Elevation Gain (ft)
With views of Mt. Shuksan to the east, Mt. Baker to the west and a trail that crosses ridges, volcanic landscape and permanent snow fields, the Ptarmigan Ridge Trail keeps your jaw dropping over the course of this 9 mile out-and-back hike. Done as a day hike or one night backpack, this trail won’t disappoint.
Location: Mount Baker Wilderness, Washington, USA
Trailhead: Artist Point Parking Area; pit toilets
Length: 9.0 miles roundtrip; +1,350 ft.
Trail Type: Out and back
Warnings: Trail may be mostly snow-covered until August and even in summer permanent snow field crossings are required. Mountain weather is extremely variable. Be prepared for temperature swings, sudden rain, sleet and/or snow, and whiteout conditions.
The parking lot for the Ptarmigan Ridge Trail might be the most beautiful parking lot in the world. Stepping out of your car, you have center stage views of Mt. Shuksan and Mt. Baker, two of the most iconic mountains in the Pacific Northwest. As you get ready to set off, double-check that you are following signage for the Ptarmigan Ridge and Chain Lakes trail, which coincide for the first 1.1 miles, as the parking lot is the starting point for several other trails in the area.
I have to admit that I was looking forward to hiking this trail since I found out about its existence about 2 months before my trip to Washington. I read trail reports, looked at photos and watched YouTube videos of the trail. It’s a good and bad habit. I want to do thorough research so I am prepared, but I also run the risk of taking away some of the mystique of the trail. In this case, however, I can report that not only did this trail knock my socks off, and almost kill me (we’ll get to that later), but I think it is impossible to capture the majestic beauty of this trail in word or digital form. You simply have to experience it.
I did this hike as a one night backpack in late September just as fall started to show its colors and the blueberries were still in season. Though I have only hiked the trail once, fall is definitely a great time to do it. In summer during the wildflower bloom would be another great time as well assuming most of the snow has melted off, however, you will have to deal with mosquitoes.
Leaving the parking lot, the trail starts making its way towards Mt. Baker slightly below a ridge. This first mile coincides with the Chain Lakes Trail. The trail junction, where the two trails split, is well-marked with a wooden post. Stay on the Ptarmigan Ridge Trail, by continuing straight. Soon you will cross a volcanic landscape of black soil and rock.
As you continue, you will likely need to cross some permanent snow fields. Around the 3.8 mile mark, you will crest a ridge that has a prominent view of Mt. Baker’s east side. This is an excellent spot for a lunch break and has a great. Though many people turn around at this point, I suggest you keep going as there is still some great trail ahead and the views only get better. As you contour along the ridge, keep your eyes open for mountain goats below. We saw three near a tarn on our hike.
At this point, it is hard to decided where to look. Mt. Baker is in front of you, Goat Lake and its turquoise waters are on your left, blueberries on your right and Mt. Shuksan behind.
By this time, you will have passed under Coleman Pinnacle and if you are camping, you might want to find a campsite on the plateau where Goat Lake sits. If you can, find a place protected from the wind.
The trail starts to gain some elevation as it makes it way towards Mt. Baker’s east slope and The Portals, which are two prominent formations on the slope. A climber’s route to the Park Glacier leads up the mountain and if follow, you will need to use cairns to navigate. Go as far as you feel comfortable, but if you plan to go on the glacier, you should be familiar with glacier travel and have the required equipment (i.e. ice axe, crampons, etc.).
As I made my way up the climbers route to the edge of the glacier, the clouds rolled in and it started to hail. My partner and I took that as a signal to start the return trek back to the plateau. Soon we were literally walking in a cloud of precipitation that switched between hail, sleet, and rain. Navigating back to camp was fairly easy once we got off the climber’s route and back on the trail. Needless to stay, we here happy to get back to camp and have a warm dinner before settling down for the night.
Overnight the precipitation was moderate, but the temperature dropped like a rock and the winds picked up force. We woke up to a dusting of snow and 20+ mph winds with gusts reaching 40 mph. My Six Moons Design Skyscape Trekker tent, which has served me fairly well in the forested northeast, wasn’t dealing so well with the winds on an exposed ridge. This was apparent as the outer wall was constantly being blown into the middle of the tent. This caused the bottom edge of the outer wall to rise up and allow snow and freezing rain to collect on the netting, which in turn allowed moisture to get inside the tent. Not ideal at all.
After about an hour, I looked outside and we were literally in a cloud with precipitation and wind battering us on all sides. We debated whether to stick out the storm and spend another night. I miraculously got some intermittent cell service and was able to check an updated National Weather Service forecast, which predicted 2 – 7 inches of snow and a low of 24° with a high of 34°. We decided we didn’t want to stick around and wait for conditions to get worse so we made a break for it even though the conditions outside were pretty much a full on whiteout.
This is when I learned the importance of rain pants and why I will always carry them in the future. As we headed out into the snow, we were making pretty good time, and since we had payed close attention to the trail the day before, we were able to navigate tricky parts with relative confidence. However, as we went down in elevation, the light snow changed to freezing rain and the wind whipped it into our faces. It stung, especially when it hit you in the eye, which forced me to keep my wind-side eye closed as I hiked. Soon the freezing rain changed to a cold and heavy rain and my pants were completely soaked. My upper body remained insulated and dry thanks to my Frogg Toggs rain jacket and North Face Thermoball Hoodie Jacket, but my legs weren’t doing so great. After about two miles, my legs were getting numb and I knew I wasn’t in a great spot. I was starting to worry about hypothermia. In addition, my hiking partner was moving at a slower pace than me so I would end up waiting and running in place so he could catch up. I didn’t want to lose visual contact with my partner, but my condition was worsening and he had rain pants so he wasn’t experiencing the same loss of body heat as me. Next time he caught up, we consulted and agreed that I would put on the afterburners and speed hike the remaining two miles of trail in order to raise my body temperature and get out of the rain. The train was well-defined at this point and there shouldn’t be much risk of getting lost even though visibility was still poor.
As I powered through the remaining trail, I kept the mantra just keep moving on repeat. When I came to the junction with the Chain Lakes Trail, I knew I was going to make it! The last mile seemed to take forever, and I was starting to doubt myself when I came on a curious scene. A big hole in the trail, four people in hard hats, and one of them screaming God dammit! What is it with all the people on the trail today!, to which I responded, Well, I’m trying to get the heck off the trail! She must have reassessed who she was talking to and saw that I looked miserable. The next thing out of her mouth was to kindly tell me that I only had 2 more minutes until the trailhead.
Arriving in the parking lot, I threw my gear in the car, pulled off all my wet clothes and changed in the safety of my car. To my relief, my hiking partner arrive about 25 minutes later.
Moral of the story, bring rain gear for your whole body and make sure your tent can withstand high winds. I have since picked up the Frogg Toggs Bull Frogg Signature 75HD Raint Pant and a Big Agnes Copper Spur UL1 tent. It is always good to learn from these experiences so one is better prepared the next time. We can’t know everything when we start, but we can always learn!
All photos by me see more on Instagram @timeforahike