MT. BAKER

Great Scenery Plus Cool Cabin

Escalon Times - - NEIGHBORHOOD VALUES - By CARY ORD­WAY

Tucked in the far north­west­ern cor­ner of the “lower 48” states, the Mt. Baker re­gion is a spec­tac­u­lar place, shar­ing the ex­treme beauty of nearby Bri­tish Columbia and of­fer­ing re­lax­ing get­aways that are just as re­mote as re­mote can get.

In fact, the en­tire county of What­com is sky-high on any­one’s beau­ti­ful scenery list. As a jump­ing off point for the world-class va­ca­tion des­ti­na­tion known as the San Juan Is­lands, What­com County’s west­ern side is re­plete with gor­geous views of wa­ter, is­lands and sun­sets that match any you’ve seen on the Travel Chan­nel. And Belling­ham it­self is a fas­ci­nat­ing city of his­toric build­ings and in­ter­est­ing neigh­bor­hoods that is worth a daytrip all by it­self.

But go east from Belling­ham and you ven­ture into snow-topped moun­tains so dra­matic they have been used in movies and on TV shows to de­pict the Colorado Rock­ies and other fa­mous moun­tain ar­eas. Dur­ing win­ter, the snow’s so deep up here that the Mt. Baker ski area al­ways seems to get the first snow and the deep­est snow­pack. This area is for moun­tain-lovers, not for folks who set­tle for the hills that pass for moun­tains in places like Ver­mont or other eastern states.

Our quick get­away into the Mt. Baker area be­gan with a turn-off from In­ter­state 5 in Belling­ham at High­way 542 – the Mt. Baker High­way. Af­ter a few blocks of busi­nesses and homes, this coun­try road be­gan to live up to his billing as one of Wash­ing­ton’s most scenic drives. The twolane road me­an­ders through mead­ows and val­leys, over hills and around curves through old-growth tim­ber that grows more tow­er­ing with each pass­ing mile. The Mt. Baker High­way is about 57 miles to its end, al­though we planned to spend the night near Maple Falls, less than half that dis­tance from Belling­ham.

With all of the nearby moun­tains and forests, it’s sur­pris­ing to learn that Maple Falls is only at an el­e­va­tion of 643 feet – not enough to get the huge snow dumps the Mt. Baker Re­cre­ation Area is known for. But we were kind of glad – our rental car didn’t have four-wheel drive and we hadn’t planned on snow prob­lems be­cause we were vis­it­ing in late spring. As it turned out, there was snow all right – just at a lit­tle higher el­e­va­tion than we were vis­it­ing.

We stopped in Maple Falls to pick up our keys to the cabin we had re­served for the night. We wanted the cabin-in-the-woods ex­pe­ri­ence – a hide­away a lit­tle off the beaten path with no other build­ings nearby. We find that, un­for­tu­nately, some of the best “cab­ins” or va­ca­tion homes to­day are built in sub­di­vi­sions that have the look and feel of a hous­ing de­vel­op­ment. We had men­tioned to Mt. Baker Lodg­ing that we wanted to be more iso­lated than that and they came up with the per­fect choice.

Our cabin was just an­other four miles or so from Maple Falls’ tiny down­town, so it was quick to get to, and easy to re­turn to town for gro­ceries or din­ner at one of a few lo­cal restau­rants. The cabin was just off Sil­ver Lake Road with no sign or street name in­di­cat­ing the turn-off, but ex­cel­lent di­rec­tions pro­vided by Mt. Baker Lodg­ing, the rental agency. We re­moved the chain block­ing the road en­trance, replacing it as we drove fur­ther into the deep for­est. And then, in just a minute or two, there was our cabin – all by it­self, no neigh­bors, hik­ing trails nearby and ideal for our quiet week­end in the woods.

The word cozy was in­vented for this place. It was rel­a­tively small, sim­ple con­struc­tion but with plenty of charm. The chalet-style build­ing had a bath­room, a small kitchen and din­ing area, and a com­fort­able couch and easy chair for watch­ing the 20-some­thing inch TV or for curl­ing up by the fire­place. Up­stairs were three small bed­rooms with low A-frame style ceil­ings but still plenty of room to move around. Out­side the own­ers had built a shel­ter for the pic­nic table and a grill was close at hand, ideal for ham­burg­ers and hot dogs in the Great Out­doors.

The trees in these woods were thick and mossy green, al­most like a rain for­est. In be­tween them snaked a trail that, just in case you missed it, had a sign des­ig­nat­ing the path­way as a “TRAIL.” Who could re­sist fol­low­ing it to its end to see what was in store even deeper in the woods?

Once we brought in our suit­cases and a few gro­ceries we were headed down the trail to find what we would find. In just a few min­utes we came to Sil­ver Lake, a tran­quil pond that, on a warmer day, might have been per­fect for a swim. Thick woods and marshes lined most of the lakeshore, al­though there were tell-tale signs this wasn’t quite as far off the beaten path as it would seem. For starters, there were paved roads. Then we dis­cov­ered build­ings. And soon it be­came ob­vi­ous this was a pub­lic re­cre­ation area that, while not used at all this spring week­day, prob­a­bly was a pop­u­lar spot on week­ends dur­ing warmer times of the year.

Nev­er­the­less, it was so gor­geous and close to the cabin that it was the per­fect hike for any­one just look­ing for great scenery and a dense nat­u­ral land­scape. We could eas­ily have spent hours in such a peace­ful place.

Later dur­ing our stay, we took a drive far­ther east on the Mt. Baker High­way – not all the way up, but as far as Nook­sack Falls, which was just a few miles be­yond the town of Glacier. We took the short walk from the high­way to a van­tage point prac­ti­cally on top of the falls and close enough that we got a true sense of the power of 88-foot falls and could see why film­mak­ers thought they were vis­ually in­ter­est­ing enough to in­clude in the movie the Deer Hunter. A visit to the falls was just one choice of many along the high­way where you find nu­mer­ous trail­heads and moun­tain views worth a stop.

Weather was a fac­tor for us on our trip –a low cloud ceil­ing kept us from see­ing some of the most fa­mous views far­ther up the Mt. Baker High­way in­clud­ing those of Mt. Shuk­san and the moun­tain ranges near Mt. Baker. In­stead, we left a lit­tle early, driv­ing back to­ward Belling­ham and then south on High­way 9, an in­land by­way that roughly par­al­lels In­ter­state 5. It’s a two-lane coun­try road that won’t get you there quite as fast, but has lots of in­ter­est­ing sites along the way.

Along the way we saw dairy farms as well as places to stop along the South Fork of the Nook­sack River. There were also cen­tury-old coun­try stores along this route in­clud­ing Ev­ery­body’s Store in Van Zandt and the Acme Gen­eral Store in Acme. Fur­ther south, in Se­dro Wool­ley, High­way 9 meets the east­west route of High­way 20 that will take you the five miles west over to In­ter­state 5 to con­tinue your jour­ney south to the Seat­tle area.

We loved our cabin-in-the-woods ex­pe­ri­ence and es­pe­cially the Mt. Baker area – at some point we hope to re­turn to sam­ple more hikes and views in an area that is ar­guably one of the most beau­ti­ful in the coun­try.

PHOTO BY ANDY PORTER COURTESY NA­TIONAL PARK SER­VICE

Mt. Baker’s Ptami­gan Ridge

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