Heading due east out of Bellingham, Washington is one of the most amazing scenic byways in the country — Washington State Route 542, affectionately known as the Mt. Baker Highway. This two-lane thoroughfare undulates and meanders its way some 57-miles into the Mt. Baker/Snoqualmie National Forest before ending at the Mt. Baker ski area parking lot. The twists, turns, ups, and downs of the road allow brief glimpses of the snow covered 10,778 foot escarpment of Mt. Baker and its accompanying glaciers. However, just when you are beginning to become awestruck by the majesty of this monolith, the road doglegs amongst the foothills and the pine forests and the view becomes obstructed. Fortunately, the area is rife with myriad hiking trails, where you can ascend above the forest’s canopy and enjoy the immaculate vistas.
One of these hiking trails, the trek to Welcome Pass, is particularly enjoyable, albeit tremendously strenuous. To access the trailhead turn left off the Mt. Baker Highway at milepost 45.8 and drive about a mile to the trailhead parking area. Once on the trail, the path follows an old road bed for a half-mile where you are duped into thinking that this enterprise will be a walk in the park. However, the grade quickly steepens and you realize what’s in store — a knee pounding, calf burning 3,600 foot ascent that takes place in a 2.5-mile span. Sixty-seven switchbacks, amid old-growth Douglass firs, zigzag you to the pass. After gaining a significant amount of elevation you can begin to ascertain just how spectacular this view is going to be. Enticing views of Baker and Mt. Shuksan (9,127 feet) through openings in the trees urge you to press on, even as your legs beg for a respite. Soon, the trail empties into a gorgeous alpine meadow with wildflowers in full bloom. Take a spur trail that ascends steeply to the right and in moments a panoramic, 360-degree view of the North Cascades will wash over you. Find a rock to rest your weary muscles on and take the view in. The crisp, Carolina blue sky contrasts nicely with the rugged terrain of the precipices and the glacial meadows of the valleys. Reward yourself with a gulp of water and a bite from a Clif Bar and just be.
The descent from Welcome Pass is interesting, to say the least. Gravity is on your side this time, as you hop over roots and try not to slide on the loose dirt. You will easily make it back to your car in half the time it took you to climb to the top. Once back out on the highway for your return trip to Bellingham, be sure to pull off and take a quick dip in the glacially fed waters of the Nooksack River. Sufficiently refreshed yet hungry, hop back into your vehicle and make another quick stop at the North Fork Brewery, Pizzeria, Beer Shrine and Wedding Chapel. Needless to say, this place has character. Enjoy your slice with a microbrew and enjoy the incredible day you have had.
By: Aaron Faust