her time enjoying the scenery and hopping on rocks.
“I think you need a trail name. What about Rock Hopper?” I asked.
Ava considered the name for a moment. “Yes, I like it,” she said. “Or what about Trail Runner?” she asked as she raced ahead of me. We never did settle on a trail name, but I think Rock Hopper suits her. We’ll see if the name sticks.
We paused for lunch at the junction with the Ptarmigan Ridge Trail and took in the view of Mt. Baker as we ate. Ava spied a small snowfield nearby and about lost her mind with excitement. The snow was icy and hard-packed but she delighted in playing in it.
Ava was reluctant to leave when we had to head back. And honestly so was I. This little trip with my niece was just what I needed to heal my soul. We sang songs and rock-hopped our way back to the car, enjoying the sunshine and eachother’s company.
What an absolutely incredible day. It’s one that I will treasure for the rest of my life. I hope she does too.